Federal Bureau of Investigation Legal Attaché Program*
Report No. 04-18
Office of the Inspector General
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) operates offices known as Legal Attachés (Legats) in 46 locations around the world.1 Special agents assigned to these offices work with their counterparts in foreign countries to obtain information for the FBI on crimes and criminals that could harm U.S. citizens or interests. The globalization of crime and terrorism in recent years, as well as congressional expansion of the FBI’s extraterritorial authority, has resulted in a significant growth in the FBI’s overseas operations in the last decade.
The 46 Legat offices are staffed by 119 special agents and 75 support personnel. Most offices are staffed by a Legal Attaché, one Assistant Legal Attaché, known as an ALAT, and one Office Assistant, although a few of the larger offices have ten or more permanent staff. Fiscal year 2003 expenditures for the Legal Attaché program totaled $43.7 million, up from $27.6 million for fiscal year 1997, or an increase of about 58 percent. Plans are under way to expand the FBI’s overseas presence. Five new Legat offices and three sub-offices in existing Legats are in the process of being opened or are under consideration and additional staff have been added to other offices.
The Office of International Operations (OIO) at FBI Headquarters oversees the Legal Attaché program. OIO provides managerial oversight as well as administrative and logistical support to Legal Attaché offices and employees and their dependents. In addition, it maintains contact with other federal agencies operating in the international arena, INTERPOL, and foreign police and security officers assigned to embassies (diplomatic missions) in the United States.2
This audit examined the type of activities performed by Legal Attaché offices, the effectiveness of the offices in establishing liaisons with foreign law enforcement agencies and coordinating activities with other U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies stationed overseas, the criteria and process used by the FBI to determine the placement of offices, the oversight and management of existing offices, and the processes for selecting and training FBI personnel for Legat positions. We reviewed Legat operations at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. and at Legal Attaché offices in Berlin, Germany; Ottawa, Canada; Pretoria, South Africa; and Tokyo, Japan.
Legal Attaché Mission and Priorities
The primary mission of Legal Attachés is to facilitate and support FBI investigative interests in the overseas arena that pertain to threats against the United States, its persons or interests. The Legal Attachés establish, maintain, and enhance liaison with foreign law enforcement agencies in order to accomplish this mission. By working cooperatively with foreign police agencies, the Legal Attaché offices seek to build networks that prevent crime or, alternatively, that ensure access to the information the FBI needs to locate and extradite international criminals and terrorists and obtain evidence for their prosecution.
Legal Attaché staff may become directly involved in specific investigations, but they have no law enforcement authority in foreign countries. Thus, investigations are usually conducted jointly with foreign law enforcement agencies in accordance with local laws and procedures established by the host country. In addition, because investigative activities could have a potential impact on the conduct of U.S. foreign relations, these investigations must be coordinated with the U.S. Department of State.
Legal Attachés also are expected to coordinate their investigative activities with other U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), that operate in the same country or regions to exchange information and to avoid duplication and overlap.
In addition, Legal Attachés provide or arrange for training for foreign police officials in locations such as the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia, and the International Law Enforcement Academy in Budapest, Hungary. Programs offered at these two locations are designed to strengthen ties between U.S. and foreign law enforcement officials. For example, graduates of the National Academy have an international alumni network and Legal Attachés are expected to maintain close contact with the alumni in their territory.
The investigative priorities of Legal Attaché offices mirror those of the FBI as a whole. The FBI’s strategic plan identifies three functional areas, or tiers, that prioritize the variety of threats it must address.
Legal Attaché investigative efforts abroad cover all of these tiers, but similar to the FBI as a whole since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, their number one priority is counterterrorism investigations and activities.
Legal Attaché Offices Reviewed
Although in a broad sense the mission of each Legat office is the same, the specific activities of offices vary because of the differing political and cultural settings and the nature of the criminal activity that occurs in the countries or regions in which they operate. Thus, no single Legat office can be considered typical. Consequently, we selected Legats Ottawa, Berlin, Pretoria, and Tokyo in order to obtain a cross section of offices, taking into consideration factors such as the number of staff assigned, number of countries covered, geographic location, workload, the nature of the criminal activity, and ongoing terrorism-related work.
