WASHINGTON – Federal law enforcement agencies have long been criticized for their lack of cooperation with state and local police departments, an issue recently addressed by Attorney General John Ashcroft.
"Information is the best friend of prevention. That's why at the national level, we are taking steps to provide more information on the local level," Ashcroft told local law enforcement personnel in Nashville on Tuesday.
But today even federal agencies like the Immigration and Naturalization Service complain the FBI frequently ignores the specialized expertise of such groups, in this case the INS's ability to investigate immigrants and illegal aliens.
INS agents were outraged after Sept. 11, when the FBI requested the service curb its detention efforts, saying "those arrests should be limited to those aliens in whom the FBI has an interest." INS supporters believe the agency is more qualified than the FBI at rounding up and talking to aliens.
The Drug Enforcement Agency has also complained about being ignored. DEA undercover agents and informants have vast intelligence networks, which sources say are not being taken advantage of by the FBI, even though it's common knowledge drug money finances terror.
After Sept. 11, Ashcroft and FBI Director Bob Mueller launched a massive reorganization of the FBI and the Justice Department to focus on terrorism. They faced a problem so deep insiders have their own word for it - stove-piping.
The term is a euphemism for holding information to oneself. Critics say it is crippling the anti-terror chain of command, particularly the Joint Terror Task Force.
The task force deals with two types of terrorists: international groups, which are handled by the national security division, and domestic terrorism, which is handled by the criminal division. For years, the divisions seldom shared information with one another.
Another problem lies in the foreign counterintelligence division. The FBI has sole jurisdiction over the division, but critics say the bureau has been so focused on gathering information by itself that it missed intelligence from elsewhere that could have helped it to act preemptively.
Aschroft indicated Tuesday these problems were being addressed.
"I believe the FBI under Bob Mueller is ascending because the new director of the FBI is very aggressive in confronting challenges," he said.
But some Coast Guard sources doubt it, noting that several Middle Eastern men, including one Turkish suspect, have been arrested recently for taking pictures and "target assessment at oil refineries in the Gulf of Mexico." The Coast Guard sources say the FBI has shown little interest.
Changes would be tough under the best of circumstances; a war on terror makes things even tougher. Another challenge comes from the retirement of several senior officials, who took with them their valuable institutional experience.