The FBI’s image problem

Since 9/11 the FBI's image, once almost invulnerable to detractors, has taken one hit after another beginning with evidence its officials ignored signs that might have derailed the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and ending with the abuse of so-called national security letters that permitted them to poke around with impunity in the affairs of U.S. citizens.

In between were revelations about millions of dollars wasted on faulty computer systems; misidentification in the Spanish bombing case; continuing complaints of lack of coordination with other agencies, and high-profile counter-terrorism arrests accompanied by flamboyant claims that ultimately raised questions about their actual seriousness and whether or not they were at least partially rooted in self glorification.

There seems little doubt that the tarnish to the bureau's image and the inability of its slickly professional and politically wise director, Robert Mueller III, to overcome much of the criticism has caused increasing concern in Congress and the public about the agency's effectiveness. Much of the bureau's success over its 83-year history has come from its unrelenting public relations machinery that raised its infallibility quotient much higher than it should have been.

The continuing doubts since the terrorist attack on America were reflected in the way the press — at least the print side — treated the announcement that six Muslim radicals had been taken into custody before they could attack the Army's Ft. Dix facilities in New Jersey. While the story received front -page treatment in most newspapers, few gave it the play and headlines that might have been rightly expected a few years ago. It seemed to many observers — some of whom had a pleasant but unproductive breakfast with Mueller the day after the arrests — that those charged were freelance boobs who had very little chance of succeeding.

Their ineptitude was defined by their submission of a jihad video to a commercial shop for transfer to a CD. The technician, the real hero in this piece if there is one, spotted it immediately and called local authorities who notified the FBI. After 13 months of surveillance agents put an end to the would-be terrorists' farfetched plans when they tried to buy weapons.

The improbability of their schemes doesn't mean they couldn't have caused a great deal of damage given the right opportunity, as is the case even with mopes like these appear to be. The fear of unaligned freelancers juiced up on radical preaching with promises of paradise is a real one and will take public help to avoid. Al-Qaeda's 9/11 murderers were in many ways just as inept and their chance of success just as improbable.

Here's the problem for the FBI. The skepticism about almost every bureau move caused by negative publicity is a dangerous trend. Public faith in the competence of this national police force with its 12, 500 agents is imperative if we are to prevent what Mueller stated to reporters was his worst nightmare _ the use by terrorists of weapons of mass destruction ranging from biological to nuclear. Without a civilian's healthy respect for police abilities the Philadelphia/New Jersey six might have passed under the radar and bumbled their way to some success.

Mueller contended his lack of manpower — and where have we heard that before — has forced the bureau to seek more cooperation from local and state authorities and shift their priorities to counter-intelligence, anti-terrorism, public corruption and civil rights. Yet there are continuing complaints throughout federal and state agencies that the FBI still uses the terrorist label to bully its way into authority over violent crimes no matter what evidence to the contrary. That is particularly true in gun, explosives, and gang cases where Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a sister Justice department bureau with a quarter of the agents and far more productive record, has primary jurisdiction. In fact, Mueller did not respond to a question about whether a beefed up U.S. Marshall's Service and ATF could not be called on to relieve the FBI of garden-variety violent crime responsibilities.

Whether or not the bureau ever will be able to restore its image to pre 9/11 status is anyone's guess. But if Mueller is to succeed in his efforts to refocus and rebuild the agency, he will have to concentrate more resources to fewer priorities, leaving the every day violent crime to others.