The Legat office in Ottawa has responsibility for FBI liaison matters in Canada, the second largest country in the world in terms of land area. Legat Ottawa’s workload is the highest of all Legal Attaché offices due primarily to the common, lengthy, and largely unguarded border with the United States. The Legal Attaché office in Berlin has responsibility for liaison matters in the Federal Republic of Germany. Because one of the key terrorist cells responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks was located in Hamburg, a significant portion of Legat Berlin’s workload involved the PENTTBOM investigation.3 The Legat office in Pretoria, South Africa, has responsibility for FBI liaison matters in 15 countries in southern Africa and focuses on counterterrorism matters, organized crime, and fugitive extraditions. Legat Tokyo has responsibility for liaison matters in Japan and the Republic of China (Taiwan). Historically, organized crime has been the top priority of the Tokyo Legat, but in recent years the priority has been counterterrorism and counterintelligence.
Legal Attaché Office Workload
A key function of the FBI’s Legal Attaché offices involves handling requests for investigative assistance, referred to as investigative leads, from FBI headquarters and field offices. These requests range from simple tasks such as tracing telephone numbers or obtaining copies of documents to more complex and time-consuming activities such as tracking financial transactions, locating suspected criminals and terrorists, or interviewing individuals as part of an investigation.
In recent years, the number of investigative leads handled by Legats has grown significantly. In the 5-year period between fiscal years 1998 and 2002, the number of leads rose from 20,267 to 53,105, an increase of about 162 percent. This increase is primarily due to the growth of international crimes and terrorism, but also because the number of Legat offices has grown. Overall, Legats appear to have been able to handle the increasing workload. Legat Ottawa, however, has a significant volume of pending leads — a longstanding problem that the FBI has not addressed adequately.
Legat Ottawa has a heavy workload and receives a large volume of leads relative to other Legat offices because its proximity to the United States results in it playing a substantial role in supporting many FBI investigative matters. This heavy workload has resulted in a backlog of pending leads; as of June 30, 2003, Legat Ottawa had 1,134 leads pending, the highest number of pending leads of any Legal Attaché office.4 In contrast, the other Legat offices averaged 104 pending investigative leads as of the same date. Previous reviews conducted of the Ottawa Legal Attaché office by the FBI’s Inspection Division have reported that the office was having difficulty addressing its heavy workload.
The FBI has attempted to manage the workload in Ottawa primarily through the use of short-term temporary duty (TDY) staff, but the backlog of pending leads remains. In addition, the use of TDY staff, in our opinion, does not appear to be an effective solution. Most of the temporary personnel are assigned for 30 to 60 days. The high turnover is disruptive to the operation because, for example, agents often return to the United States before completing work on many of their leads. In 2001, the FBI opened a sub-office in Vancouver and has been approved to open another sub-office in Toronto. While these sub-offices may help alleviate some of the workload in Ottawa, they also are likely to generate additional work as new liaisons are established. In FY 2002, an additional staff person was reallocated from the Mexico City Legal Attaché office to Legat Ottawa and a second staff person is expected to be added in FY 2004 for a total of ten permanent positions. However, we are not optimistic the increased staffing will be sufficient to reduce the backlog.
Controls Over Temporary Duty Travel
By statute and Presidential Directive, the U.S. Ambassador has responsibility for the actions of all U.S. government officials in the country in which he or she is accredited. As part of carrying out this responsibility, Department of State rules require that all U.S. government employees obtain approval from the U.S. Ambassador before traveling to a foreign country to conduct official business. This approval is known as a country clearance. Legal Attachés are responsible for keeping Ambassadors informed of all FBI employees traveling to their countries, but we found that both Legat Ottawa’s and Berlin’s records of country clearances were incomplete. In addition, the failure of some FBI staff to obtain appropriate country clearances has been a longstanding problem and, on at least two occasions since 2000, the FBI has issued memoranda to its employees emphasizing the importance of obtaining country clearances. Our review of travelers to Canada between October 2001 and April 2003 indicates that the problem persists. The FBI could not locate country clearances for 135, or 32 percent, of the 422 FBI employees who traveled to Canada during that period. We also found that the FBI could not locate country clearances for nine FBI staff who had traveled to Germany.
