FBI at Work
The FBI and its Responsibilities
Setting the enforcement priorities for large organizations like the FBI is always a challenge, even at moments in history when the number one priority — terrorism — seems so completely obvious. But perhaps even more difficult, once the priorities have been decided upon, is the task of persuading the agency to buy into the new program. In the case of the FBI, agents usually have to be transferred from one unit to another. And because the geographic centers of the new threat may be very different than the centers of the old, agents and their families may have to be relocated from one part of the country to another. And before the agents take on their new responsibilities, many of them and their bosses may require time-consuming training.

In addition to these kinds of internal difficulties, the reordering of FBI enforcement priorities — even in the case of terrorism — will also face external forces who liked how the bureau was functioning before 9/11.

Shortly after FBI Director Robert S. Mueller publicly announced on May 29, 2002 the bureau's new post-9/11 priorities and transferred a relatively small number from drug enforcement to terrorism, voices were immediately heard in Congress and some local police departments complaining that fighting illegal drugs was a top priority matter and that, rather than transferring agents, the bureau should be enlarged to it and could handle both responsibilities.

But there are many more subtle problems involved in reworking the priorities of the FBI. Since its earliest days, bureau agents have mostly focused on collecting evidence that could be used to convict an individual of a specific crime in federal court. Though there have been periods when some agents were assigned to the inherently less rigorous job of collecting intelligence about the movements and actions of Soviet spies, the Ku Klux Klan and civil rights and anti-Vietnam war activists, the predominant FBI goal has long been to find hard evidence that could withstand the challenges of a criminal defense attorney.

So Mueller's announcement about how the Bush Administration intended to change the direction of the FBI is only the first step that would require years of hard work both within the FBI and with the American people before it can be achieved. It is perhaps suggestive of the lack of progress that the FBI's history as reported on its own website stops with the announced change of direction, now over four years in the past.

One example of just how difficult a task it is to change the direction of a large agency like the FBI involves the shift in priorities after the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, and the subsequent enactment into law of the USA PATRIOT Act. As stated on the FBI website:

To support the Bureau's change in mission and to meet newly articulated strategic priorities, Director Mueller called for a reengineering of FBI structure and operations to closely focus the Bureau on prevention of terrorist attacks, on countering foreign intelligence operations against the U.S., and on addressing cybercrime-based attacks and other high-technology crimes.

While there has been some progress, however, it does not appear that the new FBI enforcement priorities were achieved. According to data from the Justice Department, in 2001 more than half of the FBI's 13,570 convictions — 58% of them — focused either on drugs or white collar crime. By comparison, Justice Department data show there were only 29 convictions — less than one-quarter of one percent of the total — involving internal security and terrorism matters. Only three convictions were for international terrorism. But the same data covering the period from 2001 to 2005 indicate that the basic enforcement activities have remained unchanged. By 2005, convictions involving internal security and terrorism matters had risen to 236, but still represented less than 2% of the FBI's 12,109 convictions that year. Moreover, of those 236 convictions, only 24 were for international terrorism. By comparison, drugs and white collar crime still constituted 48.5% of the total FBI convictions.

This change in focus toward combatting terrorism has not seemed to radically change the enforcement effort. This is particularly significant in light of staffing changes that have occured. The number of intelligence officers has more than doubled, from 994 in 2001 to 2,074 in 2006.

The record is clear that the political and social impact of the events of 9/11 have had a significant impact on the stated role of the FBI in combatting international terrorism. The question remains, however, whether the challenge of changing the focus and operations of the FBI will be met.

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