Long Arms of the Law


With Vice President Dick Cheney proclaiming the certainty of a new attack of some sort, somewhere, at some time, we are once again at the mercy of President Bush’s main terror-busters in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The modern FBI was built by J. Edgar Hoover not on a record of solving crimes but with the steady accretion of a bureaucracy designed to combat Hoover’s favorite adversary, the enemy within—one secretive criminal conspiracy after another. As such, it’s no match for a sophisticated, well-financed network of highly trained international terrorists.

Last week, even as FBI leaders were forced to publicly admit they hadn’t read their own agents’ warnings about the possibility of Osama bin Laden’s operatives flying a plane into the World Trade Center, they were busily expanding their empire. The Bureau is setting up a supersquad and over the next 18 months will hire 1600-plus employees, some of them analysts fluent in Middle Eastern languages.

(Of course, if Cheney knows what he’s talking about, we’ll be dead by the time they all have desks.)

This widening reach is particularly ironic, since Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft have crafted a domestic policy based on reducing the bureaucracy and returning power to the states. In this instance, Ashcroft is building an ever bigger, more centralized, and more powerful federal police force. This flies in the face of all the conservative rhetoric about local control, and worse, offers America no real protection.

The Bureau’s origins trace back to the first half of the last century with the passage of the Mann Act, an effort to protect young white Christian women from marauding white-slavers. Hoover next used the threat of the enemy within to extend the mission of the FBI to fighting everyone from anarchists and the mob to the reds and drug traffickers. Each of these highly publicized campaigns led to another increase in the Bureau’s power.

In one sense, September 11 offered yet another opportunity for the Bureau to grow. Already 7000 of its 11,000 special agents are assigned to the case, with FBI agents abroad sending investigators into places like Saudi Arabia and helping out with military raids in Pakistan.

None of this fevered activity can obscure the intelligence fiasco this agency has become. Consider a few of the items on a lengthy list of botched work:

Spies Inside: Robert Philip Hanssen, a 27-year veteran and key counter-terrorist operative for the FBI, spied for the Soviet Union and later Russia from within the top echelons of the Bureau. He pleaded guilty to 15 counts of espionage and conspiracy in July, but was spared the death penalty and sentenced to life in prison without parole when he agreed to help the FBI figure out just how much damage he had done. Hanssen allegedly stole key documents from the White House, the CIA, the National Security Agency, and the Pentagon.

Los Alamos: Wen Ho Lee was indicted in 1999 on 59 counts of mishandling nuclear weapons research at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The FBI handled the investigation so badly that all but one count was dropped. Yet while awaiting trial, Lee was kept in jail for nine months.

Waco: During the fiery 1993 attack on the Branch Davidian compound, the FBI shut off all routes of escape. The spooks claimed they acted to protect the children who’d been taken hostage within. The disaster ended with the torching of buildings, which burned down with 57 adults and 19 children inside. Waco supposedly triggered Tim McVeigh’s decision to blow up the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma City: In addition to conducting messy lab work, the FBI lost 4000 key documents that should have gone to McVeigh defense attorneys, thereby causing a delay in his execution last year. What’s more, the Bureau seems to have paid no attention to a federal informant who predicted the 1995 bombing months before it happened, leading to charges that the federal government had foreknowledge of that bombing, too.

Ruby Ridge: This bungled job grew out of the feds’ determination to arrest Randy Weaver, who had attended Aryan Nations meetings, on minor charges of gun dealing. That fairly simple assignment instead led to a week-long standoff. By the time the 1992 confrontation was over, marshals had shot and killed Weaver’s 14-year-old son, Sammy. As Sammy’s mother, Vicki Weaver, stood in the doorway of the family’s Idaho cabin, an FBI sniper killed her with a shot to the head.

Incompetent Labs: Frederic Whitehurst, an FBI lab whistle-blower who testified to shoddy Bureau work first in the O.J. Simpson case and later at Oklahoma City, was fired for recklessly reporting wrongdoings. In fact, not only has the FBI failed to capture the anthrax culprit, but it also appears to have managed to blow up its own much touted laboratory in 1987. Answering an early morning alarm from FBI headquarters in Washington, firefighters found themselves in a nightmare of smoke and confusion, discovering that the Bureau had been casually stashing such things as Russian grenades, C4 explosives, and fuses on the floor and in corridors. This disaster got covered up in the newspapers, with only a small note about a fire in a closet at the FBI. Writing in Soldier of Fortune, J.D. Cash and Roger Charles, who unearthed the incident, said the scene turned into a firestorm that “threatened the lives of FBI personnel and firefighters, as missiles and shrapnel blasted through evidence cabinets and tore gaping holes in the walls of the world-famous crime lab.”

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.

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