Effectiveness of Liaison Activities
Based on our interviews with officials from numerous law enforcement and security agencies in Canada, Germany, Japan, and South Africa, we concluded that the Legal Attachés in these countries were maintaining effective foreign liaisons. Most of the officials we interviewed were complimentary of the Legal Attachés and the working relationship that existed between their respective offices. Many provided examples of how they personally, or their agencies in general, had worked with the Legal Attaché staff to solve international crimes. Officials in the two countries where English was not the primary language — Japan and Germany — often noted how impressed they were with the ability of Legal Attaché staff to communicate fluently in the native language and emphasized the positive impact this ability had on fostering a close working relationship. In addition, many officials spoke highly of the training provided or arranged by the Legal Attachés. The following examples illustrate their points.
Officials from the National Central Bureau component of SAPS that maintain liaison with INTERPOL stated that they worked closely with the Legat office on extradition matters, shared information on criminals, and conducted criminal checks for the Legat. They commented that the Legat personnel were very professional, accessible, and responsive.
Not all the comments from foreign officials were positive, however. Some German and Canadian officials we interviewed were critical of the FBI’s heavy use of temporary duty personnel. For example, the head of the BKA’s Terrorism Division told us that in contrast to other foreign law enforcement agencies, [CLASSIFIED INFORMATION REDACTED]. Similarly, CSIS officials in Canada pointed out that the Legat appeared to be short-handed and, as a result, often relied on temporary FBI personnel to fill in the gaps. They added that reliance on TDY staff inhibited the establishment of long-term relationships that they believed were especially important in the intelligence business. Thus, they were not as comfortable sharing information with FBI personnel on temporary duty and with whom they had not developed such a relationship.
One difference between Legat Ottawa and the other Legats we visited is that, because of Canada’s proximity to the United States, FBI field offices near the border have for many years worked closely with Canadian police agencies. This creates a potential for problems if the Legat, who is responsible for all FBI activities in Canada, is not kept apprised of what the FBI domestic field offices are doing.
The Chief of the Toronto Police Service told us that over the years he had developed a strong working relationship with the FBI’s Buffalo, New York, field office and, consequently, preferred to deal with agents from that office rather than the Legat staff in Ottawa. The Legat told us that in the past the Buffalo field office had nominated Toronto law enforcement officials to participate in FBI National Academy training programs without his input or concurrence. The Buffalo field office, however, sought his input after he raised that concern. Nevertheless, the Legat said he still believed he was, in effect, competing against the Buffalo field office in providing training slots at the FBI National Academy for Canadian law enforcement officials. FBI Headquarters officials told us that the recent establishment of a Border Liaison Officer in the Buffalo field office is designed to ensure that appropriate coordination occurs between Buffalo and Legat Ottawa.
Determining whether the Buffalo field office appropriately coordinated its contacts in Canada with the Legat was beyond the scope of our review. However, the police chief’s comments raise a concern. In our opinion, the role of the Legat could be diluted if Buffalo field office personnel are not coordinating their activities in Canada with the Legat. Further, if the Toronto sub-office is ultimately opened, the FBI could be perceived by Canadian authorities as being disjointed if both the Legat sub-office and Buffalo staff are meeting with the same Canadian authorities and not coordinating their efforts. In addition, other FBI field offices near the Canadian border may have similar contacts with their Canadian counterparts, all of which, in our opinion, should be coordinated with Legat Ottawa.
