Monday, October 06, 2008

FBI gets Open License to Snoop


WASHINGTON -- This is a cautionary tale.

In 1947, Gen. William "Wild Bill" Donovan proposed a new agency for gathering intelligence to replace the Office of Strategic Services that he had headed so successfully in helping win World War II. The legendary spymaster would have been the logical choice to lead an effort that would be at the forefront of the fight against communism throughout the Cold War.

But Donovan, a friend and ally of Franklin Roosevelt, was always held in some suspicion by Roosevelt's successor, Harry Truman. He never got the job, although men who had learned their craft under Donovan would play a major role in the early development of the new Central Intelligence Agency when Congress finally approved it. To make sure that Donovan was not going to be the first choice for the CIA, the White House leaked a story to the Chicago Tribune that Wild Bill had proposed a new approach to espionage that would include spying on Americans.

The story caused a huge furor in Congress and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover lent his considerable opposition to the plan. Fearing privately that such an agency would trample on the authority of the bureau, he argued openly that its activities would threaten the constitutional rights of Americans. To save the situation, proponents agreed that the CIA would be precluded from conducting domestic operations, confining their activities to overseas intelligence operations. Hoover's agents would be granted the sole responsibility for homeland counterintelligence. Those two core provisions of the CIA's charter have guided the nation's espionage activities for better or worse ever since.

Consider this irony, however. In the current effort to keep terrorism at bay, the Justice Department has just completed new guidelines for the FBI that will permit its agents to do exactly what Hoover and others claimed would be the case with the CIA -- spy on Americans without the need to show probable cause, reaching into the private lives of citizens without any indication of suspicious activities. FBI agents now will be able with near impunity to use physical surveillance, hire informants and even disguise their identities in their effort to discover potential threats to national security.

The department defends this action by contending it is required if the FBI's new central mission of heading off terrorism before it occurs is to be successful. It is simply necessary, they say, if the bureau is to be come as the 9/11 Commission recommended "a more flexible and adept collector of information."

This action seems designed to counter the bureau's reluctance to relinquish it traditional law enforcement function of investigating a crime after it has been committed, a culture that has slowed its anti-terrorism efforts. Fine. But in the process the department has provided an agency with a well-documented record of overreaching and other abuses with carte blanche authority to increase these questionable activities. It is a civil libertarian's worst dream, ripe with the possibility of political misuse and intimidation. Anyone who thinks this is not a real danger should not be in public office because he lives in a bubble of historic ignorance. That goes for Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who approved the guidelines.

During the era of civil rights and anti-Vietnam militancy, Hoover instituted a clandestine operation dubbed "Cointelpro" that was aimed among other things at proving protesters were receiving support from the nation's foreign enemies. It became a notorious, illegal intrusion on the civil rights of Americans. This clearly smacks of the same effort and could produce the same result.

One can only wonder what those who opposed Donovan and the creation of the CIA would say now. Some vulnerability to evil intentions probably is the price we pay for our liberty. It is one thing to be vigilant and quite another to use that as an excuse for trampling on our individual freedoms.

E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at