Sunday, January 14, 2001

Q&A with the FBI

        Editor's note: Robert Burnham, special agent in charge of the Cincinnati Division of the FBI since August, has been an FBI agent for 25 years, serving in Philadelphia, Columbia, S.C., Kansas City and Washington, D.C., where he led the domestic counter-terrorism unit. Cases he has been involved in include the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh. In an interview with the Enquirer Editorial Board on Tuesday, we asked him about background checks for presidential appointments, local civil rights investigations and other topics. Following are excerpts of his answers.


        Q. Tell us about what's going on lately with the FBI.

        A. We're two-and-a-half years into a five-year plan that reflects where the country is going. We have about 11,500 agents nationally, so we want to maximize our resources. Under this plan we divide our cases in three tiers.

        One, is counter terrorism, domestic and international, anything that affects national security. That's our top priority. It includes some white-collar fraud, if it is an economic threat. And sometimes, health-care fraud.

        Two, is crime that affects the fabric of our society. Organized crime, the traditional Mafia or Cosa Nostra. Russian organized crime, which is new on the scene. Drug trafficking — from Colombia and Mexico. Also in this category are public corruption and civil rights cases.

        Three, is everything else the FBI works: Bank robbery, extortion, kidnapping, telemarketing fraud.

        Q. Have you been busy doing background checks for presidential appointments?

        A. We call those Special Inquiries, or “Spins.” We will do one on Joe Hagen (Chiquita executive chosen as President-elect Bush's deputy chief of staff). They are long and exhaustive. Fifty or 60 interviews with friends, neighbors, co-workers. A huge questionnaire we have to fill out: everywhere you've lived, where you've gone to school.

        We don't get any extra resources to do this and we get a deadline, saying, “We have to have it back in a week.” We ask such things as “Have you ever engaged in criminal activity or unprofessional conduct?” A summary of the Spins, 2-3 pages, is reviewed by headquarters and then they report it to the Senate (which confirms nominees).

        Q. Tell us about the Cincinnati FBI office.

        A. Our office covers the whole southern half of Ohio — Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati, those three metropolitan areas. We address violent crime (including drug investigations), white collar crime, fraud, and also terrorism. We're a clearing house for bank robberies. The bank robbery problem seemed high in Cincinnati, but it was actually higher in Columbus last year — 55 in Cincinnati, but 132 in Columbus.

        Fortunately, there's no real terrorism here. We're never going to prevent all acts of terrorism. But we have formed a counterterrorism working group here. We meet with other federal agencies, police departments, the sheriff's office, and share with them what we're hearing — who may be moving into the area. We develop trip wires to detect and stop terrorists.

        Q. Locally, allegations of racial profiling, misuse of force by local police, or corruption in government contracts have led to calls for investigations by the FBI or the Justice Department in recent years. Tell us how those investigations are carried out.

        A. These types of civil rights or corruption investigations can start in three ways: Citizens can call and request an investigation; The police or other local authorities can request that we come in. Or the Justice Department or FBI can take notice of a situation themselves and begin an investigation.

        In civil rights cases, if the local authorities are investigating, we wait until they have finished their work. We review their interviews and the questions they have asked. We may make additional inquiries on our own and then we write up a review and send it to headquarters. Unlike other types of cases, which are handled by the local U.S. attorney's office, civil rights investigations are all forwarded to headquarters (in Washington) for review and final determination.

        Q. Based on your work in the counter-terrorism office, how much of a threat do we face from biological or chemical terrorism?

        A. The threat of biological/chemical attack is low. The expertise to weaponize these things is low. If Timothy McVeigh or Osama Bin Laden could develop a bio-chemical weapon, don't you think they would do it? Their business is to kill people.

        This is not to say that we shouldn't be prepared for this kind of a threat. The possibility is always there ... but the bomb is still the weapon of choice for mass killings by terrorists.

        Q. Were you involved in protests by FBI agents against the possibility that President Clinton might grant clemency to American Indian activist Leonard Peltier, who was convicted of killing two FBI agents in June 1975?

        A. I wasn't involved in the FBI protests. A grant of clemency is a presidential executive privilege. I hope it doesn't happen. Leonard Peltier was convicted of the killings and has exhausted all appeals. The FBI agents who marched in Washington were all there on their own time. They took leave from work. The number who protested indicates how strongly the agents felt about it. Our director (Louis Freeh) came out against clemency in USA Today. I agree with our director.


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