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State Weathers Shift of FBI Agents to Counterterrorism

Intelligence: Move will have little impact in California's other operations, including drug enforcement.


A nationwide shift of more than 500 FBI agents to counterterrorism jobs will have little impact on other operations of the four major FBI offices in California--even drug investigations, officials say.

One reason is that many agents had already transferred to counterterrorism duties in California long before last week's announcement by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.

The transfer of narcotics agents to counterterrorism is likely to involve relatively fewer agents in California, because the state is a major drug trouble spot, officials said.

Mueller announced last week that the FBI was transferring 400 narcotics agents and 118 white-collar and violent crime agents to counterterrorism duty--increasing the nation's counterterrorism force to 3,718.

"We are waiting now for congressional approval of this plan," said FBI Assistant Director Ron Iden, head of the FBI's 650-agent Los Angeles office. "With regard to L.A., the shifts have already been pretty much made.

"There will be some reduction in our work in drug enforcement, but we will continue to work the high-priority cases," Iden said. "There won't be a situation here in L.A. where we're entirely pulling out of investigative cases.

"There will be no impact on white-collar or organized crime," Iden added. "The number of agents in L.A. will remain the same."

U.S. Atty. Debra W. Yang agreed with Iden's assessment. She said the reallocation of FBI resources since Sept. 11 has had no noticeable impact on criminal cases handled by her office "and I don't expect it will" as a result of the latest shift.

Michele Leonhart, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Los Angeles office, agreed that the DEA and FBI will continue to work major drug cases in the area with other police agencies.

"On any given day, we have maybe 10 or 20 FBI agents working cases with DEA squads," she said. "We will hope that doesn't change much, because the drug problem is so enormous in this area. On the other hand, we also realize that their primary mission is terrorism."

While FBI officials usually resist giving detailed numbers of how many agents are assigned to specific squads, some insight into the counterterrorism shift was provided by Larry A. Mefford, assistant special agent in charge of the San Francisco division, in April testimony to a congressional subcommittee.

"Since Sept. 11 ... approximately 30 agents [in San Francisco] have been reassigned to the counterterrorism program," he testified. "This doubles the number of agents conducting terrorism-related investigations."

Mefford added: "The reorganization resulted in terrorism squads being located in the major metropolitan areas of San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose. The geographical placement of these squads enhances the counterterrorism program's abilities to address the terrorism threat throughout the region."

Most San Francisco agents transferred to counterterrorism were taken from drug and organized crime squads, Mefford said.

DEA officials in San Francisco said they expect to maintain the number of investigations in the area, despite the loss of some assistance from the FBI.

"They certainly help us some, but we will be able to keep the same level of operations," said DEA spokesman Rich Myer.

Mike Mason, new head of the FBI's Sacramento office, which has more than 100 agents, said the key for a relatively smaller regional office is flexibility.

"I don't want to have 30 people doing counterterrorism, but half of them not knowing what they are doing," he said. "We just can't let our white-collar force dwindle, because there are areas we work here that we don't work elsewhere.

"I expect we will lose a few drug agents," Mason added. "But we will stay active in the multi-agency groups we already work with."

In San Diego, both the DEA and FBI have long worked closely in combating major Mexican drug smuggling organizations.

"It remains to be seen how many people will be cut, but I would think it would be really minimal," said Donald Thornhill, DEA spokesman in San Diego.

"I think they recognize the drug fight here as particularly difficult. But whatever they end up doing, we will step up to the plate and do whatever is necessary."


Times staff writer David Rosenzweig contributed to this report.

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