New FBI, Same Old Problems
by Doug Ireland
In These Times magazine, July 2002
What do you do with a federal agency of notorious incompetence
that is also famous for regularly trampling on the Constitutions?
If you're George W. Bush, you give it more money and power.
That's exactly what happened when the "reorganization"
of the FBI was announced on May 29 by Attorney General John Ashcroft.
By giving the FBI carte blanche to spy on speech and ideas-from
libraries to the Internet, from religious groups to political
meetings-and by opening its files and agents to unprecedented
levels of cooperation with the CIA (heretofore prohibited from
domestic spying), the Bush administration has taken another giant
step toward turning this nation into a garrison state.
Legal wiretap spying on Americans had already increased in
the first year of the Bush administration by 25 percent, according
to the annual report of the federal court system. Federal and
state police legally intercepted approximately 2.3 million conversations
and pager communications in 2001 (and this number does not include
all U.S. Customs surveillance-many of its records were lost in
the destruction of the World Trade Center- or the secret investigations
done under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act).
Now, under the new Ashcroft guidelines, FBI agents will be
able to monitor what you say in Web chatrooms, or in religious
and political meetings, without any court order, without any evidence
of a potential crime, even without approval from FBI headquarters.
For the first time, the FBI also will be able to use commercial
databases to monitor the books you buy, the publications you subscribe
to, where you travel, your credit profile, and a wide swath of
Even medical privacy is no longer sacrosanct-under new regulations
to be promulgated in October by Bush's Department of Health and
Human Services, doctors and hospitals will be required to open
medical records to HHS and other government agencies (including
the FBI) any time they ask, without so much as a court order.
It will also be illegal to enter into a contract with your doctor
to protect your health information from the feds, and HHS will
create a database for every possible ailment, coded down to your
This awesome aggregation of new surveillance powers, rivaling
those of the Soviet KGB at its height, is all the more disturbing
because the FBI has long been the federal government version of
the Keystone Kops. Remember Richard Jewell, the security guard
falsely accused by the FBI-in deliberate press leaks- the bombing
at the Atlanta Summer Olympics? Then FBI director Louis Freeh,
in his grudging public apology to the innocent Jewell blamed FBI
field agents for "a major error in judgment."
Now field agents will be able to go on fishing expeditions
their own without seeking approval from the Washington hierarchy.
Yet the FBI recently has given ample proof of its inability carry
out even the simplest of investigative and analytical tasks let
alone distinguish the guilty from the innocent. Consider every
thing from Waco to Wen Ho Lee, from the "missing" FBI
files to the case of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh to the
failure (even after unmasking CIA traitor Aldrich Ames) to administer
regular mandatory polygraph tests that could have discovered the
Russian spy in the bureau's midst, Robert Hanssen.
Yet when these hydra-headed errors have been exposed, the
insular, secretive and self protective culture that characterize
the FBI has led to brazen cover-ups. Thus, when FBI scientist
Frederic Whitehurst told his superiors how the bureau's own crime
labs had so little quality control that hundreds of prosecutions
were questionable, the denizens of the J. Edgar Hoover Building
suspended and transferred Whitehurst, instead of adopting his
The new FBI guidelines take us straight back to the days domestic
spying under COINTELPRO, the bureau's "counter intelligence"
program in the '50s, '60s and '70s. According t the Senate's Select
Committee to Study Government Operations, COINTELPRO was "a
sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing
the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association."
COINTELPRO infiltrated radical and dissident groups engaged
in lawful dissent; used agents provocateurs to push dissenters
into extremist and unlawful actions; engaged in disinformation
campaigns and harassment of protest organizations, including those
of the civil rights movement; and in the process drove thousands
of radical activists toward burnout and despair, as they blamed
themselves for problems and errors that were the result of the
FBl's disruptions. Given this history, the notion that the bureau
will limit itself to passive domestic spying under the new guidelines
stretches credulity to the breaking point.
The previous guidelines, which have now been thrown out the
window by Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller-and which required
the bureau to show evidence of a crime before engaging in domestic
spying-were promulgated by Ford administration Attorney General
Edward Levi to prevent another COINTELPRO and other abuses of
civil rights and liberties. But even the Levi guidelines didn't
prevent the FBI from going off on its own. In 1987, a decade after
they went into effect, the Center for Constitutional Rights exposed
the CISPES investigation of activists opposed to U.S. policy in
Central America. The FBI had been keeping files on lawful dissenters
and infiltrating peace groups to weaken opposition to U.S. government
support for dictatorships and death squads in El Salvador, Guatemala
Nearly as scandalous as the new Ashcroft guidelines has been
the failure of the Democrats' poll-driven congressional leadership
to denounce them. (A Gallup Poll shows two-thirds of Americans
view the FBI favorably-and 8 in 10 surveyed continue to approve
The alarm has been sounded, but, as of this writing, only
by a few constitutionally minded Republicans. House Judiciary
Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin told CNN's
Novak, Hunt, ~ Shields show: "I get very, very queasy when
federal law enforcement is effectively going back to the bad old
days when the FBI was spying on Martin Luther King.... The Levi
guidelines were designed to prevent that from happening again,
and nothing has told me that adherence to the Levi guidelines
were what caused 9/11." (As the widely publicized Phoenix
and Rowley memos revealed, the FBI could not even digest and act
on the information it had accumulated on the terrorists under
the Levi guidelines before 9/11.)
By contrast, neither Tom Daschle nor Dick Gephardt (mindful
of their presidential ambitions) has uttered a word of criticism
of the Aschcroft guidelines. (Gephardt's opportunism knows no
bounds: In a major foreign policy address on June 4, he even leaped
on the attack-lraq bandwagon, giving Bush a green light for this
new military adventure at a time when the military has signaled
The Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee,
Vermont's Patrick Leahy, has given a blanket endorsement to FBI
Director Mueller (who has been assiduous in courting his "oversight"
as chairman); and in TV appearances after Ashcroft announced the
new guidelines, Leahy showed himself as toothless as he was when
he led Senate approval of the civil liberties-shredding USA Patriot
The polls also have silenced the journalistic eunuchs of the
mass media, who have been remarkably quiescent on the new threat
to our civil liberties (with a few notable exceptions, like conservative
New York Times columnist William Safire). Within 36 hours after
Ashcroft unveiled the seismic policy changes, the story had effectively
disappeared from the radar screen.
What all this means is that we are now entering a period that
Sam Smith, editor of The Progressive Review, rightly describes
as "Post-Constitutional America." And in the present
jingoistic climate, once our Bill of Rights protections against
government abuse of power are given away, one by one, we won't
get them back. That's arguably the terrorists' greatest victory