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Red Sand Project comes to Billings

FBI Special Agent Brandon Walter speaks during the Red Sand Project trafficking awareness event hosted by Zonta Club of Billings at Montana State University Billings in April 2018.

Maybe the Federal Bureau of Investigation's most notable area agent and presence in Montana must scale back his important work because Washington, D.C., says so.

Special Agent Brandon Walter, who spent full time working on human trafficking cases in Montana, has been forced to reduce the time he spends on the cases by half. Human trafficking is especially a problem in Montana, where a lot of highways and not as much scrutiny has made it easier for those engaged in the illegal trade. 

As we've said previously, we desperately need law enforcement's help with this issue. Because so much of human trafficking has a tie to federal lands — especially on the reservations — we need the help of the FBI, which serves as the law enforcement agency in those areas.

Yet, the FBI's inexplicable decision to reduce already scant resources is disappointing and troubling. The decision got the attention of our congressional delegation, including U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte and Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines.

Each wrote their own letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray, urging him to assign an agent full time to the problem of trafficking.

While we applaud the delegation for sending the critical letters, we'd also point out they have the ultimate control over the federal agency through the power of funding and lawmaking. 

The FBI has continued to deflect any questions about the decision. Lee Newspapers in Montana has asked no fewer than three times only to be told that the FBI does not comment on matters like this. 

Quite frankly, the FBI doesn't comment on much. When it won't even respond to pressure from two senators and a representative, we'd suggest the system appears broken. 

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Here's what we mean: Who holds the federal government accountable? If the FBI doesn't have to give answers to the congressmen, what chance do the citizens have? We're not asking for investigatory data about a sensitive case (by the way, they don't answer those questions, either). We're asking why the agency has decided to prioritize its resources — it's a policy question with huge consequences for women who could become victims. The government should at least have the courage to say why it believes cutting service in this crucial area is a good thing.

Remember that both Daines and Tester both serve on the Senate's Appropriations Committee — this means that they are both key players in the budgeting process. Tester, in his letter, mentioned that the FBI had received more than $161 million in additional funding to help fight crime. Yet, the FBI appears to be pulling back, and taking resources away.

Good for Gianforte, Daines and Tester for saying something. We also hope that if and when they get a response from Wray that they'll share the news with Montana since it seems like the FBI is incapable of transparency or meaningful communication.

The FBI has justified its short-sighted move by saying that FBI agents can work multiple violations, meaning that just because an agent isn't a specialist in human trafficking doesn't mean they can't pursue it.

But this ignores the reason why the position is so important in the first place: It dedicates at least one person whose sole job it is to help curb or put a stop to trafficking, right where it's needed most. An agent who only works part-time will necessarily be distracted, and that will be a disservice to women and girls who have no means to escape.

To the congressional delegation's request, we add our support. Montana needs an agent dedicated to this on a full-time basis. We'd also remind Wray that his boss, President Donald J. Trump, likes touting his bonafides when it comes to being tough on crime. Yet, this seems like the Trump administration has gotten softer, not tougher.

Moreover, we'd point out to our congressional delegation that the lack of transparency from the FBI, especially when it comes to crime in Indian Country, is nothing new. We not only need the resources of law enforcement, we need transparency so that we can better understand what's going on there, too.

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