U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio's harshly worded letter describing the Maryland FBI as a "marginal presence at best [and] ... not sufficiently engaged" in fighting traditional crime angered agents across the country yesterday who call the criticism unfounded in light of the new bureau-wide priority of preventing terrorism.
"Anyone who is complaining that we have not had quite the same commitment to white-collar crime in the short term is not looking at the long-term national and international implications of terrorism," said Oregon FBI agent Nancy L. Savage, president of FBI Agents Association. "I have dealt with a lot of U.S. attorneys, and I can't imagine questioning this priority."
Writing to FBI Special Agent in Charge Gary M. Bald in a Jan. 9 letter obtained and published yesterday by The Sun, DiBiagio asserted that the Maryland FBI "has become distracted and almost useless as they try to figure out how to address terrorism."
He also said that the bureau is "not sufficiently engaged" in investigating cases involving violent crime, and corporate and public corruption, adding, "This is completely unacceptable."
DiBiagio's letter angered officials at FBI headquarters in Washington, sources there say, and also upset some at the Department of Justice, which oversees U.S. attorneys. Those officials in Washington apparently felt that the letter did not reflect the spirit of cooperation within the law enforcement community that they have been trying to promote.
A federal law enforcement official said that Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III "have made counterterrorism the No. 1 priority, and any U.S. attorney not heeding that message should take a second look at who they're serving."
President Bush is likely to reinforce that message today when he speaks at FBI headquarters on what the White House describes as "improving counterterrorism intelligence."
DiBiagio did not return phone calls yesterday. In a statement released through the Justice Department's public affairs office in Washington late Wednesday night, he sought to play down the criticism contained in the letter.
"Counterterrorism is the top priority for both" the U.S. attorney's office and the FBI, DiBiagio said. "We are committed to continuing our excellent teamwork."
The FBI has made sweeping changes in its operations under pressure from the Bush administration to refocus the bureau on averting another attack. In a briefing for reporters Jan. 30, Mueller described the bureau's top three priorities as protecting the country from terrorism, espionage and cyber attacks.
Lists at odds
In his letter, DiBiagio named public corruption, white-collar crime and major violent crime as his priorities, which came in fourth, seventh and eighth out of 10 on the FBI's priority list.
The difference in focus underscores the balancing act that bureaus across the country face as they try to adapt to the new anti-terrorism mandate, while feeling pressure to continue working the cases that built the FBI into the nation's foremost law enforcement agency.
Now the bureau has a more daunting challenge - preventing events that have yet to happen, often by arrests that might not produce the splashy headlines and public trials that often serve to convince the public of the bureau's effectiveness.
Bald, the Baltimore FBI chief, said in an interview Wednesday that a practical result of the new focus is likely to be a drop in the number of traditional criminal indictments stemming from local FBI investigations.
"We are still addressing the violent crime matters, but we're not going to have the same number of people to address violent crime matters that we did in the past," Bald said.
Across the country, such investigations have fallen increasingly to state and local law enforcement. Police chiefs have instructed their officers to take over local bank robberies and nonterror, intelligence-gathering operations that previously fell to the FBI.
As a result, more of those cases have ended up in the hands of city and county prosecutors, not federal ones.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which studies the FBI and local law enforcement, said U.S. attorneys will have to let some cases go. "A decision has to be made as to who is doing what," Wexler said. "We can't afford the duplication. And you can't have it both ways. You can't say we're going to focus on terrorism but also do all of these other things, too."
Despite the emphasis that DiBiagio's letter put on violent crime and corruption cases, the prosecutor has said in the past that he is eager to fight terrorism. He assigned one of his senior attorneys, Harvey E. Eisenberg, to terror-related probes full-time since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
His office has also been successful in taking on white-collar fraud and public corruption cases.
Federal prosecutors and the FBI in Baltimore gained national attention last month for the fraud prosecution of former Allfirst Financial Inc. currency trader John Rusnak. A former Baltimore Development Corp. official, Terry P. Dean, went on trial this week in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, accused of soliciting cash from businessmen involved in city revitalization projects.
Split over Staples case
But in at least one well-publicized instance, Baltimore's federal prosecutor and the local FBI office split over the significance of a public corruption case.
DiBiagio declined last spring to prosecute the FBI's three-year investigation into whether city police officers were paid for work they never did at Staples Inc. or worked at the office-supply chain while on police duty.