New U.S. agency, FBI in turf fight

ICE and bureau clash over investigations of terrorism, other crimes

November 29, 2003|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A new division of the Department of Homeland Security largely comprising customs and immigration officials has begun taking on an increasingly larger role in terrorism and criminal investigations.

The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as the ICE, has been given an unusual breadth of investigative and legal power to fight terrorism and has turned its agents' long-honed abilities investigating often obscure financial and immigration crimes into a license to venture into a wide range of law enforcement areas.

With a field office in Baltimore, one of 25 nationally, the ICE has made 1,500 arrests in this area alone since midsummer as it assumed jurisdiction over crimes that were once the sole responsibility of the Justice Department, such as human smuggling, intellectual property rights, child pornography, even stolen art, but have now become a focus of the bureau's activities.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of editing errors, an article in the Nov. 29 editions of The Sun incorrectly stated that the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement has assumed jurisdiction over crimes that have been investigated and prosecuted solely by the Justice Department. Various agencies that make up the bureau have been involved in such investigations in the past and are now more deeply involved in these probes, but they have not taken over the Justice Department's role.
The article also incorrectly suggested that the bureau had made 1,500 arrests in the Baltimore area. In fact, the bureau has made 1,500 arrests nationally since July stemming from investigations into sex crimes against children.

The bureau's rapidly expanding domain has created a competitive and sometimes tense relationship with the long-established FBI. Already, the two agencies have had confrontations over jurisdiction. ICE was formed in March mostly from the old U.S. Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Since then, the new agency has been armed with a growing arsenal of intelligence ability, funding and personnel - as well as powerful legal weapons that even the FBI doesn't have, such as authority to search a suspect without obtaining a warrant. With the addition of the Federal Air Marshal Service to the bureau this month, ICE has become one of the largest federal law enforcement agencies in the country, with more than 20,000 agents, and continues to expand its base.

"We have the broadest investigative authority in law enforcement in the federal government," said Michael T. Dougherty, director of operations for ICE. "The new mission of ICE is much broader than the mission of its components. ICE now has global reach and a global investigative mission."

Overseas reach

Besides its national offices, ICE has bureaus in more than 30 countries, with more planned. No other law enforcement agency besides the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration, both of which are part of the Justice Department, has that many overseas offices.

ICE also has more than 300 agents assigned to terrorism task forces across the country and plans to increase that number to 400 by next year. Since July, ICE has even operated its own hot line for tips about sex crimes against children, especially those stemming from the Internet or involving the crossing of state lines, an investigative area long within the purview of the FBI.

The overlap hasn't gone unnoticed. After an unusually public power struggle in May, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge reached an agreement with Attorney General John Ashcroft on a Virginia investigation into a web of charities allegedly funneling money to terrorists that highlighted tensions between ICE and the FBI. The question was which agency would control investigations of terrorist financing.

Who's better suited?

ICE officials argued they were best suited for the task because many of its investigators have been running money laundering and financial crimes cases since the early 1970s when they were Customs Service agents, cutting their teeth on organized crime and drug cases. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Customs launched Operation Greenquest, which, in addition to initiating the Virginia investigation that the agencies were fighting over, seized $33 million and arrested 79 people in 19 months.

FBI officials argued that Customs, and now ICE, had too narrow a focus on money, which threatened their ability to bring broader investigations and take down terrorist networks.

The Justice Department won. The FBI was given control over all terrorist-finance investigations and, with it, Operation Greenquest. That means that when ICE determines one of its financial probes has a terrorism component, it must relinquish control to the FBI.

Though FBI and ICE agents handling the Virginia probe have agreed in recent weeks on how to better work together, sources in both agencies said tensions have been slow to ease. Former Customs agents especially are loath to see themselves as working for the FBI, a residue of old slights and rivalries.

The FBI's apparent desire to remain top dog in its relationship with ICE has drawn criticism. "Having the current structure where the FBI is in charge and tells everybody else what to do is a recipe, I think, for failure," Richard Clarke, who left government this year after serving as top counter-terrorism official in the Clinton and Bush administrations, told Congress last month. "The FBI, by tradition, doesn't cooperate well with other federal agencies, and it doesn't share information. It treats other federal agencies as second-class participants in the overall effort."

FBI claims authority

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