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FBI Needs Reach and Reins

June 04, 2002

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft's granting of new investigative powers to the FBI has civil libertarians hitting the panic button about a return to the J. Edgar Hoover era. Though concern about potential abuses of the privacy and free-speech rights that help define this country is justified, hysteria is not.

The limited and necessary regulatory changes are not at all likely to unleash an army of snoops prying into the average American's life. They will, however, permit FBI agents to take common-sense steps to ferret out terrorists, many of whom, presumably, remain eager to blow the United States and its freedoms into oblivion.

Under Hoover, the FBI violated civil rights left and right (mainly left), infiltrating legitimate groups, disrupting the lives of citizens whose political views were in disfavor and spying on and harassing activists such as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

But Hoover, who ran the FBI from 1924 to 1972, was a virtual dictator who cowed presidents and lawmakers. His legacy includes well-warranted constraints on domestic spying.

Now those controls are being loosened. Under the new rules, agents can visit houses of worship, rallies and other places or events that used to be restricted--including cyberspace. For instance, under the old regulations, agents could not surf the Internet for bomb-making activity. Nor, unless they were engaged in a specifically related criminal investigation, were agents permitted to attend public rallies where a terrorist might be recruiting people to clad themselves in the bombs he learned to build on the Net. Technology has made terrorists not only more dangerous but more slippery, and the FBI has to be able to move in that sophisticated shadow world.

Minneapolis agent Coleen Rowley's memo about the difficulty of obtaining a search warrant in the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker, makes painfully clear that the problems at the bureau are systemic. These problems stem, in part, from the fact that the FBI reacted like a spoiled brat to the restrictions placed upon it after the Hoover era: You don't want us spying on respected civil rights leaders? Fine! But don't blame us for what happens.

Restrictions became an excuse for incompetence and the culture of passivity that eventually quashed real inquiry into the terrorists training to become suicide pilots.

Ashcroft's guidelines won't by themselves overhaul the bureau. What's needed are bosses--and we mean Robert S. Mueller III--who encourage and reward initiative rather than try to cover up weaknesses. Needed, too, is a renewed commitment by Congress to monitor the agency and promptly rein it in if the new powers lead to abuse.

Meanwhile, even a magnificently managed agency with a crackerjack corps of investigators won't be able to stop the next 9/11 if those agents must tiptoe away from the people most likely to be cooking up plots.

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