Coordination with Other U.S. Agencies Overseas
Legal Attaché personnel are considered part of the U.S. Embassy staff, and the Legal Attaché office is physically located on the premises of a U.S. Embassy. As part of their duties, FBI Legal Attachés often need to interact with Ambassadors and their staff, as well as with representatives of other U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies that station personnel abroad. Besides FBI Legal Attaché staff, an embassy may have law enforcement representatives from agencies such as the DEA; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Secret Service; and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. [CLASSIFIED INFORMATION REDACTED].
Overlapping interests and jurisdictions among these agencies could be harmful to U.S. interests and run the risk of antagonizing the host government. Moreover, a lack of coordination among law enforcement agencies abroad could be detrimental to the ability of the United States to effectively combat international crime and terrorism. To avoid such problems, statutes as well as agreements between agencies typically delineate their responsibilities overseas, and U.S. Ambassadors are responsible for ensuring that overall law enforcement activities are coordinated. In addition, the FBI’s Legal Attaché Manual emphasizes the importance of maintaining effective liaisons with other U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies abroad.
In the four countries where we reviewed Legat operations, the Ambassadors, their staff, and representatives from selected U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies uniformly described their interactions with the Legal Attaché offices as positive. The consensus among the officials we interviewed was that Legat personnel in these four countries readily collaborated and shared information on law enforcement matters. Law enforcement representatives told us that especially since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, they were working closer with their counterparts in the embassies than ever before. Some pointed out that even before September 11 the rivalries that based on their experiences seemed common among law enforcement agencies in the United States appeared much less prevalent in an embassy setting. None of the U.S. law enforcement officials we spoke with expressed concerns about duplication of effort between Legat activities and their agencies’ activities.
FBI Oversight of Legal Attaché Program
Based on our review, we found that the FBI periodically assesses the need for offices abroad and adequately justifies the opening of new Legal Attaché offices and expanding existing Legat offices. The FBI’s assessments consider factors such as specific terrorist and criminal activity in a country or region that threatens the United States, commitment of the host country to cooperate with the FBI, analysis of workloads in existing offices, and the availability of funding. Assessments of the location and composition of Legat offices are an ongoing and normal part of headquarters’ oversight of the Legat program. These assessments have resulted in the opening of new offices in areas previously covered by existing offices, adding staff to existing offices to address the workload, and consolidating offices when the workload no longer justified keeping an office open.
Periodically, Congress has asked the FBI to provide justifications for existing and planned Legal Attaché offices. We reviewed reports that were provided to Congress in 1999 and 2003 and found them to be comprehensive and, for the four Legats we reviewed, consistent with what we found when we reviewed these offices. For example, the 2003 report concluded that the staffing levels in Legats Pretoria and Tokyo were adequate for the workload. In contrast, the heavy use of temporary duty personnel in Legats Berlin and Ottawa was expensive and did not provide needed continuity in more complex investigations. Thus, the report proposed increasing the permanent staff at both locations to better cope with the workload.
The FBI uses various methods to monitor and oversee Legat offices. For example, each Legal Attaché office is required to prepare and submit a Legal Attaché Annual Accomplishment Report (LAR). The LAR reports provide detailed information about the office’s operations and accomplishments. To better keep abreast of Legats’ workload, OIO recently began analyzing each Legat office’s pending leads on a quarterly basis. The results of the analysis are provided to the applicable Legat office and problems identified must be explained or resolved.
OIO officials told us they maintain regular telephone and e-mail contact with Legat offices. OIO managers also meet regularly to discuss significant issues or problems pertaining to Legat offices. They obtain feedback on Legat offices from Ambassadors and domestic and foreign law enforcement and intelligence personnel visiting FBI Headquarters. In addition, OIO hosts an annual conference in Washington, D.C., attended by all the Legal Attachés, to discuss relevant topics, including Legat performance expectations.
