The Free Congress © Commentary:
Why John Ashcroft Needs to Keep The FBI in Line
Over the past year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has received a fair amount of criticism for its handling of various issues, from pre-September 11th counterintelligence work to its investigation of the anthrax attacks. Some of that blame has been deserved, but some has also been misdirected.
The FBI certainly isn't without its problems, however, as a recent - and unprecedented -- opinion from the usually secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act's court showed. The court, which has never turned down a surveillance request, decided that even after passage of the USA Patriot Act, prosecutors should not be involved in directing intelligence surveillance. One factor that surely contributed to its reluctance was a series of misleading representations to the court from the FBI.
In the waning days of the Clinton Administration, the government admitted to errors in at least 75 applications for espionage and terrorism warrants that came before the FISA court. Material facts were omitted, an erroneous statement from the FBI director was submitted, and despite an ongoing investigation, the judges have received no explanation about how these things were allowed to occur.
This problem is hardly a surprise; the Justice Department took on a different character under the leadership of Clinton, Janet Reno, and their appointees. These were the people who brought us the Ruby Ridge debacle, the Richard Jewell debacle, and the image of a gun being pointed toward Elian Gonzalez. It's no wonder that despite clear guidelines, Reno's FBI would still manage to foul things up.
The New York Times recently ran a story about how the FBI in its mid-1960s campaign against organized crime crossed the line and allowed an innocent man to be convicted for murder because the then-director -- J. Edgar Hoover-- wanted to use the real killer as an informant.
One wouldn't expect today's FBI to stand on the threshold of that same line, but the problem of balancing the need for investigative tools with civil liberties and justice is still as important as ever.
As the current leadership of the Justice Department seeks to fight terrorism on the home front, the Attorney General needs to do all he can to change the culture of the FBI from that of the Clinton years and to make certain that the people who operate under his authority are committed to both safeguarding our country and respecting our liberties. Or forty years from now, we may be reading about how yet another generation at the FBI managed to find its own way of crossing the line.
John Nowacki is Director of Legal Policy at the Free Congress Foundation.
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