WASHINGTON -- The FBI plans to open offices in Kabul, Jakarta and eight other foreign capitals as part of a decadelong overseas expansion that officials say is crucial to meet the global threat of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.
The blueprint calls for adding 30 FBI personnel, including 17 agents, to the nearly 200 stationed at 46 locations around the world.
Their importance was demonstrated the day of the Sept. 11 attacks, the FBI says, when agents in dozens of cities were tracking down leads with the cooperation of local authorities in Germany, Canada, Great Britain and elsewhere.
"Had we not had those relationships, it would have been a question not of days in covering leads but probably weeks and months," said Roderick Beverly, special agent in charge of the FBI's Office of International Operations.
Since the fall of 2001, about 500 agents and 200 support people have been working overseas on the terrorism investigation, along with the FBI agents known as permanent legal attaches, or "legats," who were already there. The agents are often directly involved with interrogation of terrorist suspects or criminals and sometimes submit questions to those doing the interviews, including CIA officers.
Legats feed information gleaned from the interviews back to the United States for further investigation, sometimes resulting in more suspects being put under surveillance or homes being searched.
While they work more closely than ever with the CIA, these FBI agents also differ in that they do not operate covertly and are involved more with investigations than with intelligence-gathering.
The worldwide FBI search for Saudi-born Adnan El Shukrijumah, a suspected al-Qaida operative with family in Florida, resulted in part from the overseas interrogation of al-Qaida senior planner Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, officials say.
FBI director Robert Mueller told Congress recently that the bureau's agents abroad have proved invaluable in several recent investigations, including the October bombing of a nightclub in Bali, Indonesia, that killed more than 200 people and the fatal shooting of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman, Jordan.
Legat offices, which date to World War II, numbered only about two dozen as recently as the early 1990s. Louis Freeh, FBI director at the time, pushed the expansion, traveling to Moscow and other cities to open offices to tackle organized crime, drug trafficking, kidnapping and other international crimes.
One problem with the rapid expansion is a lack of foreign language skills, especially compared with the State Department's diplomats and the CIA. Mueller told Congress on Thursday he is working to upgrade the program so agents have better language abilities.
If the $47-million expansion is approved by Congress, Beverly said, FBI offices would be established in Sarajevo, Bosnia; Jakarta, Indonesia; Tashkent, Uzbekistan; Kabul, Afghanistan, and Belgrade, Serbia. Existing offices would be expanded in Ottawa, Seoul, London, Berlin and Moscow.