The FBI’s Inspection Division conducts in-depth reviews of the activities of individual Legal Attaché offices, normally on a 3-year cycle. The inspections include a review of management issues, staffing, administration, liaisons, workload, and training matters. The reports comment on the effectiveness and efficiency of the Legal Attachés. We followed up on 26 of the 31 findings from the latest Inspection Division reviews of Legats Ottawa, Berlin, Pretoria, and Tokyo. We concluded that the FBI had taken appropriate corrective action for most of the findings, with the exception of a finding related to the staffing problems in Ottawa. In addition, documentation was lacking that corrective action had been taken related to changing safe combinations in Ottawa and conducting unannounced cash counts of the imprest fund in Tokyo.
OIO managers told us that they made site visits to the Legal Attaché offices to review operations. However, these reviews were conducted sporadically. We found documentation supporting OIO site visits for only two of the four offices we visited. OIO officials acknowledged that site visits needed to be conducted more systematically and said they were developing a plan to review offices on a regular basis starting in FY 2004.
Legat Selection and Training
According to OIO officials, the FBI seeks candidates for Legat and ALAT positions who have broad knowledge of FBI programs and who are skilled supervisors. Among other things, the individuals should possess sound judgment and common sense and require minimal guidance and direction from FBI Headquarters. In addition, these individuals should be proficient in one or more languages used in an office’s assigned territory.
Applicants for Legat openings are ranked by a Legat Screening Panel (LSP) consisting of FBI senior managers and analysts against the qualifications contained in the vacancy announcement. The top-ranked candidates are referred to a second panel, known as the Special Agent Mid-Level Management Selection (SAMMS) Board. The SAMMS Board may agree with the LSP rankings or come up with its own ranking based on a review of the candidates. The SAMMS Board recommends to the FBI Director the top three candidates in rank order. The FBI Director interviews one or more of the Legat or ALAT candidates and makes the final selection. We reviewed the files for 13 recent Legat and ALAT vacancy announcements and concluded that the FBI was following its procedures.
FBI officials told us that in the past when the Legat program was growing rapidly, some individuals who did not have sufficient management or supervisory experience were selected for Legat positions. Officials believed that the current selection process, which places considerable weight on supervisory experience, should help avoid some of the problems that occurred in the past. Nevertheless, misconduct by some Legat employees is a concern. An FBI Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR)official remarked that, in his opinion, the number of OPR investigations of Legat personnel was higher than would be expected given their small number and attributed this problem to past staffing decisions. This official added that Legat staff represent the FBI overseas and should be role models rather than subjects of OPR investigations. OPR officials identified 13 staff against whom 12 investigations were initiated during the 3-year period between September 1999 and September 2002.6 Our review of the files on these investigations, which included allegations of voucher fraud, misuse of position, and security violations, revealed that they resulted in five suspensions, three letters of censure, two counseling, one dismissal, and one resignation.
The FBI Director has commented that he wants future top managers in the FBI to have international experience. In our discussions with officials and employees in FBI Headquarters and the four Legat offices we reviewed, many said that historically Legat positions were not considered career enhancing. This perception appears to be changing, as more agents are being sent overseas to work on major investigations and gain first-hand experience about the nature of a Legat’s work. In FY 2003, according to OIO officials, 40 returning Legat staff were promoted — a significantly higher number than had occurred in the past.
Because the FBI’s Inspection Division was conducting a detailed review of the pre-deployment training program for newly selected Legat staff concurrent with our audit, we limited our work in this area. We asked selected Legat staff at the four offices we reviewed about the training they had received in preparation for their assignment and in general they had positive comments about this training. These views were in contrast to what the FBI Inspection Division was told by a focus group of both former and current Legat staff as reported in its July 2003 report on the pre-deployment training program.7 Focus group participants expressed dissatisfaction with briefings they had received as part of the training from headquarters operational divisions. The focus group participants also indicated that they did not believe the pre-deployment training program adequately prepared newly selected Legat staff for the difficulties of adjusting to life overseas. Other issues noted in the FBI’s Inspection report included that funding for the pre-deployment training was insufficient and training facilities were inadequate. The FBI’s Inspection Division made 12 recommendations to improve pre-deployment training for Legat staff.
