Nearly half of the FBI agents who once handled drug cases are now concentrating on the fight against terrorism, a shift that has caused concern in Congress about a possible lack of attention to the nation's crime problems.
The General Accounting Office, in testimony Wednesday to a House committee, found that the number of FBI field agent positions dedicated to drug crimes had dropped from about 1,400 in fall 2001 to just over 800 today. The number of new drug investigations has fallen from 1,825 in 2000 to 944 last year and just 310 in the first half of this year.
Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., told FBI Director Robert Mueller at a House Appropriations subcommittee meeting that the shift could be "leaving a big hole in America's fabric."
"We still need the FBI for the old traditional things that the FBI has always done," Rogers said.
Mueller acknowledged that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, resulted in a drastic change in the FBI's priorities. He cited the permanent reassignment of 674 agent positions to counterterrorism and counterintelligence from their work on violent crime, white-collar investigations and drugs.
"We have had to focus on priorities," Mueller said. "We have to pick and choose."
That means some smaller-scale embezzlement cases might be left for local authorities, the Drug Enforcement Agency is handling more drug cases and the FBI is getting involved in traditional crimes most often when such cases cross state lines or require the bureau's special expertise, Mueller said.
The report by the investigative arm of Congress found that 36 percent of the FBI's field agent positions are now working on either counterterrorism or counterintelligence, compared with 26 percent shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. The report says that the FBI faces challenges in finding enough agents to meet the terror threat without further siphoning off resources from other criminal investigations.