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From the Chicago Tribune
Cities criticize FBI secrecy
Local police say withholding of vital data hinders anti-terrorism effort By Naftali Bendavid Washington Bureau
November 4, 2001
WASHINGTON -- Despite the talk of national unity since Sept. 11, city leaders and police chiefs across the country complain that the FBI is not fully cooperating with them in the fight against terrorism, often withholding information crucial to protecting their cities.
Whether the FBI is issuing vague alerts, disseminating facts haphazardly or not sharing information about suspects, some of the local officials say the agency is falling into a familiar pattern despite repeated declarations that this is a new day for law enforcement. That bodes ill for federal and local cooperation in the long-term fight against terrorism.
"The way it is now is not working," said Mayor Scott King of Gary, Ind. "I think there is a growing realization in Washington of that."
Tom Faust, executive director of the National Sheriffs Association, said data provided by the FBI have often been sketchy.
"It's one thing to have the information, but it's another thing to have it in a useful form that can be used by state and local law enforcement," he said.
The disconnection between federal and local officials was highlighted last week when the FBI learned about a potential threat to bridges in eight Western states. The FBI kept silent after warning state officials, but Gov. Gray Davis of California promptly made the information public, irritating federal officials who downplayed its significance and said it never should have been released.
Earlier in the investigation into the suicide hijackings that leveled New York's World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, local police chiefs were frustrated by an FBI list of people wanted for questioning. They said it contained limited information, was not computerized and, worse, contained no photographs.
"That doesn't do the officer on the street a lot of good," said Faust, former sheriff of Arlington County, Va. "It's just a bunch of names. If they pull someone over and run the name, it's not going to do a lot of good if it's not in the computer."
The conflict emerged while the FBI is going through substantial inner turmoil. Its new director, Robert Mueller, is struggling to reshape the agency as two of his top lieutenants have quit and the FBI is in the midst of its biggest investigation ever.
Mueller is pushing agents to investigate fewer traditional crimes and concentrate on fighting terrorism. The director admits hearing many complaints about the FBI's relationship with local officials, such as agents not following up leads passed on by local officers and keeping local police at arm's length.
Mueller said Friday he would appoint a senior-level FBI official to coordinate with local police and would create an advisory board.
Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge added soothing words of his own.
"The one group of people we have 365-24-7 in our neighborhoods, on our streets, in our communities is our local law-enforcement community," Ridge said. "Obviously their integration into what we do and the information we receive . . . is very critical to them."
Ridge and Mueller may have trouble changing a deeply ingrained FBI culture. The bureau is struggling with tradition as it tries to redefine itself. Rethinking its long-standing emphasis on secrecy is among its most daunting challenges.
Hierarchy of warnings
Agents have traditionally kept all information about cases to themselves to avoid tipping off suspects and endangering any potential court case. Beyond that, some federal agents disdain local police, an attitude as old as the FBI and as familiar as movie plots featuring city detectives butting heads with arrogant feds.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward Norris blasted the FBI specifically for omitting photos in its early list of people wanted for questioning in connection with the hijackings.
"I frankly do not understand this," Norris told Congress last month. "When someone commits a murder, rape or robbery, you plaster his picture all over police stations."
Many police chiefs have been equally frustrated by the two nationwide alerts the FBI issued since Sept. 11. In both cases, the FBI made announcements but provided little additional information about the threat.
Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory sent Ridge a letter last week suggesting that the FBI rethink those alerts.
McCrory suggested that the warnings should be ranked by seriousness, so a city knows that a Level 5 alert is of greater concern than a Level 1 alert.
"It would be beneficial for them to give specific guidance for local officials and our citizens as to what to do," McCrory said. "Our concern is that people will stop doing things they should be doing, like working or traveling. I don't think that's the message they are meaning to send."
In Boston and Baltimore, meanwhile, officials have said they did not get enough specific information about threats in their cities. In Indiana, local officials were incensed that they were not informed that a postal machine potentially contaminated with anthrax was sent to Indianapolis.
Others complain that the FBI has no organized system for delivering them information, saying they have had to learn key information from television broadcasts.
"The only system we have seen has been if we happen to catch a press conference by the attorney general and the FBI director," said King, Gary's mayor. "I heard one major city police chief say, `I knew we were on heightened alert because I happened to catch it on CNN between college football games.'
"That is no way to run a railroad."
Chicago skirts limits
In Chicago, Police Supt. Terry Hillard said he did not want to be dragged into the war of words and added that the city's relationship with the agency is fine. Part of that, according to top aides, is Hillard's personal relationship with members of the FBI.
Still, some Chicago investigators privately say the city's police have been puzzled about how to respond to the FBI alerts. But the lack of information, they said, may speak more to the gaps in the nation's intelligence-gathering than to the FBI's selfishly guarding it.
Perhaps the biggest eruption occurred when anthrax broke out in New York last month. City officials said the FBI was too slow to analyze a suspicious letter and inform them of its existence, and Mueller later conceded that the FBI had erred, adding, "There were missteps at the outset."
Partly as a result, New York's U.S. senators, Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, have introduced a bill that would help the FBI share more information. The legislation would reform confidentiality laws, allowing the bureau to share information from grand juries, wiretaps, financial records and other sources.
Police chiefs applaud the bill.
"We need local law enforcement to play a central role in defeating terrorism, but they simply cannot do it if they don't have all the facts," Clinton said.
Mueller, who took over the FBI just weeks before the Sept. 11 hijackings, is known as a no-nonsense manager, and some city officials are optimistic that he can make the needed changes. Mueller and Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft have met with mayors and police chiefs many times since the crisis began.
The Justice Department has ordered that joint anti-terrorism task forces be established across the country, so local police and federal agents can work together. Mueller has agreed to station police chiefs at the bureau's high-tech investigation nerve center in Washington and has begun distributing information in computerized form as the police chiefs requested.
"From the first moment that I joined the FBI several weeks ago, one of my highest priorities has been to improve our working relationship with you," Mueller recently told a group of mayors.
If matters still do not improve, local officials warn that it will make the fight against terrorism much tougher to win. There are 650,000 officers in police departments nationwide, compared to 11,000 FBI agents. Also, police are more familiar with their communities and are far better equipped to spot unusual activity or suspicious characters.
Local awareness vital
"If a traffic cop in Gary makes a stop of an overweight truck, he will look for state or local law violations," King said. "But if he has an awareness that this is something of interest federally, he can do something as simple as paying closer attention to what he sees in the cab of the vehicle."
King added, "By having more information, he can do a better job."
Tribune staff reporter Eric Ferkenhoff in Chicago contributed to this report.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), November 04, 2001
Mayor Daley of Chicago has an attitude and so does the Chicago Police. They released a terrorist suspect after finding knifes and weapons on passengers on before boarding planes. Did it ever occur to the police to think of calling the FBI? The FBI would like to get these thugs …ya, oh… I mean, the Chicago Police are the thugs.
-- Rick V (email@example.com), November 05, 2001.