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FBI's brave new world

A National Geographic documentary benefits from unparalleled access to the bureau's inner workings.

July 23, 2003|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

This is not your father's FBI.

The seemingly invincible bureau immortalized during J. Edgar Hoover's racket-busting glory days and in the 1960s and '70s TV show "The FBI" starring Ephrem Zimbalist Jr. has long faded into memory. In the wake of the Hoover-era intimidation scandals, the tragedy in Waco, Texas, and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a battle-scarred and controversial bureau has emerged to fight a new kind of enemy.

Benefiting from unparalleled access to the bureau's inner workings, filmmakers Barbara Leibovitz and Jamie Hellman profile FBI Director Robert Mueller and his troops in "The FBI," a National Geographic documentary tonight at 8 on KCET.

The program, narrated by actor Dennis Haysbert, offers a fascinating look at today's G-persons in action, although it has the glossy feel of an authorized work and its one-hour format has limitations. Don't expect a debate about the bureau's wider surveillance operations in the post-Sept. 11 world, for example, or an examination of its efforts to improve coordination with other intelligence agencies.

Mueller, who was sworn in a week before Sept. 11, must redefine the bureau to meet the challenge of unseen threats -- to make it, as he says, "more predictive."

The special agents trailed in "The FBI" may not be the glamorized heroes of the real or imagined past, but they are dedicated workers adjusting to the new reality with a kind of quiet heroism. We meet a hazardous materials team searching an apartment in the Bronx, N.Y., during the anthrax contamination scare, and a harried agent deploying snipers, undercover cops and uniformed officers to guard the crowd at an Army-Navy football game.

In Turkey, where U.S. law enforcement officials fear terrorists could obtain nuclear materials or other weapons, FBI legal attache Michael Dorris takes part in a tea ritual with police to cultivate a relationship that he hopes will lead to more information sharing.

"I'm not James Bond parachuting out of an airplane, driving boats real fast around the Istanbul harbor," Dorris says. "You have to go and slog it out in the streets, finding one little kernel of information and matching it up with others."

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