Jewish World Review June 11, 2002 / 1 Tamuz, 5762
It's good that the Intelligence and Judiciary committees are now reviewing the agencies' past performance, but they are late in doing so.
And when Sept. 11 postmortems are done, those panels need to stay the course and provide intense oversight for the duration of the long war on terrorism.
They need to make sure that the FBI gets the authority and resources it needs to prevent terrorist attacks, and also that it undergoes the "cultural" shift necessary to be effective. And, as the Bush administration institutes tough new domestic surveillance policies, it's up to Congress to assure that basic civil liberties don't get permanently trampled in the process.
From the "bad old days" of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to the aftermath of Sept. 11, Congress' record as the overseer of the intelligence community has not been good.
Congress was intimidated by Hoover as he ran amuck, establishing files on some 500,000 Americans -- including Members of Congress -- and using them to discredit people and disrupt organizations he didn't like.
After Watergate, the pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction. In 1976, a probe by the Select Committee on Intelligence headed by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) led to "reforms" that inhibited intelligence gathering.
Since then, Congress has largely stood by as the FBI developed a culture described by The New York Times as "rigid and risk-averse," and as the CIA and FBI kept up a bitter rivalry left over from the Hoover era.
During the tenure of current FBI Director Robert Mueller's predecessor, Louis Freeh, Congress poured money into the agency -- increasing its budget by nearly 60 percent -- but the FBI still lacks computers that can talk to each other or to other government agencies.
Movies and TV shows depict U.S. intelligence agencies as capable of accessing any database on earth in a matter of seconds, but it turns out that FBI computers are obsolete hand-me-downs from other government offices.
There's a dispute about whether this is the result of Congress' refusal to pay for a first-rate computer system or the FBI's persistent diversion of its tech budget, but the fact is that Congress did not correct the problem, which won't be solved until at least next year.
The Freeh era was marked by one embarrassment after another -- the Robert Hanssen spy case, the loss of records on Timothy McVeigh, the misguided pursuit of Wen Ho Lee -- yet Republicans controlling Congress supported the director because he confided in them and joined them in detesting President Bill Clinton.
Finally, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) convened the first extensive FBI oversight hearings in more than two decades.
He and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have been leading critics of the "arrogant" culture in the FBI, but Grassley also admits that "we in Congress have not done an adequate job of oversight. The FBI has been on too long a leash."
When Congress finishes analyzing what went wrong prior to Sept. 11 -- a process it should have started long before this week -- it needs to be sure that systemic failings get corrected and to maintain intense oversight for as long as the war on terrorism lasts.
Moreover, it can't let the investigative pendulum swing so far that basic civil liberties are in danger. Critics of Bush administration policy -- both conservative and liberal -- fear that "the bad old days" could be returning.
That strikes me as alarmist. Mueller is not Hoover. The administration's aim is to prevent terrorism, not to silence domestic dissent. And the nation is at war.
Still, the powers granted by Congress under the USA Patriot Act -- for detention of terrorist suspects for long periods, and for nearly automatic warrants to wiretap and conduct secret searches of both terrorist and criminal suspects -- are capable of abuse. On a bipartisan basis, the House Judiciary Committee amended the Patriot bill to "sunset" its provisions after four years, but the measure was rewritten by House leaders to limit the provision, then rushed through to passage.
Now, the Justice Department has lifted post-Hoover guidelines against FBI database-searching and surveillance of public activities in computer chat rooms and mosques. This makes sense if the FBI is to keep tabs on terrorist recruitment and communications, but if agents are heavy-handed they could offend Muslim-Americans whose assistance they need in spotting terror suspects.
JWR columnist and George Washington University Law professor Jonathan Turley points out that some of the FBI's most egregious recent errors -- especially false accusations against Richard Jewel in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing case and the Wen Ho Lee case -- resulted from "zealous field agents being allowed to follow a hunch." Just such authority is being expanded under the new FBI guidelines and could lead to the return of massive dossier-collecting and intrusive searches, he says.
On the other hand, it would be mindless and wasteful if the FBI went chasing after innocents when terrorism is the threat. The barrier to a return to "the bad old days" is Congress, which must exercise better oversight than it ever has before.
Like this writer's work? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.