Embattled G-Men hunt for new image: David Usborne on an FBI chief chosen to restore battered bureau's health

THERE IS a new trophy on display at the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington. Placed on top of a computer terminal in one of its evidence analysis laboratories is a small, jagged lump of white concrete. 'That,' says the guide leading our tour, 'comes from the World Trade Center.'

Thus another layer is added to the legend of the FBI, the world's most famous and feared investigative agency. The scorched chunk is there to remind us of the bureau's success in tracking down 17 Muslim fundamentalist suspects linked to the Twin Tower bombing and a subsequent, foiled plot to detonate explosions at other New York City sites. We murmur polite approval.

But these days, boasting by the FBI strikes an incongruous note. The once invulnerable institution of J Edgar Hoover, who reigned over it from 1924 until 1972, and home to generations of agents who became known simply as the 'Feds' or 'G-Men' (it stands for Government Men) is in confusion. Press publicity is nothing but bad, discipline among the agents has crumbled.

Once so sure of itself, the FBI seems to its critics to have its lost its way. At the heart of the crisis has been the unseemly struggle over the fate of Judge William Sessions, 63, sacked as director by Bill Clinton last Monday and to be replaced, assuming Senate confirmation, by former FBI agent and New York judge, Louis Freeh.

A variety of public relations disasters has occurred, not least the calamitous fireball that ended the siege in Waco and left 66 people dead inside the cult's Texas compound. Recent claims that Hoover, as well as being a dictator and blackmailer, had transvestite and homosexual inclinations have not helped.

'I am not aware of any period in our history when morale has been lower than over the past few months,' said Don Bassett, a former special agent who served in the agency, at first under Hoover, for 23 years and teaches part-time at the FBI's Quantico Academy in Virginia.

The affair began last January when the Justice Department, to which the bureau is answerable, published a report accusing Director Sessions of various pecuniary improprieties, such as taking FBI planes and limousines for personal trips, building a dollars 10,000 ( pounds 6,000) fence around his home with taxpayers' money and fiddling some of his taxes. The report's release was one of the last acts of the Bush administration. Mr Sessions denied the allegations and rebuffed White House invitations to resign, forcing Monday's sacking.

The shock to the bureau, which absorbs dollars 2bn in federal funds a year and has more than 10,000 agents, might have been less if the judge had left, or been eased out, more speedily.

Instead, over the intervening six months, a public slanging match was played out, with the director complaining that he was the victim of a conspiracy hatched by a cabal of old-time Hoover proteges who wanted him out. His wife added to the mix by singling out Floyd Clarke, Mr Sessions's deputy. It is Mr Clarke who is now the bureau's acting director.

That such a war of innuendo and insult was allowed to develop and, worse, to adorn the pages of America's newspapers, was itself viewed as a symptom of a general malaise in the institution. 'The normal standards of discipline have completely broken down with that kind of sniping going on,' said a senior congresssional source directly concerned with FBI affairs. 'The new director is going to have to put that genie back in the bottle.'

Many of those close to the bureau argue that the morale problems set in as soon as Judge Sessions was appointed in 1987 by Ronald Reagan. Like his predecessor, William Webster, he was a federal judge without any FBI background, a fact that instilled instant resentment among the ranks of agents.

'These were people who had no law enforcement experience and who had not paid their dues on the street,' Don Bassett remarks. 'There was more respect for an agent than they have today. In the old days when an agent unfolded his government badge, people would say 'Wow'. Today we've lost a lot of that.'

John Otto, who served as acting director between Webster and Sessions, is equally unambiguous about the ousted FBI chief. 'What the bureau cannot tolerate is people trashing it, and that is what Sessions has done. He put himself and his own interests before the bureau, and that is taboo.'

Morale can be rebuilt. Harder to tackle may be a perception that the bureau's vaunted political independence may also have been compromised.

On Friday, Judge Sessions claimed, during a round of television shows, that he had not volunteered his resignation because it would have been an acknowledgement of the politicisation of his post. 'If the bureau is politicised or in danger of losing its independence, I did not do it,' he said. It was under Mr Sessions, none the less, that the FBI allowed itself to become embroiled in the White House's botched attempt in May to sack its Travel Office. Clearly overstepping the normal divide between itself and the political fray, the bureau offered public confirmation that it was investigating evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

In what became dubbed 'Travelgate', the White House subseqently retreated from its accusations.

'It was just inconceivable that that could have happened,' says Carter Cornick, a former special agent who supervised the investigation into the 1983 American Embassy bombing in Beirut. 'Rules about talking to those people in the White House are written in stone. We just can't afford to be perceived to be used that way.'

There is delight verging on ecstasy within the bureau over the nomination of Judge Freeh, described by Mr Clinton as a 'law enforcement legend'. Mr Freeh - whose confirmation is considered a virtual certainty - is 43, spent six years as an FBI street agent and is well known for his investigation of a racketeering case on New York's waterfront and in cracking the case of a Mafia-run drugs ring known as the 'Pizza Connection'.

Mr Freeh, however, may have a hard task re-establishing the bureau's balance. Other problems await him.

A programme initiated by Mr Sessions - it is controversial within the bureau though strongly supported by Congress and minority groups - to increase the numbers of black and Hispanic agents is incomplete. Today, however, only 5 per cent of agents are black, compared with up to 50 per cent in some city police departments. Severe budget cuts are threatened as new investigative priorities are being proposed, ranging from combating 'car-jacking' to resurgent international terrorism.

There will also be the challenge of repairing the bureau's public image, which, according to Mr Cornick, has been damaged to the extent that it has become the butt of Washington jokes. 'That is when the situation for me goes beyond the Pale,' he said.

But then, by most books, Mr Freeh does not have a hard act to follow. Take the reaction of one agent serving in an FBI field office. Mr Freeh's appointment was 'like a rebirth', he said. Under Judge Sessions 'all the momentum was bled out of us'.

(Photographs omitted)

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