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FBI Faces Challenge Penetrating Terrorist Cells - 2001-09-30

As the lead agency probing the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is under intense pressure to identify individuals or groups who may have helped the hijackers. But the FBI faces some serious obstacles in trying to penetrate terrorist cells that may be operating inside the United States.

The FBI has already detained more than 350 people for questioning in connection with the September 11 attacks and agents are looking for 400 others.

Attorney General John Ashcroft is a near constant presence on Capitol Hill these days, reassuring Congress that the terrorist attacks remain the number one priority for federal law enforcement agencies. "This new terrorist threat to Americans on our soil is a turning point in American history," he said. "It is a new challenge for law enforcement. Our fight against terrorism is not merely or primarily a criminal justice endeavor. It is defense of our nation and its citizens."

As the lead investigative agency, the FBI is coming under increasing scrutiny about what if anything it could have done to prevent the terrorist plot. FBI agents were looking for at least two of the hijackers in the weeks leading up to the attacks.

But a former FBI special agent who worked on counter-terrorism says tracking potential terrorists who enter the United States is not easy. Mike Hurm was an FBI agent for 21 years. "Many times people would come in the country and we would not have any idea they were here unless we were tipped off by either the State Department or the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] or one of the other elements of the intelligence community who somehow got some information that they were arriving," he said.

Even if the FBI is aware that suspicious individuals have entered the country, finding out what they are up to presents an even more complicated challenge.

Former FBI officials say the bureau is hampered by a scarcity of Arab-American agents and is now scrambling to find more Arab speakers.

Former FBI agent Mike Hurm says penetrating suspected terrorist groups, or cells, requires skillful agents who may have to spend months gaining the trust of those targeted for investigation. "Penetrating cells is, again, a very difficult, very sophisticated operation because you need to have the people who are in contact with these individuals," he said. "And often to place people in direct contact, it takes people who know the language and who can pass themselves off as something that they are not. Now, we do have certain numbers of people who excel at that kind of activity. But again, it is very difficult and a very time consuming thing if it is going to be done right."

Even though the FBI has tripled its budget on counter-terrorism programs in recent years, experts say that law enforcement and intelligence agencies need to do a better job of sharing information on suspected terrorists.

Larry Johnson is a former top counter terrorism official with the State Department who was interviewed on CBS television. "First, the law enforcement agencies have got to be required to put all of their investigative information into one data base," he said. "Secondly, you have got to allow the intelligence community to have access to that data base. That is to put it as simply as possible."

Experts do see encouraging signs of cooperation between U.S. investigators and law enforcement agencies in Germany and Britain. Some of the hijackers lived in Hamburg for a time while several others reportedly traveled to Britain this past June.