WASHINGTON - The Federal Bureau of Investigation is struggling to find enough agents and resources to investigate criminal wrongdoing tied to the country's economic crisis, according to current and former bureau officials.
The bureau slashed its criminal investigative work force to expand its national security role after the Sept. 11 attacks, shifting more than 1,800 agents, or nearly one-third of all agents in criminal programs, to terrorism and intelligence duties. Current and former officials say the cutbacks have left the bureau seriously exposed in investigating areas like white-collar crime, which has taken on urgent importance because of the nation's economic woes.
The pressure on the FBI has recently increased with the disclosure of criminal investigations into some of the largest players in the financial collapse, including the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
The FBI is planning to double the number of agents working financial crimes by reassigning several hundred agents amid a mood of national alarm. But some people inside and out of the Justice Department wonder where the agents will come from and whether they will be enough.
So depleted are the ranks of the FBI's white-collar investigators that executives in the private sector say they have had difficulty attracting the bureau's attention in cases of possible frauds involving millions of dollars. Some companies victimized by fraud have begun turning to private investigators and accountants to do the legwork in the cases before turning their work over to the FBI.
Since 2004, FBI officials have warned that mortgage fraud posed a looming threat, and the bureau has repeatedly asked the Bush administration for more money to replenish the ranks of agents handling nonterrorism investigations, according to records and interviews. The requests were denied as policymakers focused on counterterrorism. According to internal FBI data, the cutbacks have been particularly severe in staffing for investigations into white-collar crimes such as mortgage fraud, with a loss of 625 agents, or 36 percent of its 2001 levels.
Overall, the number of criminal cases that the FBI has brought to federal prosecutors - including a wide range of crimes like drug trafficking and violent crime - dropped 26 percent in the past seven years, going from 11,029 cases to 8,187, Justice Department data showed.
"Clearly, we have felt the effects of moving resources from criminal investigations to national security," said the FBI's assistant director, John Miller. "In white-collar crime, while we initiated fewer cases overall, we targeted the areas where we could have the biggest impact. We focused on multimillion-dollar corporate fraud, where we could make arrests but also recover money for the fraud victims."
But Justice Department data, which include cases from other agencies such as the Secret Service and Postal Service, illustrates the impact. Prosecutions of frauds against financial institutions dropped 48 percent from 2000 to 2007, insurance fraud cases plummeted 75 percent, and securities fraud cases dropped 17 percent.
Statistics from a research group at Syracuse University, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, using somewhat different methodology and looking only at the FBI, show an even steeper decline of nearly 50 percent in overall white-collar crime prosecutions during the same period.
In addition to the investigations into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the FBI is carrying out investigations of American International Group and Lehman Brothers, and it has opened more than 1,500 other mortgage-related investigations into companies big and small. Some FBI officials privately worry that the $700 billion federal bailout of the financial industry may itself become a problem because it contains inadequate controls to deter fraud.