Jewish World Review June 4, 2002 /23 Sivan 5762
If you haven't done anything wrong under the new powers that Attorney General John Ashcroft has granted to FBI agents, you still may have something to worry about.
Ashcroft's new guidelines expand the FBI's authority to monitor political groups, religious organizations, libraries and the Internet to go after terrorists or other criminals without approval from FBI headquarters.
Could these new powers be abused? Ashcroft assures us that this is a simple updating, that the FBI will only be able to do without a warrant what individuals or private businesses already can do on their own.
Maybe so. But I cannot help but wonder how many of his fellow conservative Republicans would be sounding alarms had, say, former Attorney General Janet Reno called for similar new powers. The sad memories of Waco and Ruby Ridge remind us of how powers awarded under the best of intentions always can be abused.
Sorry to sound so cynical. Maybe I remember too much.
I remember, for example, how the guidelines that Ashcroft changed were created in response to the last time that the FBI decided to be more "proactive," as Ashcroft and others describe the agency's new approach.
The late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover not only infiltrated civil rights and anti-war organizations in the 1960s, but actively used taxpayers' money and personnel to disrupt their peaceful and constitutional activities. Back then the target was not "terrorism" but "communism." You didn't have to be a communist. You only had to be suspected of being one - or a "fellow traveler" or maybe just "pink"-to have the G-men on your tail. After all, there was a Cold War on.
Today, Ashcroft notes, you no longer have to have broken a law in order to be watched closely by the government. You merely have to be suspected of terrorist ties.
And, as a reading of the guidelines on the Justice Department's Web site will show you, they also apply to those suspected of "racketeering" and other "general crimes," the scope of which probably will have to be determined in actual practice.
Maybe that's how things have to be in today's new realities. But I would feel better about Ashcroft's new guidelines if they dealt more directly with the biggest problems exposed in the highly publicized 13-page letter that veteran agent Coleen Rowley in the FBI's Minneapolis field office sent to her boss, FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Those big problems include a shocking incompetence at analyzing and acting on the information the FBI already gathered.
They also include a larger historical problem: the FBI's internal cover-your-backside culture.
Like many of his predecessors, Mueller, an FBI veteran, showed dangerous signs of that culture, until Rowley blew the whistle.
Nobody could fairly blame Mueller for Sept. 11. He had been in office less than a week. But after Sept. 11, he repeatedly insisted that his agency had no information on possible terror attacks prior to Sept. 11.
Then we all learned about a Phoenix agent's memo on Arabs enrolling in flight schools. The memo went to FBI headquarters prior to Sept. 11, but was not acted on. Neither were the concerns of agents in Rowley's Minneapolis office who had identified Zaccarias Moussaoui, today's so-called "20th hijacker," as a potential terrorist threat.
After these embarrassing disclosures, Mueller adjusted his previous statement to say that, yes, there were things the FBI knew, but none of it could have prevented the attacks.
Steamed, Rowley sent her letter. "I think your statements demonstrate a rush to judgment to protect the FBI at all costs," she wrote to her boss. His public statements "omitted, downplayed, glossed over and or mischaracterized" her office's probe of Moussaoui, she wrote.
If he really wanted to send a message, she wrote, he would have fired the supervisory special agent who ignored the Moussaoui warnings from her office. Instead, she wrote, the agent was promoted.
After Rowley's letter became public, Mueller finally acknowledged last week that his agency did indeed have information prior to Sept. 11 that might possibly have helped prevent the attacks had the agency handled it better.
He then announced changes that, at the very least, show a refreshing acknowledgement of changing times. The FBI, an agency born to chase spies, bank robbers and other criminals after crimes occurred, does need to become more "proactive" to stop terrorist acts before they occur. It does not need to trample over the rights and freedoms that its agents are sworn to protect.
Changing a structure is easier than changing a culture. The FBI does not need cover-ups. It may need a house cleaning.
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