War on terror requires shift in FBI tactics

August 20, 2006|By RICHARD B. SCHMITT | RICHARD B. SCHMITT,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOUSTON -- Not so long ago, before the war on terrorism, Carlos Barron was a foot soldier in the war on drugs.

As an FBI narcotics investigator, he tracked Mexican drug lords who were importing cocaine and marijuana into the U.S. His sleuthing and testimony led to the conviction of a renowned kingpin.

"It used to be immediate gratification," Barron says of the old days fighting drug trafficking. "We had a case, and we took it all the way. You put cuffs on him and you put him in jail."

Today, the culprits he is pursuing are not so recognizable, and the rewards have never been more elusive. Barron now heads an FBI intelligence team that gathers evidence about suspected terrorist plots.

The mission, ultimately, is to make possible the sort of pre-emptive strike that British authorities pulled off this month in disrupting a suspected plan to blow up U.S.-bound passenger jets.

But that denouement was in sharp contrast to the day-to-day business of terrorist-hunters like Barron. For every credible threat, there are thousands of leads that have to be evaluated. They often lead nowhere.

Barron regularly tracks reports of lost or stolen police uniforms and airport security passes, and the countless people observed taking photos of the oil refineries that make the Houston area a focal point for a possible terrorist attack.

The work often leaves him chasing ghosts rather than identifiable suspects. But every lead must be checked out.

"That is a shift completely from when I was an agent working a case," he says, adding that the FBI has no choice in its diligence.

"One of these incidents could be the stages of a terrorist attack. It could be pre-operational. It could be rehearsal. It could be planning."

It could be - and usually is - nothing at all.

A metaphor for the hazy and unpredictable nature of his job sits on a desk outside his office: a collection of fortune-telling novelty eight balls.

The FBI has been behind the eight ball since the Sept. 11 attacks, when widespread and long-standing deficiencies in the way the bureau operated were exposed.

One claim was that the agency blew several opportunities to identify and possibly apprehend some of the hijackers. Among the troubles: a shoddy analytical program, problems sharing intelligence information and inattention to counter-terrorism in general.

In a way, the FBI had changed little since it was established the year that Henry Ford introduced the Model T. Its mission was to investigate crimes that had already happened. Although it did not always get its man, it succeeded enough to be considered the premier law enforcement agency in the world, at least when it came to catching bank robbers, drug dealers, con artists and spies.

Now, under pressure from Congress and several bipartisan commissions, its business model is being turned upside down, with a focus on preventing crime rather than apprehending the criminals.

Barron's transitional experience is widely shared throughout the agency. More than 2,000 agents - or 15 percent of the total work force - have been switched from traditional crime-fighting jobs to terrorism-tracking positions over the last five years. Whole areas of enforcement - including the pursuit of the sort of narcotics operatives that Barron handled in the 1990s - have been largely abandoned or left to other agencies.

The FBI says things are going well. It cites the fact that there has not been another terrorist attack on U.S. soil in five years.

But many experts have doubts and question whether an agency so steeped in crime-fighting can make the switch to an intelligence operation. Some wonder whether the FBI would have had the same success as British authorities in preventing a major attack.

Some experts doubt that the FBI can succeed in its new role because it is incompatible with the bureau's historic law-enforcement culture. The FBI has measured success on the number of arrests leading to successful prosecutions; intelligence work focuses on the amorphous job of examining trends and recruiting sources.

"Approaching five years after 9/11, we still do not have a domestic intelligence service that can collect effectively against the terrorist threat to the homeland or provide authoritative analysis of that threat," said John Gannon, a former career CIA officer, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May.

"It is not enough to say these things take time. We should be asking why it is so hard for the FBI to develop a national intelligence capability and opening ourselves to the possibility that we have asked too much of an otherwise-capable criminal investigation agency. We should be looking seriously at other options."

For now, the new FBI is pushing ahead with its Field Intelligence Groups - or FIGs, as they are known in the bureau.

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