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Friday, 9 November, 2001, 07:21 GMT
Doubts over FBI shake-up
John Ashcroft
John Ashcroft is shaking up law enforcement agencies
Kevin Anderson

US Attorney General John Ashcroft has announced the "wartime" reorganisation of the Justice Department and the FBI to better fight terrorism.

The five-year plan would move 10% of the jobs from headquarters in Washington to field offices around the US, improve the Justice Department's use of technology and making counter-terrorism efforts the top priority of the FBI.

The war on terrorism will not be fought in Washington but in the field by agents

John Ashcroft
National security and law enforcement experts say that these reforms are a good start and well needed.

But they add that federal law enforcement still needs to improve the way it works and shares information with local law enforcement, and agents will need to learn that fighting terrorism is very different from fighting ordinary crime.

The reforms have been a long time in coming, especially at the FBI, which has suffered a series of high-profile setbacks such as the discovery shortly before Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh was to be executed that the FBI had failed to turn over thousands of pages of documents to his attorneys.

"Any change is good," said James Lewis with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

He said there were three problems facing federal law enforcement, technological, international co-operation and culture and bureaucracy - the inability to share information between the intelligence community and the law enforcement community.

"The changes that Mr Ashcroft has announced move in that direction," Mr Lewis said.

The anti-terrorism bill passed earlier this year would also will help improve sharing of information between intelligence and law enforcement sources.

Tom Ridge, chief of Homeland Security
The role of the Office of Homeland Security is still unclear
But he also expressed worries that other initiatives announced since the 11 September attacks might complicate Mr Ashcroft's efforts.

One question that Mr Lewis had was how these reforms fit in with the newly created Office of Homeland Security. "It's one of the tensions here," he said.

And other tensions - some that date back from the formation of the FBI - will also prove difficult to overcome, law enforcement experts say.

"The war on terrorism will not be fought in Washington but in the field by agents," Mr Ashcroft said in a speech to Justice Department staff.

Local law enforcement officers have the perception that federal law enforcers only give out information when they want to, said Robert Friedmann, chair of the Department of Criminal Justice at Georgia State University.

This is a perception that dates back to before the FBI was created and J Edgar Hoover ran its predecessor, the Bureau of Investigations, said Gary Perlstein, an anti-terrorism expert with Portland State University.

Complex network

More than any other country in the world, the US relies on a complex network of agencies to enforce the law, Dr Friedmann said.

He said that now, while there is good will amongst these various agencies, is the perfect opportunity to break the barriers down.

Mr Perlstein is also concerned that the reforms that Mr Ashcroft announced are largely structural, and although necessary, do not address retooling the FBI for counter-terrorism as opposed to traditional crime enforcement.

A failure of intelligence has often been cited as one of the causes of the 11 September attacks, and Mr Perlstein said the FBI must be able to get information from within these groups.

Poor record

Mr Perlstein added that the FBI had a poor record of infiltrating terrorist organisations.

"The FBI was almost a total failure in catching the Weathermen, and they have been almost a total failure in catching the Earth Liberation Front," he said.

The Weathermen were a violent radical group in the 1960s. The Earth Liberation Front is a radical environmental group that has burned buildings mainly in the western United States to protest against development.

"Most criminals are caught because they make a mistake or someone squeals on them," Mr Perlstein says.

But he added that to infiltrate and apprehend terrorists, agents will need to be retrained, saying: "Methods used to catch regular criminals do not work on terrorists."

See also:

08 Nov 01 | Americas
US mobilises FBI for 'wartime'
03 Nov 01 | Americas
FBI appeals for anthrax help
11 Nov 01 | Americas
US alert linked to Bin Laden
28 Sep 01 | Americas
Profile: FBI chief Robert Mueller
12 Oct 01 | Americas
FBI fears more terror attacks
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