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FBI critical of its own antiterror efforts

Senior FBI officials have grown frustrated with the bureau's performance in the war on terrorism, and they are demanding that agents nationwide become more aggressive and single-minded in hunting terrorists, internal memos and interviews show.

Bruce J. Gebhardt, the second-ranking official at the bureau, told field office chiefs in a memo three weeks ago that he was "amazed and astounded" by the failure of some unidentified FBI field offices to commit essential resources and tools to the fight against terrorism, law enforcement officials familiar with the memo told the New York Times.

"You need to instill a sense of urgency" in field agents, Gebhardt wrote. "They need to get out on the street and develop sources. You need to demand that information is being sent" to the bureau's headquarters in Washington, he said, adding: "You are the leaders of the FBI. You cannot fail at this mission. Too many people are depending on us."

The internal frustrations suggest that the bureau is still suffering from many of the same problems that plagued it before last year's hijackings, including a failure to share information and prioritize investigations, officials told the newspaper.

Senior officials blame an institutional resistance, as some of the bureau's 56 field offices are finding it difficult to veer away from the bureau's decadeslong focus on solving traditional federal crimes like bank robberies, drug trafficking and kidnappings.

Publicly, the bureau's director, Robert Mueller, and other senior Bush administration officials say that they are confident the bureau is successfully reinventing itself as the lead domestic agency for counterterrorism, with a clear focus on preventing future terrorist attacks instead of simply solving crimes that have already occurred. They point to the arrests in recent months of terrorist suspects in Detroit, Lackawana, N.Y., Portland, Ore., and elsewhere as evidence of the bureau's strong efforts to disrupt terrorism in the United States.

But internal FBI communications and discussions among senior leadership in recent weeks tell a very different story.

Mueller himself, in an internal memo sent to FBI employees last week, hinted at his frustration in trying to make counterterrorism the clear top priority for the entire bureau.

Mueller said he no longer wants to see FBI field offices establish their own distinct law enforcement priorities. Localized crime problems "will no longer be a basis for regional priority setting. While every office will have different crime problems that will require varying levels of resources, the FBI has just one set of priorities," and that begins with protecting the United States from terrorist attacks, Mueller wrote.

Among their complaints, senior bureau officials have said that they are unhappy that some field offices around the country are not moving aggressively enough to use secret terrorism warrants, are not developing enough intelligence sources to penetrate terrorist cells and are not loading all the terrorism-related information that they receive into the FBI's central computer system.

Uploading and sharing terrorism leads is considered particularly critical. The intelligence community's failure to connect possible warning signs before the Sept. 11 attacks was partly blamed for the bureau's inability to analyze far-flung bits of information in its own files from field offices in Phoenix, Minneapolis, Oklahoma and elsewhere.

FBI officials are also frustrated that headquarters has not always been kept informed of terrorism leads and developments in the field.

In one embarrassing instance, Attorney General John Ashcroft asked Mueller in a recent meeting about search warrants in a case related to a terrorist investigation in Yemen in which the bureau was involved, but Mueller was apparently unaware of the investigation by his own agents, officials said.

Officials said that senior bureau leaders in recent weeks have directed field supervisors to demand weekly written briefings from their counterterrorism squads, ask more probing questions about pending investigations and push for greater use of warrants and surveillance against suspects. That task was made easier by a decision this week by a federal appellate court validating the Justice Department's use of its expanded domestic surveillance powers.

While officials would not comment on the details of the recent memos, a bureau spokesman, Mike Kortan, said Gebhardt's memo reflected his ongoing dialogue with field leaders on counterterrorism issues. "If any aspect of the counterterrorism program or any program requires emphasis or re-emphasis, he does not hesitate to do so," Kortan said. "Nothing is more important."

Some prominent politicians have stepped up their criticism of the bureau's counterterrorism performance recently. And policymakers in both Congress and the administration have begun discussing whether the government needs to create a completely new superagency for domestic and international intelligence, a move that could undercut the FBI's authority.