The number of FBI agents dedicated to counterterrorism doubled between 2001 and 2009 accounting for more than a quarter of the work done by field agents by last year, a report from the Justice Department’s inspector general has found. Despite the increase, actual active counterterrorism and counterintelligence cases dipped over the last four years by 25 percent, and those involving domestic terrorism made up only a fraction of the bureau’s terrorism workload.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer spent several months in 2007 examining how the FBI’s major restructuring after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks meant other critical areas of federal law enforcement were neglected, including financial crimes that preceded the nation’s economic meltdown.

Reporters there examined Justice Department data and found deep declines generally in the number of criminal cases brought to federal prosecutors, and as many as 2,000 more white-collar criminals could have been put in jail over a 10-year period if the FBI had probed real-estate fraud and other misconduct at the same pace it did before 9/11.

Despite the findings, former President Bush’s 2009 budget for the FBI left it without the funding necessary for white-collar crimes, robberies and more – “a continuing trend of cannibalizing agents and resources from traditional crime squads to fight terrorism instead of spending enough money to do both.”

Approximately 2,400 agents were assigned to counterterrorism from other duties after 9/11, the Post-Intelligencer found, and they weren’t replaced, which meant cases brought to prosecutors plunged, as high as 66 percent for white-collar and civil rights referrals during the early half of the decade.

According to a 2008 story from the paper:

As the budget to fight crime traditionally investigated by the FBI languishes, those crimes are rising sharply, particularly complex financial frauds. ‘Suspicious activity’ reports – filed by financial insiders when they suspect mortgage fraud – have risen dramatically, forcing agents to juggle dozens of cases. The result: They can investigate only the biggest cash losses, bypassing some of the most egregious cases. … For 250 agents, sifting through 46,000 potential cases – ‘even if you throw three-quarters of them out – is a hell of a burden,’ said Tony Adamski, the FBI’s former head of financial crime investigations.’

What makes the Intelligencer’s work unique is that much of it ominously appeared before banks suffered staggering losses and the downturn reverberated throughout the economy.

Attorney General Eric Holder has sought to increase the number of agents fighting financial crimes and said earlier this year that the FBI is investigating nearly 3,000 mortgage-fraud cases, a major increase from five years before. But he’s complained that the FBI has only limited resources and white-collar cases are complex requiring time and money to develop.

During the years immediately following 9/11, the Justice Department’s inspector general issued reports critical of the FBI for not evaluating how its shift to terrorism was impacting the allocation of personnel. The latest finds that the bureau has improved its ability to monitor how resources are utilized, but the inspector general nonetheless made several recommendations.

On the FBI’s list of national priorities, traditional crime fighting remains behind protecting the nation from terrorist attacks, which is number one, guarding against cyber threats, countering foreign intelligence and espionage and combating public corruption.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED,, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.