Global G-Men

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The G-men are going global.

The FBI's long arms reach farther than ever, with 19 of the bureau's 44 overseas offices opened in the past five years alone. That presence has helped bring embassy bombers in Africa and drug dealers in Italy to justice.

But the hard-charging style of FBI agents has caused resentment and culture clashes, too.

New FBI Director Robert Mueller said in his recent Senate confirmation hearings that he would work to shed the FBI's reputation for arrogance both at home and abroad.

"The FBI must develop the respect and confidence of those with whom it interacts, including other law enforcement agencies, both domestic and international," he said.

Tension rose so high in Yemen that Ambassador Barbara Bodine vetoed a return visit in February by the FBI agent supervising the investigation into last year's bombing of the USS Cole that killed 17 U.S. sailors.

Yemeni officials privately called agent John O'Neill and his associates "Rambos."

The FBI says its overseas growth is justified by a series of successes. They included this year's conviction of four men involved in the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa and the tracking of white-collar crooks who hide their money in foreign accounts.

"Crime gravitates to how the legitimate business world operates, and corporations are globalizing," said Les Kaciban, the deputy assistant director of the FBI's international operations branch. "Transportation, crossing borders, communication, financial transactions have become much easier."

The FBI's 112 overseas operatives -- about 1 per cent of its agents -- are on the front line of the bureau's fight against computer crime, which it says has cost the global economy more than $1.6 trillion.

FBI legal attaches -- known as "legats" -- have been in U.S. embassies since the 1940s, when they countered Nazi espionage. But it was not until Louis Freeh became director in 1993 that their work assumed central importance. He doubled their number.

Freeh was a strong believer in international cooperation. His work with Italian authorities in solving the "Pizza Connection," a Sicily-based drug smuggling ring that dealt its product out of New York-area pizza parlors in the 1980s, earned him fame as a federal prosecutor.

He encouraged agents to cultivate what Kaciban calls "cop-to-cop" relationships with other national forces. Under his leadership, the FBI trained 50,000 foreign police at its Quantico, Va., academy and at a center in Budapest, Hungary.

"Our purpose was not only to bring up their investigative standards, but also to share information," said Kaciban, who set up the Budapest academy.

The mutual trust helped the FBI to score an array of international arrests. Among them:

--Four convictions this year in the 1998 Kenya-Tanzania embassy bombings, allegedly masterminded by fugitive Osama Bin-Laden. The bombings killed 224 people. The FBI had opened its first two African offices just a year earlier, and legats from Cairo and South Africa were at both scenes within hours, stringing yellow tape and securing crucial evidence.

--The conviction last year of an extortionist who bombed two Lowe's hardware stores in North Carolina in 1999. Legats in Estonia, Panama, and Copenhagen traced $250,000 in payments back to the blackmailer.

--The conviction of Ahmed Ressam, a Montreal-based Algerian stopped at the U.S.-Canada border in 1999 with chemicals intended for an airport bombing stored in the trunk of his car.

--The 1997 arrest and conviction in Pakistan of Mir Aimal Kasi, who shot and killed two CIA employees outside the agency's headquarters in Langley, Va., in 1993.

Local police often credit the FBI with crucial help.

"The FBI agents did a good job together with the local police," said Tanzanian police spokesman Mohamed Mhina. "What we learned from them is that we need modern equipment."

Other times, however, the FBI's single-mindedness can undermine delicate relations, U.S. politicians and diplomats say.

In Saudi Arabia, police would not let FBI agents interrogate suspects in the 1996 Khobar Tower bombings that killed 19 U.S. servicemen. Freeh wanted President Clinton to press the Saudis to cooperate more, but the president was mindful of offending an important ally.

In Yemen, local officials were offended that FBI investigators decamped to U.S. ships each evening instead of spending the night in Aden. FBI officials said a security threat made that necessary; Bodine said she trusted Yemeni security.

"The FBI's view is that everything is a law enforcement problem," said Bob Litt, a Clinton-era deputy attorney general whose brief included national security. "But some things need to be addressed diplomatically or -- in rarer instances -- militarily."

Like Freeh, Mueller, who was U.S. attorney in San Francisco, has worked complicated international cases. He handled the Pan Am 103 and BCCI investigations when he headed the criminal division at the Justice Department under the first Bush administration.

More recently he developed a unit in San Francisco for fighting cyber crime, which is global in nature.