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Federal Bureau of Incompetence

By Notra Trulock
web posted May 28, 2001

Growing up in the Midwest in the 1950s, we were taught to revere American institutions like the military and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And why not? Our fathers and uncles had won World War II and service in the military was our civic duty. Not to serve was unthinkable. Likewise, the FBI was a symbol of the incorruptible - an ever vigilant guardian of our public order and a bulwark against foreign subversion. The local FBI office regularly hosted visits by Boy Scout troops and other youth groups; many a boy or girl came away dreaming of becoming an FBI agent. A career as a military officer or fighting crime and foreign spies were among those honorable professions encouraged by parents - at least in the Midwest in the 1950s and early 1960s.

But something happened along the way. Vietnam nearly destroyed the military as an institution. In the 1960s, the military as an institution was betrayed by people like Robert S. McNamara and its senior uniformed leadership; that story is told very well in a recent book called Dereliction of Duty. It took a decade or more of quiet hard work to restore the military to its former greatness, as witnessed in its performance in the Gulf War. The Clinton era nearly did the military in again, but fortunately President Bush will hopefully see to the welfare of our servicemen and restore morale.

The Clinton era, with its scandals and disdain for the rule of law and the Constitution, was a sort of Vietnam for the FBI. Okay, so I have some issues with the FBI: violations of my First and Fourth Amendment rights among them. But by any measure, the 1990s have not been good years for the FBI. Consider the following.

1. In 1992 at Ruby Ridge, the FBI shot and killed Randy Weaver's 14-year-old son and then an FBI sniper, who claimed he could hit a quarter at 200 yards, murdered Weaver's wife as she stood on a porch holding the couple's baby in her arms. Now Clinton and Freeh could reasonably claim that Ruby Ridge didn't happen on their watch. But under Freeh, the FBI's response to the government's investigation established a pattern of cover-ups, withholding of evidence, and misleading testimony. Freeh even hired an agent as his deputy, only to have the agent retire when news of his complicity in the cover-up came to light.

Assault on Waco2. Controversy still rages about the FBI's handling of the Branch Davidians at Waco in 1993. Timothy Lynch of the CATO Institute has raised important questions about the thoroughness of Senator John Danforth's review of the Waco incident. In particular, Lynch found that Danforth ignored clear evidence of the FBI's obstruction of the subsequent investigation; the pattern was getting familiar: cover-ups, withholding of evidence, and misleading testimony. Danforth is not the only former US Senator to be "misled" by the FBI in a "blue ribbon" review of its performance. The tragedy of Waco and Ruby Ridge, beyond the immediate consequences, is that the Clinton Administration's failure to exercise due diligence in its investigations may have led directly to the Oklahoma City bombing disaster.

3. Who can forget the FBI's destruction of the reputation and life of Richard Jewell? FBI leaks to a rabid media resulted in Jewell's being held hostage in his apartment by the media pack. Seems that the FBI jumped the gun on Jewell, however, and now is after Eric Robert Randolph, who is still at large. As for Jewell...well, never mind.

4. Free Congress' Lisa Dean has repeatedly warned about FBI's and law enforcement's threats to our Fourth Amendment rights. The FBI's Carnivore email surveillance program exposes thousands of innocent Americans to federal monitoring of their email traffic. Director Freeh evidently doesn't think much of the Fourth Amendment, however, and has argued that we need a new amendment more attuned to the "information age." By the way, only a government bureaucrat would think that renaming the program to DSC1000 would delude American citizens that the program has changed. Dean has written extensively on the broad range of surveillance technologies under development by law enforcement agencies. When their own file keeping on American citizens came under scrutiny, Freeh's agency simply "out-sourced" the collection and maintenance of such files. Now FBI agents can access your personal data, credit history, etc., by clicking an icon on their desktop computers.

5. Freeh was not alone in believing that the end of the Cold War equated to a reduced threat of espionage. But Freeh was one official who could act on that, as it turned out, misperception to the detriment of the nation's security. He practically dismantled the FBI's counterintelligence arm, especially that section that dealt with China. FBI CI agents retired in droves and those that stayed were reassigned or simply left in the backwater areas of the FBI's National Security Division. The FBI's handling of the KINDRED SPIRIT Chinese nuclear espionage scandal has been well covered by David Cloud of the Wall Street Journal and Dan Stober of the San Jose Mercury News. Suffice to say this was not the FBI's finest hour. Of course, in the subsequent investigations of their handling of the case, the FBI withheld key evidence from and misled Congressional and Administration investigators, including former Senator Rudman. Another Republican Senator willing to take a bullet for Freeh and the FBI.

6. This was surpassed only by disclosure of a spy working within the bowels of the FBI's NSD. Well, ok, it happens. But it turns out that the FBI's internal security procedures were not so great, after all, and worse yet, one FBI agent was convinced that there was a spy amongst them. But his conclusions were dismissed with FBI officials claiming that there was nothing to support the opening of a case. But just as in the Chinese case, the assumption that "it can't happen here" precluded the FBI from examining its own computer files for indications of such activity. After the spy was fingered, guess what...the FBI found such evidence that had been siting there all along. When did government officials, charged with guarding our most precious secrets, become so complacent that they don't even bother to do the most obvious things to make sure those secrets are safe?


And the list goes on. But now Director Freeh has announced his resignation (finally) and the Bush Administration has a chance to do what Colin Powell and others did for the US military after Vietnam. Take it all apart and put it back together again - the right way. Rebuild it from the inside out. Most importantly, keep the focus where it belongs - an uncompromising observance of the limitations and restrictions imposed on law enforcement by our Constitution. It was written the way it is for a reason, but during the Clinton-Reno-Freeh years we seem to have ignored its relevance to our lives today. President Bush has a great opportunity to put the FBI back on the right track and, hopefully, once again, little boys and girls will dream of becoming FBI agents when they grow up.

Notra Trulock is the Director of Media Relations at the Free Congress Foundation. He is a former Director of Intelligence at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • The FBI credibility gap by Charles Bloomer (August 7, 2000)
    E-mail capturing device Carnivore will only be used under strict rules and court orders, says the FBI. Notra Trulock probably doesn't find the agency all that credible, responds Charles Bloomer
  • Is American law enforcement out-of-control? by Tom DeWeese (October 11, 1999)
    Tom DeWeese answers that question, though the answer might be very self-evident to most

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