At Immigration and Naturalization Service headquarters, Commissioner James Ziglar has implemented a "zero tolerance policy ... to make it clear that disregarding field guidance or other INS policy will not be tolerated."

The decision followed a Fox News report last week that four Pakistanis without visas disappeared two weeks ago from a freighter in Norfolk, Va., when an INS inspector violated regulations and gave them shore leave. The men never returned to their ship and are at large. One was identified later on a "lookout list" for a prior visa violation.

The Justice Department has launched an investigation, and the INS promised more steps to clean house, but many think they may be only creating a bigger mess.

INS officials said the breach could have been avoided by going by the book, but INS agents and experts say that in many cases, the rules are so arcane that enforcing them could lead to worse security problems.

"It's potentially disastrous if the INS officers in the field now have to jump through all of these bureaucratic hoops," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. "In instituting a blanket zero tolerance policy, the INS might well be shooting itself in the foot because there are some directives from the immigration service that the people in the field have been profitably ignoring."

Among the rules falling by the wayside, a February INS directive that says, "an action by agents to arrest one or more unauthorized aliens at a worksite" must be "submitted to the regional office at least 10 days in advance."

Another regulation on the cutting room floor, a "Priority Urgent Directive," says when INS and FBI conduct "special interest" Sept. 11 investigations, arrests "should be limited to those aliens in whom the FBI has an interest."

At least three times, INS agents disobeyed that rule and held suspects even though the FBI was not interested. They found out later that the suspects were on watch lists.

Other rules say before launching operations, INS agents must first consult with public affairs and community relations in anticipation of media reaction.

With page after page of rules guiding their work, agents say the time to act is being lost. While they fill out papers and follow rules in accordance with directives from politically correct Washington bureaucrats, suspects and terrorists are disappearing.

"People in the field need discretion and the rules need to be sensible rather than made out of bureaucratic concerns for paper pushing," Krikorian said.

The INS brass in Washington say despite the commissioner's new zero tolerance order, field agents are supposed to use their discretion in the field, effectively undercutting the whole purpose of the commissioner's memo and sending out yet another mixed message.

And while the nation concentrates on tighter borders and stronger enforcement, in recent weeks INS has ordered agents to turn in their weapons. The number of M-16s in the field is being dramatically reduced and agents have been told they can no longer have fully automatic sidearms.

Agents say the decision to disarm unilaterally puts them at a disadvantage against heavily armed adversaries. They blame some lawmakers in Washington who they say think M-16s and automatic pistols look mean.

"You have a kind of customer service mentality which is dictating, and I think improperly influencing, the law enforcement functions that INS also needs to carry out," Krikorian said. It "might well be an argument for separation between services and law enforcement of INS."

Carl Cameron currently serves as Fox News Channel's (FNC) Washington-based chief political correspondent. He joined FNC in 1996 as a correspondent.