As FBI Fights Terrorism, Other Prosecutions Drop

Article excerpt

Since 9/11, the number of criminal prosecutions the US Justice Department credits to the Federal Bureau of Investigation has dropped by more than 30 percent. Among the steepest declines: white- collar crime, drug prosecutions, and organized crime.

The data reflect a fundamental shift in the mission of the FBI, from primarily a law-enforcement agency dedicated to investigating crime to an intelligence and counterterrorism one dedicated to preventing attacks on the US. The numbers show the extent of that transformation, raising concern in some quarters about the strength of crime-fighting in America and the FBI's enhanced surveillance powers.

In 2001, the Justice Department credited almost 19,000 prosecutions to the FBI. In 2006, the bureau was credited with 12,700, according to an analysis of Justice Department data by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University in New York. During that same five-year period, terrorism prosecutions rose 26 percent, but they account for a small fraction of the FBI's cases and have dropped in number since peaking in 2002.

FBI officials declined to discuss the TRAC data specifically. But they note there hasn't been a terrorist attack on US soil since 9/ 11. They also point to FBI successes in infiltrating potential terror cells, such as the recent foiling of alleged plots to attack Fort Dix in New Jersey and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

The drop in traditional prosecutions is simply the opportunity cost associated with such a significant shift of FBI priorities, say some former agents and law-enforcement analysts. Still, the drop in prosecutions is alarming to some observers.

"I don't pick up the business section every day of the week that I don't see some kind of shenanigans going on in the business sector," says Lee Hamilton, vice chair of the 9/11 commission. "There's an awful lot of malfeasance in this country at high levels: You've got drug dealers, and ordinary criminals, and all the rest, and they need to be prosecuted."

Congressional scrutiny

The drop in prosecutions has also caught Congress's attention. At a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs in May, Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware said that since 9/11, the number of violent-crime investigations by the FBI has dropped 60 percent - even though cities across the country are seeing an increase in murders and other violent crime, after a decade of steady declines.

Senator Biden, chairman of the subcommittee, blamed the White House for transferring about 1,000 agents to counterterrorism from traditional law-enforcement duties and not replacing them. He has introduced legislation to remedy that by adding 1,000 agents to the bureau, which currently has about 12,500 agents total.

"The federal government has taken its focus off street crime since 9/11, asking law enforcement to do more with less," he said at the hearing. "It's a false choice between fighting terrorism and fighting crime."

Drug prosecutions still make up about half of all cases the FBI brought to court in fiscal year 2006, about the same share as before 9/11. But there are simply half as many of them as in 2000: 2,380 now compared with 5,014 then, according to the TRAC analysis.

Organized-crime cases saw the biggest decline - a 73 percentage drop in prosecutions filed between fiscal 2000 and 2006. The study reported that the FBI filed 163 such cases last year, compared with 606 in 2000. …