O'Malley, Norris chastise FBI for playing probe close to vest

They tell Congress closer cooperation vital to public safety

Terrorism Strikes America

The Nation

October 06, 2001|By Gady A. Epstein and Gail Gibson | Gady A. Epstein and Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - In blunt testimony before Congress, Mayor Martin O'Malley and Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris criticized the FBI yesterday for not working more closely with the nation's local law enforcement agencies in its sweeping pursuit of suspected terrorists.

O'Malley and Norris expressed particular frustration that local police, including Baltimore's 3,000-plus officers, aren't being asked to check out any of the more than 260,000 leads that have poured into the FBI since Sept. 11.

"The disconnect in criminal intelligence is the biggest threat right now and the most dangerous one," O'Malley told a subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Reform.

"We have to know what the FBI knows about threats, tips and even just rumors," Norris said in his testimony. "Why aren't we all working together to find the people the FBI is looking for?"

The comments were an unusually public signal of discord in what has become a huge investigation with partners worldwide. They came just a day after FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and Attorney General John D. Ashcroft publicly thanked local police, saying they played a "critical role" in the probe nationwide.

"As we all realize, no one institution has enough resources or expertise to defeat terrorism," Mueller said. "It must be a joint effort across agencies, across jurisdictions and even across borders."

FBI officials say they have notified local police and officials across the country when they have received specific threat information deemed credible, and they say they have employed local officers to help check thousands of tips and track information.

But the bureau is not showing its hand to local police by any stretch - and that is by design. Much of the information that the bureau is tracking is so sensitive, officials said, that agents tracking the leads must have security clearances to work on the case.

O'Malley and Norris said in interviews that they recognized the political risk in publicly questioning the FBI's procedures - "None of us want to look like we're unpatriotic," the mayor said - but they called the issue urgent.

"We all need each other if we as a nation are going to successfully counter threats that can come from virtually anywhere, at any time, in any form, including those that could destroy whole cities," Norris testified. "I think the threat is so great we should use every police officer in America in this fight. ... I believe the life of the nation may depend on it."

Norris said that the only item the FBI has shared with his department is a "watch list" with hundreds of names, but no photographs or aliases to aid local patrol officers and detectives.

"We don't expect them to travel under their God-given names," Norris said.

O'Malley noted that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was apprehended after a traffic stop: "How many of the 500 people that the FBI is looking for are perfect drivers?"

Reps. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican, and Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said they were concerned by the city officials' comments. Cummings said the FBI could be summoned to Capitol Hill to respond.

O'Malley and Norris were among several witnesses called yesterday to testify about how well prepared local, state and federal agencies are to respond to chemical and biological attacks. The Baltimore officials were the only ones to challenge the FBI's criminal investigation.

Police agencies have long grumbled about the FBI at times "big-footing" investigations. But in the sweeping probe of the Sept. 11 attacks, with the stakes incredibly high and the volume of information enormous, the bureau appeared to be taking care to avoid those turf battles.

Representatives of nearly every federal police and emergency response agency are part of the crisis team guiding the investigation from the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington.

Most significantly, law enforcement sources say, the bureau is working in almost lockstep with its longtime rival, the Central Intelligence Agency, as agents try not only to find out who was behind last month's attacks in New York and Washington, but also to stop any new terrorist violence.

Mueller and Ashcroft have taken pains to point out that local police also are an integral part of that effort. The two men were joined by about a dozen officers from local agencies across the country at a Thursday afternoon news conference.

"Information sharing between all of us is as important now as it has ever been," Mueller said. "And anything and everything that helps facilitate that is really welcome."

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