The FBI gets its man. It does not get its due. The neglect of this crucial and celebrated agency is one of the unspoken scandals of a presidential campaign heavy on rhetoric about drugs but empty of specifics. It's a bigger scandal than the furloughed Willie Horton because it goes to the heart of this country's ability to combat the drug epidemic and its attendant crime wave that threaten the destruction of our inner cities, corrupt our children and endanger urban life in America.
Here is one example of what the FBI is up against. Several years ago, it assigned several undercover agents to work their way up through a drug family operating in Sicily and the United States. Against the odds, they succeeded. They broke the ring in March. It was the largest drug bust in America's history. And yet that coup reduces the threat only minimally because there are no fewer than 150 organized groups operating drug rings out of Sicily and 250 more operating south of the border, principally in Colombia and Mexico.
The FBI needs more resources, but take a look at New York City as an example of what we have allowed to happen. In New York, the FBI has many duties. It must keep a counterintelligence eye on the U.N. and the missions of hostile foreign countries. It tracks corruption on Wall Street and tries to fight organized crime and the drug rackets. It is the most important field office--a natural magnet, you would think--for every ambitious G-man. Think again. The FBI cannot get its own personnel to staff New York adequately.
Pay is a big reason. The FBI is an elite agency of professionals, all of whom are college graduates with some experience in earlier careers and many of whom possess graduate degrees. They all have top security clearances. Yet in New York, an entry-level FBI agent earns $31,500, including overtime capped at 25 percent of base pay. This compares to a freshman New York police officer, who earns about $40,000, including average overtime of $10,000 a year. The gap increases with seniority. To illustrate how FBI pay has eroded: In 1951, an agent's salary was the same as that of a police captain; today, it's only 50 percent. Furthermore, police don't contribute to their own retirement and medical or dental insurance as do FBI agents. This salary differential is not limited to New York but applies nationwide. In a survey of 89 California-based law-enforcement agencies, the FBI ranked 84th in pay.
The results are predictable. For the last five years, the FBI has been unable to hire suitable officers away from the New York Police Department. Many agents who work in New York are ordered to move there. The higher cost of living is a major deterrent. For example, high housing costs force them to live a long distance from the city, disrupting family life. In addition to the physical and emotional drain of the long commute, they are too far from their working bases to respond quickly in emergencies.
The consequences have been dramatic. In 1984, 11 special agents resigned from the New York office. Last year, the New York office lost nearly four times that number--41 by resignation--and 11 others refused a posting there. The erosion continues in 1988, with many of the New York office's most experienced agents seeking transfers or employment in the higher-paying private sector.
It is no wonder that the FBI office in New York now has 150 vacancies and has had as many as 300. Belatedly, the plight of the FBI has been recognized by Congress in a bill that provides a 25 percent cost-of-living pay adjustment and other incentives for agents in New York. This permits the FBI to begin to rebuild the office. But it is only a small start in bridging the chasm between a government that preaches the values of home and family and practices policies that diminish the law enforcement necessary to nourish those values.
America's criminal-justice system is in deep trouble: Its overcrowded prisons too often force its judges to grant lenient sentences or even probation to convicted felons. Taxes, Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, are the price we pay for our civilization. Without security, without a sense of confidence that the streets and playgrounds of our cities can be enjoyed with no fear of crime or bodily harm, we do not have a civilization but a series of settlements that somehow survive.