The FBI credibility gap

By Charles Bloomer
web posted August 7, 2000

Recently, the public became aware of an FBI operation called "Carnivore." It turns out that the FBI has a computer program that the FBI forces Internet service providers (ISPs) to install that can covertly read our e-mail.

This revelation has caused a tremendous outcry from privacy advocates and has led to congressional hearings. Representative Dick Armey of Texas said that the FBI's efforts were "not legal…within the context of any current wiretap law." Calling on Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh to suspend the use of Carnivore until Fourth Amendment concerns had been addressed, Rep. Armey was concerned that the Clinton/Gore administration, an administration that "doesn't have the best record on personal privacy", may be demonstrating a "cavalier attitude" toward the privacy rights of Americans

The FBI was quick to activate its propaganda team in an effort to calm the waters. The agency has launched a campaign to deflect criticism about how Carnivore works. In meetings with members of congress, congressional staff and reporters, the FBI tried to downplay the seriousness of Carnivore and its ability to snoop in e-mail correspondence. The Wall Street Journal reported that the FBI has characterized Carnivore as merely a "tool in a toolbox" for tracking suspected criminals, a "diagnostic tool that employs new technology" and "a surgical law-enforcement device used rarely and only under strict court orders."

In addition to the information provided to congress, the FBI has published on its web site ( the statement of Donald M. Kerr, Assistant Director of the FBI Laboratory Division before the House Subcommittee on the Constitution and a brief description of Carnivore.

The bottom line of this public relations campaign is this: Carnivore is only used to collect evidence, under strict internal FBI rules and court orders. The message is this: "We, the FBI, would never abuse the capabilities of Carnivore because that would be against the law. Trust us."

Should we trust the FBI?

While the FBI was attempting to reassure the public of its trustworthiness and good faith, coincidence (or poor judgment) reared its ugly head to strike a blow at the FBI's credibility. In the same week that the Carnivore fiasco erupted, the FBI chose to harass Notra Trulock. Displaying police state arrogance and banana republic charm, the FBI, without a search warrant, seized Mr. Trulock's computer hard drive.

Notra Trulock, readers will recall, is the former Department of Energy director of counterintelligence who blew the whistle on the lax security at the DOE nuclear weapons research facilities.

On July 14th, two FBI agents showed up at Mr. Trulock's residence. These two agents allegedly told Mr. Trulock's landlady – a Department of Energy employee – that they would break the door down if she didn't cooperate. The landlady claims that the FBI agents did not show, or offer to show her a search warrant. The FBI intrusion came only two days after the latest edition of National Review hit the newsstands. Mr. Trulock had written an article for the National Review critical of the FBI's handling of the various security scandals surrounding the nuclear weapons research facilities. The FBI alleges that the article, or one similar may have contained classified information. Mr. Trulock has retained Judicial Watch as counsel and has filed suit against the FBI and Director Freeh for violating his Constitutional rights.

The American people have entrusted the FBI with the responsibility to pursue criminals, have authorized agents to carry firearms, and given the agency authority to use force when necessary. With those responsibilities and authority, America expects the FBI to adhere to the law – particularly the limitations placed on government agencies by the Constitution of the United States. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution states "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated…" A warrant, issued by a judge, based on probable cause, is required before searching a person's home and seizing his property. This is a basic Constitutional guarantee that has been around for over 200 years. The Fourth Amendment is not an excuse for a fishing expedition. We would reasonably expect that the FBI could abide by the Constitution. In addition, there are laws on the books that make harassment of whistleblowers a crime. Evidently, the FBI feels is it can violate the laws that prohibit retaliation against Americans who criticize its behavior.

If FBI agents can ignore the Constitutional guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure, why do they think we will trust them to obey "strict internal FBI rules or court orders." It is certainly unfortunate that, in the same week the FBI was waxing indignant about the lack of apparent trust in their operating a mere "diagnostic tool" that has the capability to read innocent Americans' e-mail, FBI agents were flagrantly and blatantly ignoring the Constitution and violating Mr. Trulock's civil rights. Rather, it is unfortunate for the FBI and its propaganda campaign. The American public is fortunate because the violation of Mr. Trulock's civil rights shows the duplicity and arrogance of a once respectable agency.

Should we trust the FBI with Carnivore? Should we accept FBI assurances that it will not abuse the tools and authority at its disposal? Can the FBI be trusted to protect the rights of citizens even if it has tools capable of violating those rights?

Before we say yes, maybe we should ask Mr. Trulock about FBI credibility.

© 2000 Charles Bloomer. Mr. Bloomer can be contacted, with or without Carnivore, at

Current Issue

Archive Main | 2000

E-mail ESR


1996-2023, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.