The FBI, in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, is studying a major reordering of its resources, Atty. Gen. William P. Barr said in an interview Friday.
Although Barr declined to discuss details of the study, which he had requested, it presumably will raise the possibility of shifting some of the large number of agents now doing foreign counterintelligence work to fighting domestic crime.
Some such shifts would be necessary to carry out Barr's pledge to step up the federal government's fight against violent crime without weakening efforts in such other key areas as white-collar crime.
In the interview with The Times, Barr called such an accelerated attack on violent crime, particularly murders, "one of my highest priorities."
The portion of the FBI's 10,350 agents who have been assigned to the labor-intensive tasks of following and otherwise monitoring Soviets suspected of spying under diplomatic cover from diplomatic posts in the United States or at the United Nations has never been discussed publicly. But it is known to be a substantial number.
While recognizing that battling violent crime is "principally a state and local responsibility" because more than 95% of the violations fall within those jurisdictions, Barr said that the federal government "can play a leadership role and have a real impact."
He listed these ways of countering violent criminals with federal action:
--Attacking gangs through drug and firearms laws and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute, which gives prosecutors expanded powers and carries stiff sentences. Barr said that the FBI's gang squad in its Washington field office, which works with local police in pursuing violent gangs under drug and firearms laws, will be expanded in other cities where gangs and related violence have become a major problem.
--Focusing resources on career criminals, because a very high proportion of violent crime is committed by a small, hardened segment of violators. More than 2,600 suspected violent lawbreakers have been charged since April under Operation Triggerlock, in which U.S. attorneys prosecute repeat felons with federal gun laws that carry mandatory minimum sentences of 15 years in prison.
--Prodding states to follow the federal lead in "reform of the criminal justice system" by adopting such measures as pretrial detention of violence-prone suspects, stiffer sentences and expanding prison space. "While some states have followed (the federal) suit, a lot haven't," Barr said.
--Prosecuting the war on drugs effectively because of the "obvious correlation between the drug trade and violent crime."
Barr said that he does not think budget pressures on state and local governments will deter them from adding to their prison space. "I think people will demand it," he said.
Even though cities such as Washington this year are breaking homicide records--the nation's capital has set a new high of 485 murders, two of them on Christmas Eve--Barr said that violent crime peaked nationally in 1980 and has plateaued at a high level ever since.
Violent crime shot up dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s, a period that Barr characterized as "an era of permissiveness in criminal justice." From a rate of 286 per 100,000 persons in 1960, it spiraled to 597 per 100,000 in 1980, more than doubling in two decades.
The rapid increase has been arrested, holding relatively steady during the 1980s, Barr said, although he acknowledged that there had been some smaller increases in individual years. FBI figures show, for example, that in 1990 the violent crime rate stood at 732 per 100,000 and at 664 per 100,000 in 1989.
In 1980, the rates of imprisonment headed up sharply. "The decade of the 1980s was when we got tough and went back to the basics," Barr said. Incarceration climbed from 134 per 100,000 in 1980 to 292 per 100,000 in 1990.
Stopping the rise in violent crime "during the decade when drugs reached epidemic proportions is really an accomplishment," Barr contended, although violent crime is at "an unacceptably high level."
Barr dismissed as "a false dichotomy" the argument over whether crime should be attacked by seeking to eliminate the so-called root causes through social programs or toughened law enforcement.
"Both law enforcement and social renewal are essential and they must work together, mutually reinforcing one another," he said.
Barr said that there has been "a disconnect between law enforcement efforts and social programs" in spending over the last 25 years.
While the Justice Department's former grant-giving agency, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, was "shoveling out" millions on police equipment and related assistance, the Department of Health and Human Services was independently carrying on its equally expensive projects, "and never the twain shall meet," Barr said.
As a remedy, he cited the Justice Department's current "weed and seed" approach, which calls for coordinating federal, state and local law enforcement on a community by community basis and then integrating those efforts with social rehabilitation. Crime and disorder must be "weeded out" before social reform can be "seeded" under the department strategy.
The "weed and seed" approach is likely to receive government-wide emphasis in President Bush's State of the Union or budget messages, a White House source said.