WASHINGTON - The number of FBI intelligence officers has grown almost fivefold during the Clinton administration, but internal security and terrorism cases accounted for only 45 of the FBI's 12,730 convictions in 1998, a Syracuse University research center reported Sunday.
The research center cautioned that convictions may not be the best measure of the effectiveness of the FBI intelligence effort, and an FBI executive said the small number may reflect the bureau's success in preventing actual terrorist attacks.
FBI Director Louis Freeh has publicly stated that the bureau is putting top priority on thwarting foreign spies and preventing terrorist attacks, but hard data about the change in emphasis has been sparse because so many of the operations are classified.
Citing federal employment data, Syracuse's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) said the total of FBI intelligence officers increased from 224 in 1992 to 1,025 in 1999, but their exact duties are not known.
Assistant FBI Director John Collingwood said in an interview that these are intelligence analysts and that their increase is mirrored by an increase in field agents assigned to hunt spies and battle terrorists but that those personnel figures remain secret.
The new intelligence analysts were hired ''as part of our effort to use our information more effectively across programs, as opposed to limiting its use within one program,'' Collingwood said in an interview.
Last year, the Justice Department inspector general criticized the national security division for not sharing key intelligence information about China.
So Freeh carved two new divisions out of the national security division: a counterterrorism division and an investigative support division. Collingwood said analysts are assigned to all three, but most are in the investigative support division.
''It's all part of our effort to play a larger role in the intelligence community in counterintelligence and counterterrorism activity, to identify, prevent and disrupt terrorists,'' Collingwood said.
The TRAC study said Justice Department records show that in 1998 there were 37 terrorism convictions and eight internal security convictions from FBI cases. There was no earlier Justice data on terrorism cases because the category was only recently employed, but national security convictions totaled seven each in 1992 and 1993, four in 1994, 12 in 1995 and eight each in 1996, 1997 and 1998.
In 1998, drug cases, bank robberies and bank fraud were still the three categories producing the most FBI convictions, accounting for 54 percent of the 12,730 that year.
''The low number of terrorism convictions is a good thing, not a bad thing,'' Collingwood said. ''We're now working with the CIA and foreign agencies to disrupt terrorists before they can carry out their actions and preferably before they get inside the United States. Figures on those actions aren't recorded, because they are secret.''
He noted that the statistics can understate anti-terrorist efforts. ''We recently convicted a gang in the Pacific Northwest of bank robbery and their convictions will show up that way, but they were robbing banks to support their terrorist activities,'' Collingwood said.
The TRAC study itself said, ''The number of criminal prosecutions of spies and terrorists is not a very good index of FBI concerns, ... because these kinds of cases frequently are not brought into open court.''
The study found evidence that more time was being spent developing all kinds of cases, because the percentage of FBI cases that U.S. attorneys agreed to prosecute rose from 41 percent in 1992 to 49 percent in 1998. Also the conviction rate for defendants in all kinds of FBI cases improved from 67 percent in 1992 to 76 percent in 1998. Median prison sentences rose from 18 months to 25 months.