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FBI: If It's Under Cover, It May Be Out of Control

February 21, 1988|James Bamford | James Bamford, author of "The Puzzle Palace" (Houghton Mifflin), a book about the National Security Agency, writes frequently on intelligence issues.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — A scowling J. Edgar Hoover stares down from a T-shirt popular with FBI agents several years ago. "Hoover is back," reads the caption under the former director's multiple chins, "and is he pissed." Revelations of the past few weeks detailing large-scale Federal Bureau of Investigation spying on domestic dissent groups have led many to wonder whether the old G-man may indeed be alive, at least in spirit, and back at his fortress-like headquarters directing surveillance operations.

Recent newspaper headlines seem like left over props from an "Our World" television episode on anti-Vietnam War protests two decades ago, or a flashback to 1976 and the almost daily disclosures of intelligence abuses uncovered by congressional investigators. Once again the FBI is charged with political harassment and infiltration of peace groups, of photographing college students at rallies and monitoring church workers. But this era was supposed to be different. The man in the director's office at the time, William H. Webster, a former federal judge, had earned a reputation for pulling the bureau out of just this sort of muck.

Yet the FBI's four-year investigation of Cispes, the Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador, was flawed almost from the beginning. Although few would fault the bureau for looking into the initial charges of possible illegal activity, many of the allegations leading to the investigation had come from a paid bureau informant named Frank Barelli, a 38-year-old Salvadoran who is now a naturalized U.S. citizen. Barelli initially accused Cispes of smuggling Salvadoran terrorists into the United States. Later, after infiltrating Cispes for the FBI, he reported "a very, very radical, very dangerous group"--although he offered little evidence to back up the charge.

As Barelli continued sending exaggerated and unsubstantiated reports, the bureau added more and more agents from nearly every field office. This produced a multiplier affect. As Cispes members associated with people from other groups--from the U.S. Catholic Conference to the American Federation of Teachers--those groups also came under investigation. Eventually the investigation produced 17 volumes of reports, more than 3,500 pages. In that mass of paper, however, there was not enough evidence of a crime for a single indictment.

Few senior officials have been able to survive for a decade in the same office without being swallowed up in scandal or knifed in palace politics. Webster, who sailed through the Iran-Contra affair with barely a nudge and is now director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was one of the few. One reason was his ability to become almost invisible, unlike several of his controversial predecessors--Hoover, L. Patrick Gray III and his one-time CIA counterpart, the late William J. Casey.

Near-invisibility led much of the public, as well as the press, to view the Webster FBI as a far more benign and less intrusive agency than it was under the iron fist of Hoover. In reality, however, primarily because of numerous changes in the law and a tendency to push laws to their limit, almost the opposite is true.

One example is "black bag jobs," the breaking and entering into homes, offices and foreign diplomatic establishments as part of national security investigations. Hoover, worried about scandal marring his last years in office, forbade agents from carrying out such secret--and at times illegal--operations, despite great pressure from intelligence agencies. Today, as a result of quiet policy changes by the Reagan Administration and a favorable ruling by the highly secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the FBI is permitted to engage in any number of warrant-less "national security" break-ins, simply on orders from the President or the attorney general.

Another change is an enormous increase in the number of electronic surveillance operations conducted in the United States by the bureau as well as by the National Security Agency. When a proposal was placed on Hoover's desk allowing the NSA, for the first time, to begin eavesdropping on wholly domestic communications, the former director vetoed it. Today the NSA, under certain circumstances, can assist the FBI in monitoring and reporting thousands of telephone calls and messages within the United States.

The bureau, now under the direction of William Steele Sessions, is considering a proposal that will greatly expand its nationwide computerized crime data bank, permitting inclusion of arrest warrants, convictions and stolen vehicles, plus the names of mere suspects, people never convicted of violating any law. The computer would also allow the bureau to track the movements of all those names, innocent as well as guilty. Such a system, said Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose), himself a former FBI agent, will permit "too much possibility of Big Brother in Washington."

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