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The FBI's high-stakes makeover

Bureau will put 500 agents on counterterrorism and have 'super squads' at HQ. Critics call for deeper changes.

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Director Robert Mueller's plan to transform the Federal Bureau of Investigation into America's premier terror-fighting force could represent one of the most profound overhauls of the venerable agency since J. Edgar Hoover professionalized it in the early 1920s.

That's because the proposed changes would fundamentally alter two of the FBI's defining aspects: its mission and its organization. Long seen as a national police force focused on capturing traditional criminals, the agency would become more of a domestic CIA, with the goal of disrupting terrorist organizations. And Washington headquarters would gain more control over regional field offices, changing the agency's current decentralized power structure.

Some critics worry the plan might result in an upsurge of bank robberies and other domestic crimes. Others charge the plan doesn't go far enough – and that the FBI must focus on sharing terrorism intelligence with other federal agencies, not centralizing it in FBI headquarters.

Yet boosters say Mr. Mueller's plan demonstrates the bureau's gymnastic flexibility – one of its great strengths.

"One of the beauties of the FBI is that you can shift agents between terrorism, counterintelligence, crime, and other fields, depending on the needs of the day," says Ronald Kessler, author of two books on the agency.

Indeed, over the years, the FBI has adjusted to many new roles – from chasing bank robbers in the 1930s and '40s to tracking drug kingpins and terrorists in the '80s and '90s. In fact, in 1998, then-Director Louis Freeh declared terrorism the FBI's top priority. After Sept. 11, Mueller is clearly moving toward making that goal a reality.

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