Despite an enormous drain on its manpower, the FBI is turning down help in its dual terrorism and anthrax investigations from some of its most experienced supporters: former agents.
As many as 350 former FBI special agents have expressed interest in coming back to work for the bureau to assist in the wide-ranging investigations into the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the anthrax mailings. About 7,000 FBI agents and support staff are now working the cases, often chasing hoaxes and fruitless leads at the expense of other federal probes that have been forced to take a back seat to anti-terrorism efforts.
While Justice Department officials acknowledge that investigators are "overburdened," the FBI has told most of its former agents that it doesn't need their help. That attitude is stirring tensions among bureau alumni who feel shunned.
"The response we got was, 'Thanks, but no thanks,' " said retired FBI agent Larry C. Upchurch, a 28-year veteran who is pushing the FBI to reconsider its position. "I'm a little bit perplexed. I don't want to carry a gun or a badge. I just want to help."
FBI officials say they have brought back several dozen former agents with counter-terrorism experience since Sept. 11, but the cumbersome security clearance process has dissuaded them from considering a wider recall.
"We recognize this is a tough issue," said one senior FBI official, "because these are guys who have trained their whole lives for these kinds of cases, and everyone wants to be involved, but unfortunately they can't all be."
The CIA, in contrast, is moving quickly to bring back some of the several hundred former employees who have offered to aid the anti-terrorism effort.
"We're doing everything we can to shorten the cycle for getting security clearances reinstated and speeding the process," said CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield.
In Los Angeles, the FBI has received "a great outpouring" of offers from former agents but has not accepted their assistance because "there's not an expressed need at this juncture," said Los Angeles FBI spokesman Matt McLaughlin.
With many of Los Angeles' 650 agents committed to the Sept. 11 and anthrax probes, McLaughlin acknowledged that the office has had to "scale back somewhat" on its non-terrorism investigations. But he said the impact has been modest.
"You can take a break [from non-terrorism cases] for a while, but people haven't stopped selling crack cocaine in the economically depressed areas of Los Angeles. Gangs haven't issued truces. Crimes are continuing, and we mean to investigate those as aggressively as ever," McLaughlin said.
But some in the law enforcement community doubt that the FBI can conduct two large-scale terrorism investigations and fight other types of crime all at once--without an infusion of outside help.
One defense attorney in Atlanta who asked not to be identified quipped that with the massive resources the FBI is devoting to the fight against terrorism, "this is a great time to be a white-collar criminal."
Indeed, FBI agents in the field complain that they have been bombarded in recent weeks with what often proved spurious tips from the public about "mysterious-looking" Middle Easterners and suspicious powders.
At last count, there were some 4,000 false anthrax reports, and Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft reported last month that a growing number of hoaxes "tax the resources of an already overburdened" law enforcement system.
Moreover, many FBI agents complain that because of the controversy surrounding the discovery of records before the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh, their supervisors now demand they record even the most arcane tips and leads. That takes valuable time away from pursuing potentially substantive leads, agents say.
Would bringing back several hundred FBI agents help ease the workload?
Former Agents Want to Help Where Needed
Ex-agents say their familiarity with the system and counter-terrorism investigations could prove invaluable, adding that they would be willing to handle fairly routine tasks that contract employees are allowed by law to perform.
The cost could be minimal because officials at the Society of Former Special Agents, which has acted as a liaison to the FBI on the issue, says that many retirees are willing to volunteer their time.
But some current agents see a downside in terms of bureau morale.
"The idea of volunteers coming in and answering the phones and taking down complaints and limiting their functions is somewhat unrealistic," said one veteran FBI agent who asked not to be identified. "They wouldn't limit themselves to that. You've got a bunch of [former agents] with big egos who have seen it all, and they want to show you how it's done."
Many longtime former agents disagree.
To refuse the services of several hundred skilled ex-agents "just seems very shortsighted to me," said retired agent Gary Aldrich, who also wrote a controversial best-seller in 1996 about his experiences on the security detail of the Clinton White House.
"I can't imagine the bureau's not suffering when you put more than half the FBI agent work force to work on these two investigations" into the Sept. 11 and anthrax attacks, said Aldrich, who has indicated his interest in helping. "You've got so many cases that have just got to be sitting there, and here you've got all these former agents who are willing to do anything at all--answering the phone, taking out the trash, whatever it takes to help."
The FBI's reluctance to court its ex-agents as aggressively as other agencies such as the CIA has set off a fierce debate among the bureau's former agents.
Some FBI Alumni Feeling Shunned
In a flurry of e-mail exchanges in recent days, many FBI alumni complained about shabby treatment from their old employer, saying the bureau's "palace guard" bureaucracy appears unable to bend to extraordinary times.
Other ex-agents, however, defended the bureau's right to make its own personnel decisions--even unpopular ones--and castigated fellow agents for seeking to enlist members of Congress in their cause.
The flare-up comes as the agency, under new Director Robert S. Mueller, has been trying to shed its image as the class bully of national law enforcement.
Before the terrorist attacks, missteps by the FBI in several high-profile cases had damaged the agency's reputation, competence and integrity.
Since Sept. 11, the FBI has won mostly high marks for the vigor and speed with which it pursued the terror investigation.
But the agency has been shadowed by old complaints as well, as some local police criticized the bureau for freezing them out of the terrorism probe.
In response, Mueller has tried to assure local police departments that they are a vital part of the FBI's investigation and will not be pushed aside.
Now, some former agents are hoping that the FBI will extend a similar olive branch to them.
Said Upchurch: "I think the FBI and the agents who are working this have done a remarkable job, and I wish I could be a part of that."