WASHINGTON -- The FBI needs to improve how it handles tips and leads about people who may carry out violent acts, including developing a comprehensive strategy to evaluate whether individuals with mental health problems pose legitimate threats to public safety, according to a Justice Department watchdog report released Wednesday.
The report from the inspector general's office identifies what it says are weakness and inconsistencies in how the FBI, across its 56 field offices, evaluates tips on subjects known as homegrown violent extremists. Those are people who are motivated by jihadist ideology and who operate in the U.S. independent of designated foreign terrorist organizations.
The report underscores the FBI's longstanding challenges in preventing violence from people whose actions and ideology may be disturbing without actually violating federal law. Those difficulties attracted fresh scrutiny in recent years after several people the FBI once investigated but did not arrest because they had not broken the law later went on to commit attacks, including Omar Mateen, the gunman in the 2016 nightclub rampage in Orlando, Florida.
FBI field offices across the country studied in 2017 whether they had properly handled terrorism-related tips over the prior three years. That internal review found problems in the way the FBI had handled 6% of those potential terror threats. But even after that review, many of the fumbled tips and leads were not followed up on for more than a year, according to the inspector general's report.
“As a result, potential terrorist threats were not mitigated for more than 1 year,” the report says.
The report says that after the inspector general's office asked about the lack of action, the FBI re-examined the potential threat and in some cases opened an investigation.
In addition, the report says, the FBI has cited an increase in the number of reports it receives on people with potential mental health problems but still lacks a consistent and comprehensive strategy for dealing with that information. In some cases, the FBI refers the individuals for mental health evaluations and in others refers them to family members for monitoring, according to the report.
The challenge is compounded because many individuals who are reported to the FBI for suspicious behavior or radical ideology are instead dealing with mental illness and are not actually a threat to national security.
The report's seven recommendations, all of which the FBI says it agrees with, are largely bureaucratic in nature relating to how field offices process and categorize information they receive on potential threats. But the issue is significant for the FBI and Justice Department given that so-called homegrown violent extremists are blamed for more than 20 attacks since Sept. 11, 2001.
In several of those attacks, the FBI spent months scrutinizing the eventual perpetrator but closed out its inquiry after either not finding a crime or a basis for continued investigation.
“This is a particularly challenging area for the FBI because of the need to preserve constitutional protections while maintaining national security," Inspector General Michael Horowitz said in a video statement accompanying the report.
The report focuses on the lowest and least intrusive level of investigation the FBI does. Agents conduct what are known as “assessments" when they receive information about a suspicious person. The FBI may check databases and conduct interviews while performing an assessment, but agents cannot use more sophisticated tools, such as electronic surveillance.
If the FBI does not find basis to continue investigating, agents typically close out the assessment without further action. But if they find grounds for additional scrutiny, they can bump up the probe to what is known as a preliminary investigation, which requires a factual basis to believe there could be a threat to national security.
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