This morning, the Washington Post reported on some deeply disturbing accusations against the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Last fall, FBI agents armed with twenty-three subpoenas raided seven homes, mainly in the Midwest. The targets of this “mysterious, ongoing nationwide terrorism investigation” had one thing in common: they were all either involved with the peace movement or were politically active labor organizers. The bureau will not comment on what is being specifically investigated, though some court documents indicate the FBI is looking into “material support” of Colombian and Palestinian groups designated as terrorist organizations by the government.
The New York Times reported another troubling story yesterday—FBI agents have been given significanlty more leeway to “search databases, go through household trash or use surveillance teams to scrutinize the lives of people who have attracted their attention.”
In light of this news, it’s especially surprising that an extension of FBI director Robert Mueller’s term is barely being contested in the Senate. As we noted last week, President Obama is having so much trouble getting people appointed to administration posts that even the US Fish and Wildlife Service has been without a permanent director for months. But Mueller is running into few roadblocks.
Most cabinet appointees serve indefinitely, until they either resign or are replaced by the president. However, Congress imposed a ten-year limit on the FBI director’s term in 1976 following the Church Committee investigation of J. Edgar Hoover’s forty-eight-year reign, which revealed shocking abuses of power: illegal wiretaps, the infiltration of antiwar and civil rights groups, spying on members of Congress, a smear campaign against Martin Luther King Jr. and several other serious transgressions.
Though Mueller was reportedly looking forward to retirement this September when his term expired, President Obama asked him to serve two additional years. “Given the ongoing threat facing the United States, as well as the leadership transitions at other agencies, I believe continuity and stability at the FBI is critical at this time,” Obama said last month when he asked Congress to pass a bill extending Mueller’s term.
There are constitutional questions about whether Congress, not the president, can formally extend a cabinet term, but much more grave concerns exist beyond that. Mueller was sworn in only one week before the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, and has overseen a vast expansion of the FBI’s domestic surveillance powers under the Patriot Act in the intervening years. Should he be the first FBI director since Hoover to break the ten-year limit?
During Mueller’s appearance in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, only Senator Al Franken raised this question. Mueller—who had received largely softball questions and lengthy praise to that point—became visibly uncomfortable when Franken started off by telling him that “your department has been heavily criticized over the last ten years for significant misuse of the department’s surveillance powers and for other major civil liberties violations.”