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The FBI's Newfound Voice

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For the past 15 years or so, the FBI has allowed itself to be ignored and even maligned in New York City.

FBI Director Robert Mueller has downplayed the Bureau's successes and remained silent amidst claims by New York City's loudest law enforcement official, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, that the Bureau cannot be trusted to protect New York from another terrorist attack.

So pusillanimous has the FBI become on the public relations front, that Mark Mershon, who headed the Bureau's New York office from 2005-2009, stated proudly, on the record, that his first and most important job, at Mueller's specific request, was to placate Kelly.

But change has come to the FBI's New York office. A whirlwind has appeared in the person of Special Agent Richard Kolko, who is hell-bent on publicizing each and every FBI accomplishment.

Kolko, whose bio lists him as a former assignment editor and producer at CNN, is a throwback to both J. Edgar Hoover and Alfred Hitchcock.

He has Hoover's flair as a master Bureau promoter.

And like Hitchcock's on-screen cameos, he likes to slip himself into his own press releases by quoting himself.

Hard-line law enforcement reporters and even some federal colleagues say he grandstands and exaggerates. They say he jumps the gun by announcing news flashes and providing tips and timely info to his favorite reporters -- in contrast to his low-keyed FBI associate, Jim Margolin, who is known for balance and accuracy.

"He's a loose canon," says one reporter of Kolko. "He's already stepped on toes in the U.S. Attorneys' offices."

Says a federal official: "He has rankled federal prosecutors, releasing information before they felt was appropriate or without their knowledge. He has promoted arrests before indictments were unsealed."

Says another: "With Rich, there is no distinguishing between news and nonsense."

Such criticism has not slowed Kolko down.

Since arriving in New York in Nov. 2009 after he says he ran the FBI's National Press Office in Washington for almost five years (does that mean that Assistant Director John Miller reported to him?) he has single-handedly created an FBI website that generates hundreds of press releases and thousands of email alerts.

He has used Clear Channel's digital bulletin board on Times Square to post "Wanted" pictures of bank robbery suspects and other fugitives. Nor has he been shy, after suspects have been apprehended, to splash the word "Captured" across their mugs.

In at least one case, he credited the Bureau with capturing a suspect who had voluntarily surrendered.

As Jerry Capeci reported in his Gang Land column, after mob associate Steven Maiurro walked into FBI headquarters in Manhattan last October to turn himself in, he became the focus of a Kolko news release that announced he was "CAPTURED BY THE FBI."

Asked about his aggressive approach to news, Kolko said, "I'd call it pro-active rather than aggressive. The FBI has a story to tell."

"I can say I came up with the idea," he adds, "but it is a team effort."

To his credit, Kolko is onto something. Seizing on the collapse of the newspaper industry, he has, with his constant stream of photos and news releases (some of which duplicate the releases from the U.S. Attorneys in the Southern and Eastern Districts), thrown the FBI into the breach.

"Years ago, newspapers had their own reporters and photographers," Kolko said. "With the industry's decline, we are having success in the smaller regional and ethnic papers, and we are happy to be there."

"Our stories are picked up nationally and internationally. Smaller ethnic media are posting our press releases. A Korean newspaper picked up our wanted poster of a fugitive. He gave himself up. We are taking credit in the press office."

Also to his credit, Kolko has even provided bursts of candor in an agency that either denies or remains silent about unpleasant internal matters.

He recently printed an article from retired FBI agent Joe Valiquette, commemorating the 30-year anniversary of the Joint Terrorist Task Force (JTTF) of which Valiquette was an original member.

As to the word "Joint," it refers to the FBI and the NYPD -- agencies that have long been at odds.

"On the surface," wrote Valiquette, "leaders of both agencies vowed cooperation and open lines of communication. However, not far below the surface, agencies viewed one another warily and sometimes allowed professional rivalries to complicate the investigative process. ...

"At the crime scenes the same drama would always play out - witnesses would typically be interviewed twice, once by the FBI and once by the NYPD. Investigators would get in each other's way combing through the debris of the crime scene; and if evidence was recovered, a contest would ensue as to which agency's lab would perform the forensic tests."

It is not clear how closely Kolko is being monitored by Bureau superiors. Through Kolko, the FBI's newly appointed New York head Janice K. Fedarcyk, issued this statement:

"Our goals with the press are simple; improve communications and build trust between the FBI and the public. The media is a valuable tool and can assist with our investigations of federal crimes. The public can often help by providing information on fugitives and identifying criminals from the wanted posters on the FBI website. We use the web, social media and our email alerts to reach as many people as possible. It's working and we continue to look for ways to build our partnerships with the media and find ways to improve the FBI's media operations.

Kolko, meanwhile, seems at his most prolific on slow news days. Take this 975-word gasser of a press release he issued on New Year's Day.

"Long before the ball dropped last night and well before the crowds began to gather to ring in the New Year in Times Square, members of the FBI's New York Office (NYO) were working around the clock to ensure it really was a happy New Year's Eve," it began. "The safety and security of the New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square, which draws an estimated one million spectators and more than a billion viewers watching worldwide, is a top priority for the NYO.

"The NYO deployed hundreds of personnel including agents, analysts, and professional staff representing squads across the entire office to assist with security efforts. Working with our law enforcement partners, the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) coordinated intelligence while other personnel carried out security operations throughout the night."

After quoting Fedarcyk and listing the names of a half-dozen agents on hand and those of various squads, such as the Special Events Management Unit (SEMU), Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), Evidence Response Team, (ERT), Hazardous Materials, (HAZMAT) and Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), Kolko devoted a paragraph to himself:

"'While the communication between law enforcement agencies is critical, in today's fast paced media environment it's important to monitor social media in the event of a crisis or threat. The FBI's Public Affairs Team kept the JOC [Joint Operations Center] apprised of fast breaking events in the news,' said Special Agent Richard Kolko."