The FBI chief has a little job to do--overhaul the agency from top to bottom
It all sounds good--on paper. But despite the change in the role of FBI headquarters, and after all the new computers are plugged in, Mueller's biggest challenge will be to sell the "prevention first" philosophy to a workforce that may simply be unwilling to buy into it. Busting criminals is still the FBI's bread and butter, and busting criminals is still what the FBI is doing most. Mueller has shifted 500 agents from drug squads to counterterrorism work, and he has tripled the number of agents devoted to terrorism. But that still means only a fifth of the 11,500-agent workforce is devoted to counterterrorism. Terrorism prosecutions are up, but they constitute just a fraction of the bureau's total workload, according to a U.S. News analysis of statistics compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a Syracuse University research group (chart, Page 22). And the FBI's conviction rate for terrorism cases is lagging behind that of other crimes. One reason could be that while Mueller has made terrorism a priority, Congress has not reduced the number of laws the FBI must enforce; terror cases are also complex. Changing any institution takes time, and the FBI has been resistant to change. Many agents signed up because they love the thrill of chasing bank robbers and drug dealers. "You're saying, `Eighty percent of all the stuff you were doing for the last 15 years is not important anymore'?" asks one agent. "Huh?"
Risk city. Change may come slowly for other reasons. Some FBI supervisors believe it would be a mistake for special agents to stop investigating bank robberies, white-collar crimes, and drug syndicates because they develop sources working those kinds of cases. U.S. attorneys also control powerful fiefdoms around the country and can exert a strong influence on what kinds of cases FBI agents in their jurisdictions pursue. In January, Thomas DiBiagio, the U.S. attorney in Baltimore, excoriated the FBI field office there for having become "a marginal presence at best." In a letter, DiBiagio complained to the special agent in charge of the Baltimore field office, Gary Bald, that the bureau's focus on terrorism had distracted agents from DiBiagio's top priorities--violent crime, white-collar fraud, and public corruption. "The FBI has become distracted," DiBiagio wrote, "and almost useless." Bald says terrorism "is the FBI's No. 1 priority, and if it causes us to be providing fewer criminal cases for prosecution, it's an undesirable byproduct, but it's got to be tolerated." Sources say Mueller and DiBiagio exchanged sharp words. DiBiagio got the message. "There was a failure on my part to adjust to the change quickly enough," he now says. ". . . I wish I would have figured it out sooner."
It's not just philosophical, cultural, or bureaucratic obstacles that could stymie Mueller's changes. There's also the reality that proactive operations to penetrate terror cells are riskier than straight criminal investigations. "When you are proactive, it's a double-edged sword," says Tom Corrigan, a retired New York detective who spent 16 years on the FBI-NYPD joint terrorism task force. "If you get your feet dirty, it can come back to kick you in the ass." In the early 1990s, FBI officials shut down surveillance operations on radical Islamic fundamentalists in Brooklyn and Jersey City, N.J., who would turn out to be players in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and other planned attacks. Why? Supervisors feared costs and liabilities. Recently, the FBI has taken flak for interviews of Iraqi exiles here and research on mosques. These efforts "don't keep us safer, but destroy fundamental freedoms," says the American Civil Liberties Union's Dalia Hashad. Some FBI officials are nonplussed. "The bureau was beaten following 9/11 for not knowing," says an FBI official. "And now [we're] beaten for trying to find out." Still, some agents find the prevention concept legally suspect. "How do you grab someone who hasn't done anything," asks former agent Ed Stroz, "but you knew he was about to do something?"