There's an old and very cynical saying about people rising to the level of their own incompetence. As applied to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, that might be too kind a way of characterizing that organization's troubles.

Over the decades, the legendary federal law-enforcement agency has assumed vast power to intervene in matters great and small, and acquired enormous resources in the process. But after years of scandals, the FBI is now caught up in what may be the worst of the lot: post-attack fingerpointing over who knew what and when — and who dropped the ball.

The CIA insists that it warned the G-men ahead of time about one of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Agents in the field say that higher-ups stifled efforts to investigate potential terrorist threats. Even FBI Director Robert Mueller grudgingly admits that his people could have done a better job of piecing together leads before the lethal attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

If it were just a matter of institutional incompetence, Attorney General John Ashcroft's scheme to remove restrictions on the FBI's domestic spying operations and hand the fumbling agency expanded power to monitor peaceful groups and churches without evidence of criminal activity would be troubling enough. After all, does anybody really want to hand a blank check to the three stooges?

But the problem goes deeper, well beyond incompetence to outrage. Even as the Justice Department cooked up plans to remove long-standing constraints on FBI investigations, former FBI agent John J. Connolly Jr. was convicted in Boston for actions that included covering up murders committed by mob informants. Connolly insists that he acted on orders, and there's ample evidence that the FBI hierarchy deliberately sat on evidence that would have put gangsters behind bars — and freed innocent men who served time in their place.

The Connolly trial capped off a solid decade of unsavory revelations about the once highly regarded law-enforcement agency. The bureau was rocked by criticism over the conduct of its agents at Ruby Ridge. During that incident, Vicki Weaver was shot by an FBI sniper operating under shoot-to-kill orders that a federal judge and the Senate Judiciary Committee condemned as unconstitutional.

And controversy still rages over the fiery culmination of the Waco standoff. While a timid official investigation slapped the FBI on the wrist, independent researchers, including an award-winning documentary team, discovered that federal agents used incendiary devices at the scene, despite their denials, and then covered-up wrongdoing in the aftermath.

In 1995, during the last terrorist scare, The ACLU, the NRA and roughly 20 other groups joined together to warn that "[d]uring the Waco and Ruby Ridge hearings, we saw the problems that have arisen in how federal law enforcement is using the vast authority it already has. We urge members of Congress to heed the objections we have raised to the pending antiterrorism legislation."

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Then Dr. Frederic Whitehurst of the FBI's crime lab revealed that federal forensic "experts" were cooking evidence to suit prosecutors in a variety of cases. The bureau ended up paying Whitehurst and his supporters $355,000 in legal fees to settle a lawsuit after it tried to deny them damning information.

As frightening as that litany of official misconduct may be, it only scratches the surface. To discover why the FBI has been operating under the constraints that Attorney General Ashcroft wants to remove, we need to revisit scandals that beset the agency three decades ago. In the 1960s and 1970s, FBI agents routinely monitored peaceful civil rights and anti-war organizations, and kept files on such prominent "subversives" as Martin Luther King and Barry Goldwater. In their 1997 book, "No More Wacos: What's Wrong With Federal Law Enforcement and How To Fix It," authors Dave Kopel and Paul H. Blackman reveal:

"FBI spying on and harassment of Americans for exercising their constitutional rights are not isolated problems from a single period in the bureau's history. They have been common bureau practice at all times, right up to the present."

Given the FBI's checkered history, handing the bureau more power and responsibility seems to defy common sense. Timothy Lynch of the Cato Institute suggests that "[t]he fact that President Bush, Attorney General Ashcroft, and 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."

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, seems to agree. He warned that he gets "very, very queasy when federal law enforcement is effectively saying it is going back to the bad old days when the FBI was spying on people like Martin Luther King."

There's a case to be made that the FBI did indeed overlook warning signs about Sept. 11, and that we should be able to expect better of the country's premier domestic bulwark against terrorism. But there's an even stronger argument against handing increased power and discretion to an organization that has invariably abused its authority, and has itself proved to be a source of terror to many Americans.

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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