FBI's cyber division wins key backing in Congress

An FBI squad charged with catching computer hackers and designing gadgets found financial backing this year from Senate appropriators, who won support to restore $20 million in fiscal 2006 funding for the agents.

"Cyber investigations have been deemed an FBI top priority mission by the FBI and by this committee," the Senate Appropriations panel wrote in its report on the measure to fund the Justice Department, among others. "As such, the committee was surprised to learn the FBI imposed funding decreases on the cyber division, particularly to the special technologies and applications section, disproportionate to its mission priority and impact on counter-terrorism efforts."

The section engineers support hundreds of counter-terrorism, counter-intelligence and criminal investigations involving digital or electronic information, according to the FBI. They also develop new tools and technologies for various FBI projects, ranging from computer-intrusion investigations to hostage rescue teams.

The FBI director has slashed $35 million from the squad over the last five years. This year, Senate appropriators decided to stop the gouging, directing the agency to restore the $35 million in cuts.

But when the committee met with House colleagues to craft a compromise spending bill, the lawmakers settled on $20 million "because of competing interests," the panel's spokeswoman said. The $20 million is in addition to the division's estimated $65 million annual budget, according to appropriations staffers.

An FBI official argued that the Senate appropriators' $35 million figure is misleading because it included funding provided in emergency spending measures from previous years.

"The amount referenced in the mark can be characterized by line items that were funded for one year, rather than into perpetuity," the official said, adding that the cuts also were due to government-wide rescissions and the director's decision to transfer money to higher priorities.

"A program manager may be disappointed that their program was cut, but they are taking it along with everybody else," said the official, explaining that the agency used some of the funding to compensate employees for a cost-of-living adjustment in their salaries and hire personnel because Congress did not provide enough money this year for compensation benefits.

The House last week overwhelmingly approved the final version of the spending bill, and the Senate is likely to follow suit this week.

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