Accuracy in Media

There is sure to be much debate in the coming days about what has and hasn’t changed in Washington since last September 11. Political talk shows will spend hours debating this over the next few weeks. One thing they probably won’t discuss: the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s unchanged penchant for destroying the lives of innocent U.S. citizens.

Oh sure, the Bureau is under new management and former Director Louis Freeh’s cronies have left for greener pastures. The Bureau’s missions have changed, again, and now focus on terrorism and counterintelligence. The Bureau has new “tools” to fight terrorists and spies, including roving wiretaps, “sneak and peek” warrants, and lower probable-cause thresholds for obtaining intelligence surveillance warrants on U.S. citizens or legal immigrants. The Congress so armed the Bureau when it passed the USA Patriot Act, which surely must have our original patriots, the founding fathers, spinning in their graves.

But ask Dr. Steven Hatfill if he thinks this is a new and improved FBI. Spurred on by a university research professor and a New York Times’ columnist, the FBI has turned Hatfill’s life inside out. Attorney General John Ashcroft pronounced him a “person of interest,” a term not listed in any Justice Department or FBI manual, and the FBI has turned the dogs loose on him, literally. When the Bureau failed to unearth any evidence, hard or otherwise, of his complicity in the anthrax murders last fall, it then subjected Hatfill to its own unique brand of justice. The Bureau fed the media a steady drip of leaks and rumors that ensured Hatfill would get the “Richard Jewell” treatment from reporters too lazy to check out the story for themselves. Most repugnant was the treatment of Hatfill’s girlfriend by FBI agents. They ransacked her apartment and screamed at her that her “boyfriend killed five people” and that “her life would never be the same.” Their response to Hatfill: file a complaint with the misnamed Office of Professional Responsibility.

When it behaves like this, the Bureau usually has several motives. Maybe it hopes to stampede a potential suspect into doing something incriminating. More often, it wants to draw media attention away from its own bumbling and ineptitude. For example, the media might logically ask why the Bureau took nearly a year to start a crime scene investigation of the American Media Inc. building in Boca Raton, Florida, the scene of the first anthrax killings and the temporary home of several September 11 hijackers.

Hatfill is hardly the first to receive “justice?FBI style.” Jewell, Wen Ho Lee and I all got similar treatment. My roommate got the proverbial knock on her door from two FBI agents who then spent hours interrogating her about me. They coerced her consent to turn over our computer by terrorizing her with threats of kicking in the door of the townhouse we shared and bringing along television camera crews to record the action. Satellite TV trucks showed up outside Hatfill’s Maryland apartment minutes after the Bureau knocked on his door with a search warrant, so we now know these were not idle threats. FBI spokesmen piously deny that the Bureau alerts the media when executing a search warrant. But we also know the Bureau lies?at least 75 times, according to a recently released ruling by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court.

But we all got off easy. Consider the fate of John Salvati, who spent 30 years in prison convicted for a murder he didn’t commit while the Bureau protected the real killers. Another innocent man got 34 years and one even got the death penalty, but died in prison during the appeal process. The Bureau’s actions so outraged Congressman Dan Burton that he introduced legislation to take J. Edgar Hoover’s name off FBI Headquarters in Washington, DC.

Compounding the injustice, Attorney General Ashcroft claimed executive privilege to deny Burton access to the case files from this shameful episode in the Bureau’s history. Indeed, the FBI seems impervious to Congressional oversight. Recall the showy Senate hearings last spring to hold the Bureau “accountable” for its mistakes in the Robert Hanssen spy case and in response to whistleblower Special Agent Coleen Rowley. No doubt carefully scripted beforehand, FBI Director Robert Mueller said all the right things and made lots of promises. Then he sent his agents out to destroy Steven Hatfill’s life.




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