A Super-Federal Police Force?

August 15, 1993

Once again, federal officials are considering the merger of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms into the FBI. This time it's part of the Clinton administration's attempt to reinvent government, headed by Vice President Al Gore. No decisions have been made, but the idea has gained enough currency in Washington to stir up the bureaucrats.

At first glance the idea has appeal. There is too much overlap and duplication at these agencies. The DEA and FBI are under the Justice Department. The FBI, by far the largest and best financed of the three, is also the most professional and best organized. It works closely with the Justice Department hierarchy and with federal prosecutors who take the agents' cases to trial. It has much stronger control over its agents' investigatory tactics; the more intrusive they are, the more stringent the approval process. Higher standards are required for FBI recruits, and their training is more extensive. The cases they tackle are more sophisticated.

Still, some of the FBI's strengths are sometimes its weaknesses, too. Close controls over agents make for a less enterprising force that can stifle individual initiative. Its elaborate procedures and rigid structure contribute to an institutional resistance to change. Critics believe the FBI was slow to respond to organized crime as a national phenomenon and to the scourge of narcotics. The talents that make it effective against white-collar crime leave it ill-equipped to deal with street crime. Its dismal record in recruiting minorities hinders its ability to conduct some kinds of undercover work.

Both DEA and ATF agents, for all their second-class status in the federal law enforcement system, have considerable expertise in areas of specialization. Though the FBI has long been involved in narcotics investigations, DEA still tends to break the big cases. ATF plays a vital role in stemming the flood of sophisticated weapons in this country. As things now stand, the three agencies often fail to pull together, concerned more with turf battles than successful investigations.

Melding the expertise of these three agencies would make them more effective in combating crime. There needs to be more debate, though, on whether that can best be accomplished by merging them or by simply knocking some bureaucratic heads together.

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