WASHINGTON — FBI Director William S. Sessions, citing a 40% increase in violent crimes over the last decade, Wednesday elevated violent crime to a "priority" status for FBI investigators, a move that will provide greater assistance to state and local police who handle most such violations.
Making violent crime the sixth of the FBI's priorities also "will invigorate a program that has experienced an erosion of funding and manpower in recent years," Sessions said at a press conference. The FBI has jurisdiction over such violent crimes as kidnaping, extortion, bank robberies and hijackings and--more recently--drug-related homicides, police killings and the sexual exploitation of children.
In the mid-1970s, the FBI began establishing priorities that dictate to what cases the special agents in charge of its 57 field offices will assign their investigators. Those priorities have been foreign counterintelligence, organized crime, white collar crime, drugs and counterterrorism.
Violent Crimes Increasing
"Additional responsibilities and an increasing violent crime rate have mandated a revitalization of our efforts," Sessions said.
In the field, Sessions' move will mean that "no longer will an SAC (special agent in charge) take people from the squad working violent crime to do something else," said one official with experience in running a major field office.
In supporting state and local law enforcement agencies, Sessions said that he wants to make greater use of such new tools as automated fingerprint systems, DNA genetic typing that can identify an individual from skin, blood and other body fluids at a crime scene, artificial intelligence and behavioral profiling to help identify suspects.
Sessions noted that President Bush's crime package, sent to Congress last week, calls for an additional 300 FBI positions at a cost of $19.5 million to help combat violent crime.
Confirms Gray Probe
Responding to persistent questions at the press conference, Sessions also made clear for the first time that the Justice Department had authorized the bureau's investigation of suspected payroll padding in the office of Rep. William H. Gray III (D-Pa.), an inquiry that became public and threatened Gray's subsequent election as Democratic whip.
In the investigation of Gray's office, Sessions said that the FBI had followed its "guidelines, procedures and policies."
An FBI spokesman, detailing those policies, said that an investigation of a member of Congress can be initiated after consultation with the U.S. attorney for the area. FBI headquarters is notified immediately and it then advises the Justice Department's public integrity section "to further ensure adequate predication" for the inquiry.
On Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh's complaint that he did not know in advance that two agents from the FBI's Philadelphia field office were going to interview Gray about the case on Memorial Day, Sessions said that he would not describe the failure to inform Thornburgh as "a breakdown."
"There may have been a lapse, there may have been some circumstance where communication was not fully conveyed," Sessions said.
Takes Unusual Step
On the eve of the House Democratic Caucus' vote, Thornburgh's executive assistant, Robert S. Ross, took the unusual step of announcing that Gray was "not a target of the investigation."
The investigation is continuing, and Thornburgh has launched an investigation of its disclosure.
Asked whether the handling of the Gray investigation indicated that politics was influencing federal investigations, Sessions--his voice rising for emphasis--responded with "an absolute resounding no. The bureau is and will be apolitical. It will not be involved in the pursuing of political objectives through investigation. That's absolutely critical."
Thornburgh has said that he did not find anything improper in the investigation, only in its disclosure. On the subject of terrorism, Sessions indicated that he is more confident about identifying those responsible for the bombing of Pan American Flight 103 from London to New York last Dec. 21 than he is about solving the bombing in San Diego of the van driven by the wife of the skipper of the U.S. cruiser Vincennes.
On the Vincennes inquiry, Sessions said that the dispatch of 15 agents to San Diego earlier this month did not signal that the investigation is stymied. But he added: "I can't express with strong confidence that we will solve that particular case, but I hope we are able to do it."