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There's More Than One Way To Protect A Country

So apparently George Bush could have done something to prevent the present economic crisis, but was so obsessed with terrorism, he couldn't see the fo

So apparently George Bush could have done something to prevent the present economic crisis, but was so obsessed with terrorism, he couldn't see the forest for the proverbial trees. (Or, less kindly, he couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time.)

The FBI was aware for years of "pervasive and growing" fraud in the mortgage industry that eventually contributed to America's financial meltdown, but did not take definitive action to stop it.

"It is clear that we had good intelligence on the mortgage-fraud schemes, the corrupt attorneys, the corrupt appraisers, the insider schemes," said a recently retired, high FBI official. Another retired top FBI official confirmed that such intelligence went back to 2002.

The problem, according to the two FBI retirees and several other current and former bureau colleagues, is that the bureau was stretched so thin that no one noticed when those lenders began packaging bad mortgages into bad securities.

"We knew that the mortgage-brokerage industry was corrupt," the first of the retired FBI officials told the Seattle P-I. "Where we would have gotten a sense of what was really going on was the point where the mortgage was sold knowing that it was a piece of dung and it would be turned into a security. But the agents with the expertise had been diverted to counterterrorism."

The FBI not only lacked the resources, but also never got the tips it needed from the banking regulatory agencies. The Securities and Exchange Commission, the Office of Thrift Supervision and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency also failed to detect the securities issue, said the first retired FBI official.

"These are very resource-intense cases that take a lot of work by very skilled people," said John Falvey Jr., a former federal prosecutor who currently does white-collar criminal defense work in Boston.

And Falvey said that financial executives who deliberately chose not to learn the facts about dicey mortgage-lending practices in their companies -- who chose to be "willfully blind" to such practices and the subsequent securitization of those mortgages -- could be vulnerable to prosecution for securities fraud.

Both retired FBI officials asserted that the Bush administration was thoroughly briefed on the mortgage fraud crisis and its potential to cascade out of control with devastating financial consequences, but made the decision not to give back to the FBI the agents it needed to address the problem. After the terrorist attacks of 2001, about 2,400 agents were reassigned to counterterrorism duties.

This mass reassignment was first chronicled by the Seattle P-I in the Terrorism Tradeoff, a series of investigative reports beginning in 2007 and stretching into 2008. That administration policy, the P-I reported, resulted in a dramatic plunge in FBI criminal investigations and referrals for prosecution. And recent data from Syracuse University researchers shows the problem has worsened.

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