THE DREADFUL RECORD OF THE FBI
John Ashcroft, likely inspired while rolling around on the plush carpet of the Attorney General’s office during a sudden onset of speaking in tongues, has given the FBI new powers for domestic spying. FBI Director Robert Mueller, ever-vigilant for the rights of Americans, assured the public that the Bureau’s agents had been “hampered” by bureaucratic restrictions, his tone and substance closely resembling an American executive grumbling about the Environmental Protection Agency’s having hampered sluicing operations of toxic sludge into wetlands.
The FBI is now free, in the great, “no damn fed’rah regulation” tradition of Enron or Silverado savings and loan, to pursue its goals. Only this is not just another crooked corporation chiseling people’s savings, but a secret police force with vast powers and an unwholesome history.
Needless to say, Mr. Bush, warmly welcomed the changes.
It is a serious question, and no mere rhetorical flourish, to ask which organization, the FBI or al-Qaeda, has done more harm to the liberties of Americans. The record of the FBI is a dreadful one.
Recent information has revealed that way back when Albert Einstein came to America in 1933, the FBI spied on him. Over the years, until Einstein’s death in 1955, the FBI searched his garbage, invaded his mail, tapped his phone, attempted to discredit him at various times, and even cooperated with the INS in an effort to deport him. Yes, that’s right, Albert Einstein, one of the most important intellects of the Twentieth Century and a refugee from Nazi terror. In the Land of the Free.
Einstein was a pacifist and a non-conformer – just the kind of person J. Edgar Hoover despised. After all, Hoover’s requirements for his agents included a certain kind of shoes, a certain kind of tie, a certain kind of suit, and keeping the jacket buttoned. These were over and above his requirements for race, religion, and general physical appearance. An agency with any analytical subtlety would have understood that a person of Einstein’s temperament was incapable of working for some regimented organization like the Communist Party, but not the FBI.
Of course, these police-state activities were no more, and indeed considerably less, than those perpetrated by the FBI against Martin Luther King, one of America’s few genuine heroes of the 1960s. Dr. King was bugged, harassed, intimidated, and threatened because the Director of the FBI loathed his views and considered him morally degenerate.
And for many decades, J. Edgar Hoover held the entire American Congress under a quiet state of threat with his secret files on their personal lives. And he did plenty of dirt-digging work for several American presidents wishing to bend or blackmail troublesome politicians to their will. At his death, his immensely-sensitive, secret files simply disappeared.
But that’s ancient history, isn’t it? Well, yes, except that Hoover reigned for so long that every long-term career and practice of the FBI bears something of his mark, as does the headquarters building in Washington where his name is still up in big, shiny letters. Let’s take a look at some outstanding moments in the FBI’s more recent history.
There’s the amazing case of Richard Jewell and the Atlanta Olympic bombing in 1996. The FBI, suspicious for some reason of the completely-innocent Mr. Jewell, unethically released rumors and confidential tidbits about their suspicions to news media. His life was made miserable by intrusive reporters, too lazy to do any digging into facts, and ridiculous CNN rubbish-reporting, the kind of enlightening stuff that includes prime-time footage of such devious acts as driving away in his car.
Eventually, it was established conclusively Mr. Jewell was completely innocent and even had played the role of something of a hero during the event. The suspicion finally fell on an anti-abortion maniac who meanwhile managed to set more bombs.
During the New York Times vendetta a couple of years ago against Dr. Wen Ho Lee, a former scientist at Los Alamos, the FBI continued the high ethical standards of investigation established in the case of Richard Jewell. There can be little doubt that the FBI was the source for many of the allegations and rumors that the New York Times published in a long series of columns during 2000 that worked to destroy Wen Ho Lee’s career and suggest that he was involved in espionage.
In an effort to threaten Mr. Lee into confessing what he was not guilty of or at least to find some trivial charge that might stick, the FBI eventually used an old prosecutor’s dirty trick of charging him with about sixty various offences. Later, not a single charge of consequence held against Mr. Lee, and the FBI’s investigation was shown to have been poorly conducted.
Perhaps even more important, on more than one occasion during Mr. Lee’s ordeal, FBI agents used artfully-crafted language to misrepresent the truth in court. In other words, they perjured themselves. And they paid no penalty for doing so.
