How the FBI’s Public Access Line Works, or Doesn’t

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Until FBI Director Christopher Wray acknowledged that the bureau’s tip-line had failed to act on crucial information about Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz more than a month before last week’s massacre, the call center had been operating in near-anonymity from rural West Virginia, USA Today reports. Nearly four million telephone calls and emails have poured into the so-called Public Access Line since the operations were consolidated six years ago. The program, which grew out of the FBI’s effort to combat massive fraud spawned by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, was aimed at centralizing separate call centers that had been functioning at all 56 field offices. After the tip-line’s breakdown in the Cruz case, it is now the focus of an internal FBI review. Lawmakers have called for congressional inquiries.

Calls of all kinds come to local FBI field offices, where they are sorted by topic. Those with leads on potential crimes or threats to public safety are transferred to the call center in Clarksburg, WV. Former Assistant FBI Director Stephen Morris, who once oversaw the operation, said more than 100 staffers reviewed the calls not only for the raw material but also for the source’s credibility. The process can be largely subjective, Morris said, as analysts assess the credibility of the source and content of the lead. When a tip is determined to have investigative merit, it is routed to a field office for more investigation. Nearly 98 percent – or 1.4 million – reports to the tip-line in 2017 did not warrant follow-up. Morris said analysts field calls that have no connection to threats or criminal activity. He says some callers ask “why they haven’t gotten their social security check. Some callers are abusive and analysts have to sort through that to determine if there is important information there. It’s not an easy job.”

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