Share this article

print logo

ROLE OF FBI WILL CHANGE IN AFTERMATH OF ATTACKS

There will be some significant long-range consequences after the al-Qaida network of terrorists is destroyed and the Taliban leaders are no longer a major factor in Afghanistan. Less significant, but of historic interest, will be information that likely will surface many years later.

Somewhat overlooked in the mass of media information about current U.S. military and intelligence efforts is what appears to be shaping up as significant changes in the role of the FBI.

The change in the FBI focus likely would upset its longtime leader, J. Edgar Hoover, if he were still alive. But the change in FBI thrust appears to make eminent good sense since the threat of world terrorism is likely to be a factor we will have to contend with long after the current crisis is behind us.

A senior administration official recently told The New York Times that the revised curriculum for the FBI would relieve the agency of responsibility of many duties that Hoover relished. They include investigating some violent crimes, drug trafficking and one of his favorite FBI pursuits, tracking down bank robbers.

The new focus of the bureau would be counterterrorism rather than crime fighting. Many of its former duties would be turned over to other government agencies. Thousands of FBI agents currently are assigned to terrorist duties, and reportedly the change in the bureau's emphasis will be permanent.

Administration officials in favor of changing the FBI's role are uncertain about the necessity of getting congressional approval. That could be an impediment because of a cadre of conservatives in Congress who have traditionally supported Hoover's vision for the agency.

The FBI has been the target recently of criticism, and its new director, Robert S. Mueller, has a reputation for shaking up government agencies in which he became involved. He reportedly has supported the temporary move to restructure the prime role of the FBI, but whether he will support a permanent change is unknown.

Narrowing the role of a traditional federal agency that has been glamorized for years on television is bound to generate a great deal of heat in Congress and in some sectors of the conservative media. It will not be accomplished easily, but given the temper of the times, it has a better chance of happening now than at any time in the past.

Another area of interest is the matter of the role of Vice President Cheney. In the days following the inauguration of George W. Bush, the vice president emerged as the administration's chief spokesman and was much more visible than the new president. So much so that media analysts and political leaders were speculating openly that Cheney was formulating policy and calling all the shots in the new Bush administration.

But then came the tragic events of Sept. 11, and Cheney virtually disappeared from the public arena. Initially the explanation made sense -- it was in the best interest of the nation to separate the president and the vice president so that if Bush should fall victim to an attack, Cheney could take over.

But as the days and weeks rolled by, the once highly visible and vocal vice president still was not seen or heard from. Finally, the White House reported that Cheney was attending some meetings with Bush, and he made his first public statement after a long silence.

The question now arises about what prompted this surprising absence of the previously principal spokesman of the administration from the public arena in a time of national crisis. That answer is likely to come years after the Bush administration is out of office, from historians or in the publication of the memoirs of his top staffers.

Was Cheney kept under wraps to counter the perception that he was the brain behind the decisions of the inexperienced president? Was this a decision made to prove that Bush was indeed running the show? Was Cheney still making key decisions while behind the scenes? The answers may be forthcoming in the future. They will be of great interest but not of great significance after the passage of time.

On the local front, County Executive Joel A. Giambra said his $5 million commitment of county funds for Buffalo's school renovation and rebuilding plan is firm and stands whether or not there is a project labor agreement. My apology to Giambra for misstating his position in my Oct. 21 column.

MURRAY B. LIGHT is the former editor of The Buffalo News.