Based on our observations in Legat Tokyo, language proficiency is critical in fostering close relationships with foreign liaisons. According to a Language Services Section official, employees selected for Legat positions typically have about 3 months to work on language training before they are transferred to a Legat office. In our opinion, three months is not sufficient time to learn a foreign language, a view echoed in the FBI Inspection Division’s July 2003 report. Our analysis of the language skills of the 97 FBI staff stationed in countries where English is not the primary or secondary language revealed that 22 of the staff, or about 23 percent, had no language skill applicable to the host country or the territory covered by the Legat office. In addition, 14 agents had some language skills pertaining to that area, but did not meet the oral language goals as stated in the FBI’s Legal Attaché Manual. In total, 36, or over one-third, of the 97 Legat staff assigned to these countries did not meet the FBI’s language goals.
Tours of Duty
To ensure that FBI personnel do not lose contact and familiarity with the changing practices and priorities of the FBI, as well as concerns that extended tours of duty abroad could result in a security risk, the FBI places limits on the length of time staff can remain abroad. FBI personnel are limited to no more than five consecutive years abroad in one location or six consecutive years in two locations, although exceptions to these limits are permitted when necessary to meet the needs of the FBI. Further, according to an OIO official, prior to 1997, no tour of duty limits existed for support staff.
Our analysis found that some Legat staff have remained abroad for long periods of time. We examined the tours of duty for 370 FBI agents and support personnel assigned to Legat offices since October 1, 1996. Our analysis indicates 21 FBI employees had remained overseas for more than 6 consecutive years. An additional eight Legat staff will be overseas for more than 6 years if they complete their current tours of duty.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Increasingly, crimes and terrorist acts that occur abroad impact the United States and its citizens, and the FBI’s Legal Attaché program plays a key role in detecting, deterring, and investigating these crimes. Based on our review and first-hand observations at four Legat offices, we believe that the Legat program in general and the four offices we reviewed in particular make a significant contribution in these efforts.
The many law enforcement and intelligence officials we spoke with in these countries gave the Legats high marks for fostering strong relationships. In addition, Legats appeared to coordinate effectively with their U.S. law enforcement counterparts stationed in U.S. embassies and were highly regarded by all four U.S. Ambassadors.
There has been a significant increase in the number of leads directed to Legat offices in the past five years. While most Legat offices have been able to cope with the workload, Legat Ottawa has consistently had a high volume of pending leads. The FBI’s efforts to alleviate this problem, primarily through temporary duty staff, has had marginal success. In addition, our review of FBI personnel traveling to Canada on temporary duty assignments indicated that stronger controls are needed to ensure that required country clearances are obtained and complete records of these clearances are maintained.
Based on our review, the FBI’s process for assessing the need for new Legat offices and realigning or closing existing offices appears adequate. The FBI also monitors the offices’ operations and activities and is taking steps to strengthen this oversight. In addition, the FBI has a reasonable process in place for selecting agents for Legat positions. But both the FBI Inspection Division and our review indicate that improvements are needed in the training program for newly selected Legat staff. We noted that over one-third of Legat staff did not meet the FBI’s foreign language proficiency goals as stated in the Legal Attaché Manual. Finally, we found that some Legat staff have remained abroad for long periods of time. While extensions to tour of duty limits may sometimes be necessary, we believe these extensions should be kept to a minimum.
Based on the issues identified in this report, we offer six recommendations to improve the operation of the Legal Attaché program. Among the recommendations are that the FBI should:
* BECAUSE THIS REPORT CONTAINED INFORMATION CLASSIFIED AS "SECRET" BY THE FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION, WE REDACTED (WHITED OUT) THAT INFORMATION FROM THE VERSION OF THE REPORT THAT IS BEING PUBLICLY RELEASED. WHERE SUCH INFORMATION WAS REDACTED IS NOTED IN THE REPORT.