Freeing the FBI

Posted: Jun 13, 2002 12:00 AM
Following World War I, the French government enthusiastically backed the construction of a "great wall," intended to act as a buffer between France and Germany, thereby cutting off traditional routes of invasion. Comprising thousands of interconnecting tunnels and armaments and constantly manned with thousands of troops, the fortress wall was widely hailed as impregnable. Dubbed the "Maigot Line," after a French war hero, it was a giant, static, testament to France's defensive posture. Hitler chose a more fluid plan. That is, he directed his panzer divisions to swing stealthily around the wall and to invade along non-traditional routes. France promptly surrendered. In warfare, fluidity of thought is key. This is especially true of the current war on terrorism, which requires us to anticipate non-traditional modes of attack. Static, traditional defense mechanisms of the Maigot Line variety simply will not do against terrorist cells that are fluid, unpredictable and rely on seemingly random strikes. So, as Congress investigates the FBI and CIA's handling of intelligence information prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, it is important to remember that simply learning not to make the same mistakes will not win this war. Our enemies have proven themselves to be fluid thinkers. They are not likely to repeat the same mode of attack. As Attorney General John Ashcroft has correctly noted, what our intelligence agencies really require is the flexibility to focus on preventative measures. Foremost, that means peeling back some of the surveillance guidelines that were placed on the FBI in the '70s. For example, current guidelines prohibit agents from investigating activities without a specific lead. That means agents cannot attend public gatherings that might include terrorists. You and I could attend. But the FBI cannot. Federal agents can research the use of commercial airliners as missiles, but they can't look into suicide bombers, because suicide bombers have not yet blown themselves apart in America. These guidelines were enacted to prevent some of the information gathering abuses that marked the Vietnam/civil rights era, such as spying on dissenters and civil rights advocates like Martin Luther King Jr. In their present form, however, these guidelines limit the FBI's response. Given the scale of the Sept. 11 attacks, this sort of defensive posture is unacceptable. That is why Mr. Ashcroft has proposed new surveillance tactics that would allow the FBI more flexibility in their efforts to gather information. Ah, but does the government have a right to be flexible with our civil rights? The ACLU has denounced Ashcroft's plan as a threat to "core civil liberties guaranteed under the Constitution and Bill of Rights." The ACLU also denounced Ashcroft's plan to systematically fingerprint and track immigrants as "discriminatory" and part of a broader trend of "targeting people of Middle Eastern descent since Sept. 11." It is important to draw the distinction between racial profiling, which is investigating someone because of the color of their skin, and allowing the FBI to be proactive in gathering information on suspected terrorists, who might also happen to have complexions. As Ashcroft recently explained during an appearance on "Good Morning America," "This doesn't authorize people to go into private places, to eavesdrop, to tape record, to otherwise surveil private settings." This is freeing our defense agencies from the straightjacket of political correctness and allowing them to follow trails that may lead to terrorists. Like the trail that led to Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called "20th hijacker," who was arrested and then released in August. Despite pleas by field agents to search Moussaoui's computer files and to keep tabs on him, concerns about charges of racial profiling led senior officials to simply cut Moussaoui lose. Had the FBI traced Moussaoui's bank account information prior to Sept. 11, they would have learned of his ties with all of the other hijackers. The failure of our intelligence agencies to follow up with Moussaoui is what led Special Agent Colleen Rowley to publicly accuse FBI officials of undermining investigations into suspected terrorists. The impression Rowley gave was that the FBI has become a huge bureaucracy that is handcuffed by its fear of negative publicity. Plainly, we cannot allow a fear of ACLU lawyers to handcuff federal investigators. And while we must always remain vigilant about our civil rights, it is difficult to believe that allowing FBI agents to attend public gatherings involving suspected terrorists would send this country's democracy crashing in on itself. By comparison, loosening current surveillance restrictions could help prevent another attack of the Sept. 11 variety - or worse. For this reason, supporting Ashcroft's decision should be an easy decision to make.