Beset by missteps, the bureau has lost credibility - a problem for the next director.
The startling revelations that the FBI mishandled evidence in the Timothy McVeigh case raise new questions about an agency that once enjoyed almost mythic status in American culture for its integrity and efficiency.
After a series of embarrassments in high-profile cases - from the botched raid in Waco, Texas, to the bungled investigation of nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee - the nation's premier law-enforcement agency faces growing pressure for more external oversight and more internal reform.
Already, as a result of the McVeigh case, President Bush's search for a new FBI director has taken on fresh urgency. The next head, to replace outgoing FBI Director Louis Freeh, will face the delicate task of trying to restore public confidence in the agency and boosting morale among the rank and file. "Whoever it is will have his work cut out for him," says Oliver Revell, a retired 30-year veteran of the FBI. "But it is fixable."
The disclosure Friday that the FBI had found thousands of documents that it hadn't turned over to the defense in the McVeigh case is focusing attention on the bureau's record-keeping and investigative procedures in particular. It comes after a string of errors in recent years involving the withholding of evidence in major cases.
Two years ago, for instance, congressional leaders and defense attorneys accused the agency of failing to turn over internal memos suggesting that Mr. Lee, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, had not handed over missile technology to the Chinese, as had been alleged. Most charges against Lee were later dropped amid misleading testimony by the FBI.