Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- It defies credibility that FBI Director Robert Mueller did not reply to an e-mail letter from agent Coleen Rowley, whose previous whistle-blowing earned her Time's person-of-the-year status. She was not alone. For an even longer period, Mueller ignored a written complaint from a U.S. senator.

Last Tuesday, the very day a frustrated Rowley gave her latest whistle-blowing letter to two newspapers, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania confronted the non-responsive FBI chief face-to-face. Rowley contended that the FBI is unprepared to cope with a terrorist onslaught following a U.S. attack on Iraq. Specter was concerned that Mueller had not quickly corrected the FBI's unduly heavy burden of proof that played a part in the intelligence failure leading to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Apart from the substance of this criticism, Mueller's decision to ignore a world-class whistle-blower and a particularly tenacious senator suggests not all that much has changed at the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover's arrogance toward the outside world permeated the Bureau's culture and has not been obliterated. Even after 9-11, local police chiefs complain the FBI still resists sharing information with them.

The Bush administration brooks no criticism of the FBI, but Specter surely does. After Rowley's famous letter last May accusing FBI headquarters of hampering any investigation of alleged 20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui, she and Mueller were questioned by Specter in a June 6 hearing. The senator contended the FBI was setting too high a standard of "probable cause" to issue an investigative warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

In a closed-door hearing July 9, seven FBI officials (including four lawyers) questioned by Specter showed they were not familiar with a 1983 Supreme Court opinion by then Associate Justice William Rehnquist. That decision defined probable cause as "circumstances which warrant suspicion." Rowley had revealed that the FBI was using the wrong standard -- 51 percent probability of wrongdoing. Specter wrote to Mueller on July 10 pointing out that his agency still had not applied the proper standard.

The senator's letter fell into the FBI's black hole. Not until Sept. 12 did Specter receive a reply -- from since retired John Collingwood, the Bureau's assistant director for public and congressional affairs. As reporters experienced during his long service, Collingwood revealed nothing. But on Sept. 16, the FBI finally put out a memorandum -- more than a year after the terrorist attacks -- somewhat vaguely outlining a proper standard for probable cause.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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