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    A Times Editorial

    Reforming the FBI

    Proposals from the FBI director and the attorney general do not change the flawed culture that has hampered the bureau's counterterrorism efforts.


    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 2, 2002


    FBI director Robert Mueller and Attorney General John Ashcroft announced policy changes last week that they say will allow the FBI to devote far greater resources to countering domestic terrorism. Most of Mueller's proposed changes in the FBI's priorities and allocation of resources make sense. Other changes, such as Ashcroft's decision to allow the FBI to conduct expanded monitoring of libraries and religious institutions without probable cause, raise constitutional concerns.

    None of the changes will necessarily alter an entrenched FBI culture that is deeply resistant to reform. Domestic security in the war against terrorism requires the competence and integrity of the FBI, yet the bureau's performance in the months immediately before and after Sept. 11 was dangerously flawed. Furthermore, there is strong evidence that Mueller and Ashcroft have been a big part of the problem. President Bush and Congress shouldn't depend on them for solutions.

    The FBI's deficiencies start at the top. From the earliest days of J. Edgar Hoover, the bureau's leadership has been more focused on, and successful at, public relations and political manipulation than core law enforcement functions. Many talented and dedicated agents perform their jobs admirably in Washington and in field offices around the country, but their efforts often have been undercut by bureaucrats more concerned with protecting their careers and the FBI's image than with protecting American citizens.

    Those misplaced priorities created unnecessary hurdles for agents whose work might otherwise have helped the FBI uncover the Sept. 11 plot. Even worse, bureaucratic defensiveness continues to complicate the task of correcting past mistakes so that future terrorist attacks can be averted.

    In the months prior to Sept. 11, FBI agents in Phoenix and Minneapolis alerted their superiors to evidence that followers of Osama bin Laden could be planning to use U.S. flight schools to develop skills needed to turn passenger airplanes into weapons of mass destruction. It is tragic that those early warnings went unheeded by the FBI hierarchy due to lack of attention, organization or imagination. It is even more outrageous that top officials -- including Mueller and Ashcroft -- failed to inform President Bush, his national security team, congressional leaders and the public about those early warnings until recently. Their self-serving lack of candor set back the government's efforts to protect the nation against future attacks.

    Consider the so-called "Phoenix memorandum" issued by FBI agent Kenneth Williams last July: Williams had conducted surveillance on several Islamic radicals enrolled in Arizona's Embry-Riddle aeronautical school. Based on his investigation, Williams, with the support of his supervisor, recommended that the FBI conduct a thorough sweep of U.S. flight schools to determine whether al-Qaida operatives were using them in preparation for acts of terrorism. Williams' memo was ignored by FBI officials in Washington and New York.

    Ashcroft and Mueller learned of the Phoenix memorandum only days after Sept. 11, yet they chose not to inform President Bush and his national security team of its existence until a few weeks ago.

    A 13-page letter Minneapolis-based FBI agent Coleen Rowley sent to Mueller contains even more explosive charges against bureau officials in Washington. Rowley says her Washington superiors didn't just impede an investigation into the pre-Sept. 11 activities of flight school student Zacarias Moussaoui -- the so-called 20th hijacker. Rowley says bureau officials also tried to prevent further investigation of Moussaoui after Sept. 11 by engaging in "a delicate and subtle shading/skewing of facts." She says frustrated field agents concluded that some FBI officials in Washington "had to be spies or moles . . . who were actually working for Osama bin Laden to have so undercut Minneapolis' effort."

    No one seriously believes that any top Justice or FBI officials are al-Qaida moles, and Washington shouldn't be looking for scapegoats in any case. However, if any officials are found to have put their personal interests, or those of their particular bureaucracies, above those of the nation, they are guilty of the worst sort of dereliction of duty. Mueller, who took over as director only a week before Sept. 11, admitted Wednesday that the FBI missed "red flags" prior to Sept. 11, but he didn't explain, or apologize for, his failure to inform his superiors of those failures for several months after Sept. 11.

    The reforms proposed by Mueller and Ashcroft last week shouldn't be dismissed out of hand just because they come from officials whose own records are compromised. Most of Mueller's proposals to shift resources aggressively from traditional crime-fighting to counterterrorism are overdue.

    However, Ashcroft has spent much of his time since Sept. 11 arguing for new investigative and surveillance powers that raise serious constitutional concerns. In lifting restrictions last week on domestic spying that have been in place for decades, Ashcroft invites the FBI to infiltrate citizens' computers, political rallies and places of worship without probable cause.

    Ashcroft insisted that the FBI would exercise its new authority strictly within the bounds of the Constitution, but nothing in the FBI's history -- or Ashcroft's -- should reassure Americans who value their constitutional liberties. The restrictions Ashcroft reversed were originally put in place because of widespread FBI abuses targeted at peaceful antiwar protesters and civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s and 1970s. Ashcroft, who since Sept. 11 has impugned the patriotism of people who dare to criticize him, is hardly the ideal official to ensure that the FBI's expanded powers will not be misused to inhibit legitimate political dissent.

    In any case, Ashcroft's new rules are largely irrelevant to the problems facing the FBI. Even Mueller now admits that federal authorities might have broken the Sept. 11 plot using the old-fashioned police powers already at their disposal, if not for the failures of their Washington superiors. The FBI didn't need more surveillance powers prior to Sept. 11; it needed more common sense.

    Ashcroft's and Mueller's proposals can't be the last word on the rebuilding of our counterterrorism efforts. Those conclusions should come only after comprehensive congressional and executive-branch reviews -- including judgments of the performance of Ashcroft and Mueller -- guided by no motive other than the best interests of the American people and our enduring Constitution.

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