U.S. caseload is strain on agents in Md.

Many in FBI pulled off cases for full-time effort on terrorism

`Our priorities have changed'

Customs, IRS, postal offices also stretched thin since Sept. 11

November 15, 2001|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Investigations in the Sept. 11 terrorism and the anthrax attacks that followed have federal agents in Maryland stretched so thin that they say fewer federal crimes are being investigated - at least for now.

Officials say many of the 200 FBI agents assigned to Maryland and Delaware have been working full time on terrorism since Sept. 11 and have been drawn off cases they usually investigate, which range from white-collar crime to child pornography.

"When Sept. 11 first happened, pretty much everybody was working on terrorism. Right now, I wouldn't want to put a specific number on how many are still working it, but it's very high," said Special Agent Peter A. Gulotta Jr., an FBI spokesman.

That might become a trend, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said this week.

As part of his "wartime reorganization" of the Justice Department, Ashcroft said preventing terrorism is the top priority for federal agents and prosecutors. He told federal prosecutors at a meeting Tuesday that they might have to set aside some major cases to prosecute minor immigration and identity-theft charges that could help root out suspected terrorists.

In Maryland, the focus on terrorism-related work is affecting more than the FBI.

"We don't have the resources we did before Sept. 11," said Allan J. Doody, special agent in charge of the Baltimore-based office for the U.S. Customs Service in Maryland.

Doody said many of his 80 customs agents, who usually investigate drug smuggling and money laundering, have been assigned to terrorism-related investigations.

Several customs agents have become sky marshals, and four have joined the money-laundering investigation the Customs Service is conducting at its Washington headquarters, he said. An additional three to four agents are working with the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in Washington, he said.

"Our priorities have changed since Sept. 11," Doody said. "When we get terrorism-related reports these days, we put them at the top of the pile, so to speak."

The Internal Revenue Service - a key agency for federal prosecutors pursuing white-collar crime - has an unspecified number of agents tracking the money that financed the Sept. 11 terrorists, said Special Agent Katerina Gikas, a spokeswoman for the IRS criminal investigation division in Maryland.

The IRS recently announced plans to hire 300 agents nationwide over the next year, in part to help with terrorism-related investigations, she said.

The FBI could be hit hardest.

Gulotta said that since the first anthrax mail attacks were reported last month, the FBI has been flooded with calls about suspected anthrax. The number of anthrax-related calls has dropped off in recent weeks, but the FBI investigates all of them, he said.

The Maryland FBI has responded to 250 calls for "suspected hazardous materials" since Sept. 11, compared with 25 calls in that category during all of last year, he said.

A "vast majority" of the calls are from people legitimately concerned about anthrax, Gulotta said, but a number are thought to be hoaxes.

"When it's a hoax, it's frustrating because you have agents going out on these calls who could be chasing leads on other cases," he said.

Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio said his office will continue to prosecute fraud, white-collar crime and drug-conspiracy cases, even as prosecutors and agents are being assigned to counter-terrorism.

DiBiagio said he has discussed the issue with Lynne A. Hunt, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Baltimore field office, and that so far his office and the FBI have been able to balance their traditional workload and the terrorism investigations.

"Right now, we're not seeing that it's detracting from our other responsibilities," DiBiagio said.

But at least two FBI investigations have slowed down: the probe into area police officers moonlighting at area Staples stores and the search for Maria L. Baughman, a psychiatric patient wanted on child-abduction charges.

Baughman, 49, has been sought since Sept. 1 when she escaped from Spring Grove Hospital Center where she was awaiting trial.

Harford County sheriff's deputies say the search has been slowed since Sept. 11 because federal agents and sheriff's deputies have been busy with terrorism-related calls.

In the Staples case, four Baltimore County officers were suspended four weeks ago as part of an FBI investigation into whether they were paid for working security at area Staples stores while on duty.

Baltimore County police ordered the officers back to work Sept. 24, saying the FBI probe had been slowed by the Sept. 11 events.

Gulotta declined to discuss either case. But he did say that the FBI continues to help police search for missing suspects and that its Maryland office has not dropped any investigations because of its terrorism-related workload - including the Staples case.

"Staples is still pending and still active and I can't comment beyond that," he said.

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