By LAWRENCE M. O'ROURKE
June 01, 2005
G-men were feared and respected as they chased down gangsters and saboteurs. Movies and television favorably presented FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and his skilled and effective agents in their fedoras to a willing public as the nation's premier defenders against all that was evil.
But that was then.
The FBI is trying to rebuild its reputation in a hurry as it seeks from Congress extension and expansion of its authority to investigate people it believes are potential terrorists, over the objections of conservatives and liberals who see growing risk to civil liberty.
Under pressure to renew a broad swatch of authority by the end of the year, the FBI is finding that its clout on Capitol Hill is nowhere near what it was just a few years ago.
The FBI is on the defensive, bearing a large part of the blame for the intelligence failures that proceeded Sept. 11, 2001.
Its history is darkened by its mistakes at Ruby Ridge and Waco, its misuse of tens of millions of dollars in setting up an effective computer system to track terrorists, its snooping into private lives of public figures such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, and revelations about Hoover's private life that surfaced after his death.
Lee Hamilton, the vice chairman of the presidential commission that investigated the 9/11 terrorist acts, said he is "not pleased" with the slow pace of setting up a watchdog agency in the federal government to safeguard civil liberties.
So when the FBI reaches, as it does now, for new authority to let its agents search private and business records without a judge's approval, there's skepticism on Capitol Hill and among the public.
"A lot of folks believe that the FBI has gone too far in invading our civil liberties," said Bob Barr, a former Republican representative from Georgia and U.S. attorney in Atlanta.
FBI agents, he said, are "very fine public servants who are like all human beings who look for easier and more efficient ways to do their job." But the more tools they get, the greater the risk to the privacy and individual rights that Americans cherish, even after 9/11, Barr said.
FBI Director Robert Mueller acknowledges that the bureau has to change its ways. But that's been a requirement, he said, since the FBI's origination in 1908 during President Theodore Roosevelt's administration.
The FBI was born during a time that Americans wanted a federal government "with an idealistic reformist spirit," the bureau's official history states.
"It was clear even before September 11 that the FBI needed to change its training and change rather dramatically," Mueller said.
When the terrorists struck U.S. targets, said Mueller, the FBI realized immediately that "the bureau needed to change overnight."
But he and other bureau officials acknowledge there are still conflicts among the FBI, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies when it comes to sharing information to prevent another terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
"The FBI has always been a very flawed organization," said law professor Robert Jarvis, who addresses the FBI's record in a course on the law and popular culture at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "It was always skilled at positive public relations.
"Now the reality has caught up with the myth, and that's adding to the skepticism about the FBI as it attempts to expand its authority," Jarvis said.
The Bush administration has asked Congress to extend the expanded investigatory powers give the FBI after 9/11 in the Patriot Act. Many Patriot Act provisions will die this year unless renewed.
The administration wants to make many provisions permanent and has challenged the ability of Congress to tell the bureau how to operate.
The FBI is "in the best position to assess whether investigative activity is needed in particular circumstances to protect against international terrorism or espionage," Valerie Caproni, the FBI's general counsel, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Under sharp questioning from committee Democrats, Caproni said that the FBI is "hampered" by the lack of its agents' authority to issue immediate administrative subpoenas to seize records rather than seek a judge's order.
"Can we show you because of delays a bomb went off? No," Caproni said. "But it could happen tomorrow. It could."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said it sounded as if the FBI wanted "carte blanche authority for a fishing expedition."
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