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After the 9-11 attacks, the FBI moved hundreds of agents from its Criminal Investigations Unit into counterterrorism. Now, as the FBI prepares for the flood of cases related to the financial crises, it's having to make some difficult choices. And, as NPR Dina Temple-Raston reports, some of the FBI's traditional areas of responsibility are suffering.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: With half of its 12,000 agents working on counterterrorism, the FBI was already shorthanded when the financial crisis hit. Now the Bureau has had to open thousands of mortgage and securities fraud cases, and expects that this is just the beginning. Something is going to have to give, because quite simply, there aren't enough investigators to go around. Craig Dotlo heads the society of former FBI agents. He says the Bureau can no longer afford to chase every terrorism threat.
Mr. CRAIG DOTLO (Former FBI Agent): Some agents believe that maybe it's not necessary to cover every single one of these leads. We should be more circumspect about the ones we cover. So I think that's kind of where the controversy is.
TEMPLE-RASTON: So with the focus on terrorism, what's being overlooked? At the Defense Department, where the FBI helps investigate contracting fraud, the FBI has clearly decided to pursue fewer cases.
Mr. WILLIAM DUPREE (Former Head of Defense Department's Criminal Investigative Service): There isn't that much aggressive review being done in reference to the whole contracting procurement area.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's William Dupree. He used to head the Defense Department's Criminal Investigative Service. His job was to make sure that defense contractors weren't ripping off the government by, among other things, overcharging them for services or equipment. He says that just doesn't seem to be a priority anymore.
Mr. DUPREE: I get the sense that nobody's minding the store. I get the sense that there isn't the aggressiveness in reviewing and looking at things that it should be under the current circumstances.
TEMPLE-RASTON: By current circumstances, he means the amount of defense spending. Defense contracts have just about doubled in value since the beginning of the Clinton administration. But the number of cases the FBI has referred for prosecution has fallen by more than half.
Mr. NICK SCHWELLENBACH (Researcher, The Center for Public Integrity): I was surprised by the FBI's numbers because I knew, government-wide, there had been a massive increase in contracting.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Nick Schwellenbach has just written a report for the watchdog group The Center for Public Integrity about the decline in procurement fraud cases. He says he doesn't think there's less fraud, just less attention paid to it. The FBI says there are fewer DOD cases because they focused on higher-profile ones. Other crimes that have traditionally been the FBI's responsibility have also received less attention.
Former FBI Agent Craig Dotlo provides a list.
Mr. DOTLO: We used to have a drug program prior to 9/11, and that drug program is almost nonexistent now. Violent crime programs has probably suffered - not as many people work in those programs. White-collar has suffered, to some extent, although public corruption has always been a number one priority for the FBI, even after 9-11.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Until now, the FBI's been able to deal with some of its staffing issues by referring cases to other agencies. Drug busts have been picked up by the Drug Enforcement Agency. Wire and mail fraud is being handled by local law enforcement. U.S. attorneys and the FBI have raised the bar for going forward with financial prosecutions. FBI Director Robert Mueller told a congressional committee last week that the FBI was trying to recruit new agents, but the division that investigates financial crimes still needs more people. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The correct name is the Drug Enforcement Administration, not Drug Enforcement Agency.]
Mr. ROBERT MUELLER (Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation): The logical consequence of cannibalizing our criminal resources to augment our national security efforts is that we have reduced the ability to surge resources within our criminal branch.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The FBI expects that surge is going to be needed soon. In addition to the 500 corporate investigations already under way, the Bureau is bracing for new cases that will grow out of the government's bailout and stimulus plans. They expect the hundreds of billions of dollars being spent will create new possibilities for fraud and public corruption. The FBI is going to have to find the agents to investigate those cases, too.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.