Long Arms of the Law

Ever Bigger FBI Flails at the Enemy Within

Business as Usual: When a bomb exploded under the car driven by Judi Bari, a Berkeley environmentalist, in 1990, the FBI put out a story that Bari had tried to blow up her own vehicle. Later photos showed this to be impossible. This was the same kind of shenanigan practiced by the FBI after the Olympic Park bombing in 1996. That time, the Bureau turned the life of security guard Richard Jewell upside down, only to later retract all allegations.

Yet as the FBI has made one blunder after another, it has gained new and dramatically broadened powers that essentially allow it to eavesdrop on anyone.

Warnings missed: The World Trade Center
photo: Daniel Rodriguez-Musri
Warnings missed: The World Trade Center

For starters, the Bureau has won greater latitude in using wiretaps. Consider that in 1979 the FBI executed 87 surveillance warrants for traditional criminals and 199 for foreign intelligence, reports Transactional Record Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). By 2000, there were 479 warrants against traditional criminals and 1012 for foreign intelligence—and still the feds couldn't stop the attacks of 9-11.

Much of the listening-in came to nothing. As the TRAC Web site points out: "The prosecutors said they had declined more than a third of the matters presented to them because the referrals lacked evidence of criminal intent, were of minimal federal interest, were backed by weak or insufficient admissible evidence, or did not involve a federal offense."

Again expanding its eavesdropping capabilities, the Bureau created a system called Carnivore. Under this scheme, agents install special boxes on the networks of Internet providers, allowing the trenchcoats to intercept not only the communications of suspects but also of each and every customer.

The government is also implementing a rule that requires all telecommunications carriers to standardize their operations in such a way that the FBI can listen in and conduct surveillance over any one of them at any time—in essence, providing limitless access to everyone's phone or computer. Then, under its Cyber Knight project, the FBI can secretly install eavesdropping software to record every keystroke.

We are now returning to the 1960s, an era of unbridled policing by the FBI. During the protests against the Vietnam War, the FBI joined with the army in monitoring domestic political activity. Both the CIA and NSA received reports from the FBI. The IRS was used to make selective investigations of groups whose political views were deemed unpalatable. The FBI's efforts, labeled COINTELPRO, included the selective sharing of information from its investigations to deny people employment and smear their reputations. Elements of the civil rights and anti-war movements were targeted for disruption because of suspicion they were "influenced" by Communists; others drew fire for their strident rhetoric.

Today, the FBI faces a whole new challenge. Its mushrooming staff and seemingly endless eavesdropping are bringing in reams and reams of data, all of which must be not only read but understood. We already know the solution to that: Hire more people.

Additional reporting: Gabrielle Jackson, Meritxell Mir, Cassandra Lewis, and Michael Ridley

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