By DAN K. THOMASSON
Scripps Howard News Service
March 13, 2007
The FBI is caught red handed in an abuse of power. Once again a shocked FBI director, Robert Mueller, apologizes, takes full responsibility and promises swift reform while congressional "watchdogs" - at least that's what they are supposed to be - pledge immediate inquiry and threaten reorganization of the bureau.
It is, of course, an idle threat made by lawmakers who have only themselves to blame for this latest example of FBI arrogance, an incredible misuse of authority granted it to fight terrorism in the wake of 9/11, an improbable event that succeeded partially because of FBI incompetence. The fact that agents pried into the lives of tens of thousands of Americans without justification is hardly startling given the history of the organization and the failure of Congress over the years of scandal to rein it in. In fact, the inevitability of it was warned repeatedly during debate over the Patriot Act.
The bureau has been periodically caught spying on Americans for decades. Have we forgotten the years of the infamous Cointelpro devised by J. Edgar Hoover to disrupt the civil rights movement and antiwar protests? It now appears that the assault on civil liberties has reached a new high. According to the Justice Department's own inquiry, untold numbers of citizens have been victimized by so-called national security letters, intended by Congress to expedite the investigation of potential terrorists, but actually used by the bureau to fish through bank accounts and telephone records for the Lord only knows what reason.
The letters are supposed to avoid the time consuming subpoena process by certifying to banks and telephone companies that an individual's records were necessary to pursue a terrorist investigation. But the department's inquiry discovered that in a huge number of instances there was no such investigation - apparently just a national police force's undisciplined curiosity helped along by the lack of internal controls.
Not long after 9/11, when it was disclosed that the bureau had muffed opportunities to head off the terrorists by not listening to its own agents, there were the same promises of wholesale reform by Mueller and then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. The FBI's traditional cop shop focus would be shifted to counterintelligence, which as a bureau function could only be described as anemic at best. Officials pledged as much as half the agent force to the assignment.
More agents were hired - the bureau's usual answer to criticism when it fails - and hundreds more were shifted to the terrorism units. Then the field offices with their powerful special agents in charge took over and went right back to chasing bank robbers, kidnappers, prostitutes, car thieves, gang bangers, dope runners and other assorted two-bit criminals. Meanwhile, it seems those assigned to counterintelligence were prying without cause into the affairs of average Americans and then even lying to Congress about how many of the national security letters had been issued.
The bureau almost from its modern inception under Hoover has cowed Congress. Every mistake has been forgiven and, in fact, rewarded by more agents, money, buildings, equipment and power while other law enforcement agencies were deprived. Waco, Ruby Ridge, millions wasted on computers, in-house Russian spies - all were examples of tolerated scandals. Whether it was the fear of Hoover's reputed secret files or just an overawed infatuation with the little boy Tommy Gun mentality of the G-Man, lawmakers indulged nearly every bureau whim while continuously broadening the bureau's reach.
This latest scandal is a direct result of that congressional indulgence and the lawmakers' utter refusal to meet oversight responsibilities. Without a doubt, official but unwarranted spying on citizens is potentially a far more serious breach of national security than the sensational illegal activity ordered by Hoover during the Vietnam era.
There has been an obviously well founded unease on Capitol Hill about the Patriot Act and its potential for not only abusing civil liberties but also completely disrupting the American concept of freedom, itself a terrorist goal. To merely accept the pledges of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and director Mueller once again to clean up the situation would be a mistake. It is time for Congress to take its constitutional oversight duty seriously, to make it abundantly clear that this abuse of authority will no longer be tolerated and that it will take the necessary action to assure there is reform including reorganizing this institution if necessary.
In the meantime holding accountable those responsible would be a good first step.
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