Congress is preparing to increase funding for the FBI this year despite a blistering Senate critique last month that questioned whether taxpayers have gotten their money's worth from $1 billion in budget increases for the bureau since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The Senate version of a more than $390 billion government-wide spending bill, which was passed last month, proposed cutting the FBI's budget in 2003 by at least $206 million, and a little-noticed report accompanying the measure called for the "total re-creation" of the law enforcement agency. The report also urged the bureau to consider bringing more nonagents into top management, and suggested that elite units such as the hostage rescue team may have outlived their usefulness.
But House-Senate negotiators who are close to completing a compromise version of the huge spending measure have agreed to provide nearly $4.3 billion to the FBI, about $45 million more than President Bush had sought, congressional sources said. A Democratic aide, noting that there was little enthusiasm for FBI budget cuts against a backdrop of new threats to the nation's security, said, "Given what's at stake right now, you give them the money."
Senior House members in both parties say they are pleased with FBI changes begun in the past year. The White House appears to share that confidence.
Last week, it sent a strong signal of support for the bureau when it announced its 2004 budget proposal, which includes an increase of nearly 10 percent for the FBI, to $4.6 billion. The extra money would pay for more than 1,900 new positions at the bureau, including more than 800 analysts and surveillance officers and hundreds of agents devoted to counterterrorism and counterintelligence.
"This is not the time to hold the FBI back or not fund them," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who is chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that approves funding for the bureau.
Nevertheless, the battle on Capitol Hill over the FBI's budget has highlighted a continuing debate there over the FBI's role and competence to perform it.
The aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks revealed serious flaws in the bureau's management and communications systems. It also sparked a broader discussion of whether a law enforcement agency responsible for investigating child abductions, sniper attacks, bank robberies and Medicare fraud could also handle primary responsibility for counterterrorism and counterintelligence.
Although the FBI's counterterrorism activities were strengthened under Director Louis J. Freeh in the 1990s, the bureau's focus seems to many lawmakers to still be overly diffused.
Many of the concerns were evident in last month's Senate report on the FBI budget for 2003. It was drafted largely by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and the staff of the Commerce, Justice, State and the Judiciary appropriations subcommittee, of which he is chairman.
Noting that the FBI budget had grown by more than $1 billion since 2001, the report said: "What we got for these increases is debatable."
In an interview, Gregg praised FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, who took over in 2001, and Gregg indicated the budget disagreement with the House would be resolved with a "significant increase" for the FBI. But he made clear that he still had strong reservations about the pace of bureau changes.
"We can bring more agents in, but they have to be the right ones, and we have to bring them into a culture that's part of the solution and not part of the problem," he said. "They're trying hard to adjust, but it's a very insular society from the days of [the late FBI director J. Edgar] Hoover."
The Senate report complimented Mueller for focusing the FBI on what it said were its core missions of counterterrorism, counterintelligence and cyber crime, but said these were "only the first tentative steps in what must be an almost total re-creation of the FBI."
Gregg said, for example, that there was a "significant question whether the hostage rescue team is providing the return for the money," in the fight against terrorism and cyber crime.
But Wolf said he would "not favor abolishing the HRT," which he said is proving useful in operations that he could not discuss.
The Senate report lambasted a $137 million cost overrun in the FBI's troubled Trilogy computer project. "The attempt to make up 20 years of neglect in two years of frenzied spending was destined to fail," it declared, adding that the bureau had "squandered" a $100 million cushion for the technology that Congress provided in a supplemental spending bill last year.
Gregg was also critical of other aspects of the FBI budget, saying he wanted the FBI to provide Congress with a better justification -- in writing by April 30 -- for its proposal to quadruple spending on its Joint Terrorism Task Forces. These units would be attached to FBI field offices. But the Senate report said it was unclear how they would work with similar units established by other federal agencies or local and state governments.
"I think the point has been made and we have the attention from the people whose attention we need," Gregg said.
Staff writer Dan Eggen contributed to this report.
"This is not the time to hold the FBI back or not fund them," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.).
ROBERT S. MUELLER IIILOUIS J. FREEHJ. EDGAR HOOVER