The eighty or so people who eventually were incinerated owing to the FBI’s tactics at Waco in 1993, may not have been the sort I’d want as neighbors, millenarian kooks who prepared for a returning Prince of Peace with a locker full of restricted weapons and ammo, but they didn’t deserve the horrible deaths they received. The images of the FBI using tanks against their flimsy compound were more horrifying than those of the Chinese army in Tiananmen Square. After all, China doesn’t pretend to be what we understand as a free and democratic society.
Again, neighbors I wouldn’t want were involved in the FBI’s standoff at Ruby Ridge in 1992. These people were standard-issue American militia-types who hated government and hated paying taxes. But those facts hardly justified an FBI sharpshooter’s putting a bullet through a woman and her child.
In 1997, following a long series of public allegations, an investigation by the Inspector General’s office in Washington resulted in an embarrassing report on the state of the FBI’s crime labs. It was a tale of misconduct, manipulated evidence, and likely-tainted prosecutions by individuals the general public had assumed were scrupulous, world-class experts in their fields.
The FBI’s investigation of the 1996 crash of Flight 800, headed by the Agency’s contentious and graceless James Kallstrom, was shabby. The kind of eye-witness reports that in many criminal cases would provide decisive evidence were dismissed out of hand or unconvincingly explained away.
Robert Hanssen, a senior FBI agent and one of the most damaging spies in American history, was arrested in 2001, following many years of selling information to the Russians. When the story broke, we were given nonsense about Mr. Hanssen’s being a quiet, dedicated family man with a rather brilliant mind and not the least sign of misbehavior. But that only served to prove how uninformed the FBI was about its own high-level official. As it turned out, there had been all kinds of signs for years. These included the classic ones in the espionage business of sudden, large amounts of money and expensive gifts given to a girl friend. His unaccountable new wealth had even been reported to the FBI by a relative who was also an agent, but the report was ignored.
The terrorists of September 11, 2001, all received valid American visas, one of them reportedly after his death. These people had questionable backgrounds and pursued questionable activities while in the U.S. The Israelis were almost certainly aware of them. The CIA was almost certainly aware of them. But the FBI, whose bailiwick includes domestic counter-intelligence, seems largely to have been unaware of them.
The most colossal and historic failure of the FBI is one that is not widely appreciated. A great deal of the credit for the slipshod work, overlooked evidence, and hasty, inappropriate conclusions in the investigation into the assassination of President Kennedy belongs not to the Warren Commission but to the FBI. The FBI served as the commission’s investigating agency, and the FBI, for reasons that have never been explained, had fixed on the exclusive guilt of Oswald almost immediately after the shooting.
But the very same FBI, though it was in regular contact with Lee Harvey Oswald (as you would expect in the extraordinarily-rare case of a defector returned from the Soviet Union, one who had threatened in the American embassy in Moscow to reveal radar secrets he learned as a Marine, and one who returned with a Soviet wife at the height of the Cold War), failed to have his name listed on the Agency’s special watch list. This is hardly plausible when he had written letters to the Soviet embassy in Washington and undertaken many public activities which were certainly monitored by the FBI, including activities in New Orleans for which he was arrested once and paid a lengthy visit by an FBI agent while in jail.
Not being on the FBI’s special watch list, he was able quickly to obtain a new passport not long before the assassination for travel to Mexico City and with the stated intention of travelling on to Cuba (try that, even today, and see how quickly your passport is issued). Moreover, the FBI office in Dallas had a hand-written note from Oswald which the office’s agent-in-charge ordered destroyed immediately after the assassination. A supposed summary of its contents was entered in evidence, but this was so pathetic, one can only ask why it would ever have been thought necessary to destroy it. No charges concerning the destruction of evidence ever materialized.
The FBI had a long series of dark and questionable activities leading up to the assassination to hide or explain away. And, as chief investigator, that’s just what it did. Not that I believe it was involved in the actual assassination – Hoover hardly needed murder when he already held superb blackmail material in the form of tapes and documents over the heads of both Kennedy brothers – but the Agency, for its own murky reasons, made sure the public did not understand the truth of what had happened.
Now, I ask myself, given a record like that, would I accept the premise that the FBI must be freed to spy on Americans (and others) even more intrusively than it already does? I don’t think so, but then I don’t accept the idea that the Good Lord finds it helpful to have people roll on the floor like inmates of an asylum for the criminally insane, grunting inarticulate nonsense, either.