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Leash the FBI | The Nation

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Leash the FBI

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The FBI has come under harsh criticism in recent weeks for its failure
to act on information that might have enabled it to thwart the September
11 attacks. Rather than deny the criticism, FBI Director Robert Mueller
has embraced it (easy for him to do, since he didn't start on the job
until September 4) and then exploited it to argue that the bureau needs
more power, more resources and fewer restrictions.

Both the criticism and the remedy are misguided. The dots that everyone
now says should have been connected consist of a few leads spread over a
three-year period: a 1998 memo from an FBI agent in Oklahoma suspicious
about some Middle Eastern men taking flying lessons; a July 2001 memo
from a Phoenix agent speculating that Osama bin Laden could be sending
terrorists to flight schools here; and the August 2001 arrest of
Zacarias Moussaoui for acting suspiciously in flight school. Viewed in
hindsight, each points inexorably to September 11. But there is a world
of difference, as any gambler, stock trader or palm reader will tell
you, between perceiving the connections after and before the fact. On
September 10 these three bits of information competed for the FBI's
attention with thousands of other memos, leads and suspicious events
pointing in thousands of other directions. We are engaged in a
nationwide session of Monday-morning quarterbacking.

The remedy is worse. Shifting resources to fighting terrorist threats
makes sense, but freeing the FBI from the minimal restrictions it has
operated under in the past does not. The guidelines governing the FBI's
domestic criminal investigations, which do not even apply to
international terrorism investigations, had nothing to do with the FBI
missing the September 11 plot. And it is likely that the changes in the
guidelines announced by Attorney General John Ashcroft will actually
reduce the FBI's effectiveness in fighting terrorism.

The old guidelines were sparked by revelations that in the 1960s and
'70s, the FBI's COINTELPRO initiative targeted perfectly lawful antiwar,
environmental, feminist and civil rights groups for widespread
monitoring, infiltration and disinformation. The guidelines sought to
remedy the FBI's proclivity for indulging in guilt by association and
conducting intrusive and sweeping investigations of political groups
without any criminal basis. They sought to focus the FBI on its mission,
which, contrary to popular perception, has always been to prevent as
well as to investigate crime.

But even under the guidelines abuses continued. One of the most
prominent involved an investigation of the Committee in Solidarity With
the People of El Salvador (CISPES) from 1983 to 1985. Under the rubric
of counterterrorism, the FBI monitored student rallies, infiltrated
meetings and identified attendees at CISPES events. In the end, the
bureau had collected information on 1,330 groups--including Oxfam
America, the US Catholic Conference and a Cincinnati order of nuns--but
no evidence of crime.

Such investigations are likely to be commonplace in the post-
September 11 era. Ashcroft's guidelines expressly permit the FBI to
conduct some investigations without even a shred of information about
potential criminal conduct. And Congress has so expanded the definition
of federal crimes that requiring a criminal basis is not enough to
forestall political spying. Federal antiterrorism laws of 1996 and 2001
now make it a crime to provide any associational support to foreign
groups we designate as terrorist, even if the support has no connection
whatever to terrorist activity. Under those laws, the CISPES
investigation would have been legal, on suspicion that CISPES was
supporting the Salvadoran rebel movement.

The combined effect of the expanded statute, loosened guidelines and
increased counterterrorism personnel at the FBI will be to bring in
exponentially more information about the populace than the FBI has ever
had. Some of the additional information obtained may, like the isolated
leads developed before September 11, be related to terrorist plots. But
those leads are almost certain to be drowned out by the barrage of
information about innocent political activity.

An intelligence expert on a recent panel with me claimed that what we
need now is "all-source intelligence fusion," meaning a group of
analysts sitting in a room analyzing mounds of data for trends and
patterns. Despite its techno-trendy title, all-source intelligence
fusion is no substitute for good relations with the affected
communities. If the FBI has information that the threat is likely to
stem from Arab sources, it should be building bridges to the millions of
law-abiding Arabs--instead of profiling Arab students without cause,
holding Middle Easterners without charges and selectively registering
all immigrants from Arab countries. You don't build bridges by
infiltrating and monitoring legitimate political and religious activity.

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