WASHINGTON – FBI Director Robert Mueller released a response letter to The New York Times on Thursday afternoon, regarding a front-page article published in the day's paper suggesting senior officials are frustrated with field agents' progress in the war on terror. The letter was printed in Friday editions of the Times.
The article, based on an internal memo written earlier in the week, suggested that some FBI agents lack focus in the war on terror, aren't developing sufficient intelligence sources and aren't moving aggressively enough to use the tools at their disposal, including secret terrorism warrants.
In the letter to the paper, Mueller writes that senior leaders at the bureau "have not grown frustrated" by the rate of progress in the war on terror.
"I am and my leadership team are tremendously proud of the transformation of the nation's premier law enforcement and intelligence agency into a 21st century counterterrorism agency," he wrote. "My management team will continue to remind -- sometimes in strong terms -- our employees and the public of our mission priorities. This does not and should not suggest any kind of institutional slippage in the pursuit of that mission."
On Thursday, Fox News confirmed that earlier this week Deputy Director Bruce J. Gebhardt sent an e-mail to the FBI's special agents in charge of 56 field offices around the country, reminding them that counterterrorism is their No. 1 priority.
When asked about the catalyst and timing of the e-mail, FBI officials said the deputy director is in regular contact with field leaders about priority matters.
"If any aspect of the counterterrorism program or any program requires emphasis or re-emphasis, he does not hesitate to do so," an official said.
FBI officials denied reports that the memo was a starkly worded scolding that cited a failure to commit the necessary resources to counterterrorism efforts. Admitting that it was somewhat castigating, officials categorized the memo as mostly a pep talk to remind supervisors all terrorism information must be passed on to headquarters.
At least one staunch critic of the bureau said he believes the e-mail may be a positive sign.
"I'm glad that the FBI headquarters seems to have this very good new attitude towards prevention in the war on terrorism," said Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. "There's a tremendous job ahead to get all 11,000 agents headed in the same direction."
But Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that the e-mail demonstrates that the FBI is stuck in its old ways. He suggested the bureau is seeking to boost its statistics by padding its caseload with cases that can be handled at state and local levels.
"The cold hard facts show that the Justice Department continues to divert resources from the war on terror to handle cases that can be easily handled by state and local authorities. The department cannot solve this problem by shooting the messenger," Leahy said in a statement.
The New York Times story provoked an angry response from the FBI Agents Association, which told Fox News: "Our reality in the FBI has been prior to Sept. 11 -- and certainly after Sept. 11 -- that terrorism is the No. 1 priority and every FBI agent understands that. All they were trying to do in their e-mail was emphasize that when we get competing requests for investigative action, we devote the necessary resources to terrorism first and foremost."
Officials point to a number of high-profile cases that show they have made inroads over the last year, including the break-up of alleged terror cells in Michigan, Oregon and most recently the group in Lackawanna, N.Y.
The FBI is under a lot of pressure to fundamentally shift the bureau's mindset from tracking federal crimes like bank robberies and drugs, to tracking suspected terrorists. According to one source, the e-mail that went out this week acted like a subtle kick in the pants.
Fox News' Catherine Herridge contributed to this report.