It's almost as if somebody is trying to warn us that the FBI isn't worthy of its recently expanded power and responsibilities. Just weeks ago, Attorney General John Ashcroft assured the country that the scandal-ridden federal law enforcement agency is finally on the straight and narrow and worthy of our trust. The faint echo from his words could still be heard when the feds were hit with not one, but two eruptions that eroded the foundations of claims about the agency's integrity and basic competence.

The latest revelation of the FBI's failings comes from the Justice Department itself. An internal report on problems at several of the Justice Department's law-enforcement agencies revealed that the FBI has misplaced 212 working firearms and 317 laptop computers just since the end of 1999 (the INS has an even worse record). Some of those guns later turned up at crime scenes and in the hands of criminals.

Where the computers have gone is anybody's guess. The report warns, "The loss of information contained on laptop computers could compromise national security or jeopardize ongoing investigations." Moreover, even though "all FBI laptop computers have access to sensitive information and are authorized for processing classified information up to the Secret level," the FBI didn't require formal reports on missing computers until March of 2001.

This is Keystone Kops stuff, though with potentially tragic consequences. But the news about the FBI isn't all slapstick — there's malice to be found, too. Just days before the Justice Department's report on missing goodies, the Associated Press turned up internal FBI memos revealing that senior officials knew for 20-odd years that Boston-based agents were shielding mob informants from prosecution for serious crimes. With the knowledge of the bureau, four innocent men spent almost three decades behind bars for a murder committed by FBI stool pigeons; two of them died in prison.

Not surprisingly, the two surviving men, plus the families of the others, are suing the FBI and demanding apologies and pardons. The federal agency faces a potential tab of $1 billion for the lives it has destroyed.

The recent headlines have been timely reminders that, no matter what Attorney General Ashcroft claims, something is very rotten at the core of the federal government's leading law-enforcement arm. Supposedly, the FBI is already undergoing a reorganization and tighter monitoring in response to the scandals that dogged the bureau through the 1990s. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, however, "reform" somehow became more money, more power and a mandate to cooperate with the professional snoops at the CIA.

Undoubtedly, the brutal terrorist attacks have many Americans demanding that agencies assigned the task of protecting the country be given what they need to do the job. But it's hard to see how increased resources in the absence of real change will improve matters at an agency that has such an entrenched history of corruption and incompetence.

Even before the latest news, Timothy Lynch, director of the Cato Institute's Project on Criminal Justice, cautioned that the Justice Department's FBI "reforms" acted more to reward failure than to address fundamental flaws. "The fact that President Bush, Attorney General Ashcroft, and [FBI Director] Mueller are now seeking more money and staff for the bureau is an indication that instead of reshaping the bureaucracy, they have been captured by it."

The FBI restructuring wasn't just a matter of throwing good money after bad — it went so far as to loosen the leash on an agency that abused the authority it already had. Ironically, in light of the festering scandal in Boston, the Justice Department softened rules requiring FBI agents to warn informants against committing serious crimes.

The FBI has also, as part of its so-called reform, been given a free hand to infiltrate political and religious groups without any suspicion of criminal activity. Such domestic spying was explicitly forbidden for years because of the FBI's abusive monitoring of peaceful civil rights and anti-war groups during the 1960s and 1970s. Prominent civil libertarian Nat Hentoff refers to this new invitation to snoop on Americans as "the poisonous core of this reorganization."

So the FBI's recent reforms have consisted primarily of window-dressing — and even of rewards for past misdeeds. How do we go about setting things right?

Cato's Timothy Lynch suggests that much of the problem lies in the federal government's alphabet soup of law-enforcement agencies. Their overlapping areas of responsibility inspire jealousy that hampers cooperation on such pressing threats as terrorism. These agencies also compete for power and prestige, posing a threat to civil liberties. Lynch recommends "consolidating all of the disparate agencies into a single bureau, under the direction of the attorney general."

There are dangers in such a move of course. A consolidated agency might be more efficient at battling terrorists — but it also might improve its skill at abusing the rights of innocent people. For this reason, many civil liberties activists are likely to be skeptical of the proposal — and the FBI is certain to resist any attempt to compromise its identity.

Then there's a proposal by Vin Suprynowicz, a vocal critic of government power and assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Suprynowicz believes that the FBI is entirely beyond redemption and should be abolished. "Its few legitimate functions should be divested to other agencies, and the FBI should be closed — its headquarters razed and converted into a park."

Attorney General Ashcroft and his friends at the FBI may not like the idea of addressing the bureau's serious failings. But if they don't do something soon, Mr. Suprynowicz's recommendation will become increasingly attractive.

J.D. Tuccille is a Flagstaff-based Senior Editor of The Henry Hazlitt Foundation's Free-Market.Net (http://www.free-market.net/)

— Arizona Daily Sun

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