New FBI Powers - A Choice
Between The Lesser Of Two Evils?

By Jeff Johnson
Congressional Bureau Chief

CAPITOL HILL - Attorney General John Ashcroft says new investigative powers he has given the FBI are necessary to combat terrorism in the U.S. and abroad, while critics say lifting existing restrictions will "trash a central protection against government fishing expeditions." But does the FBI have to choose between "political correctness"or becoming "big brother"?

As reported May 29 and May 30, more than one FBI agent has said that agency's policies and bureaucracy interfered with investigations into alleged terrorist activities.

Active FBI Special Agent Robert Wright details one incident where "political correctness" may have hampered an investigation. The president of a U.S. Muslim organization, suspected by the FBI as a possible terrorist "front," had asked for a meeting with a Muslim FBI agent.

"[The Muslim agent] asked if I desired him to speak with the president. I advised him that I desired him to have the meeting and to wear a concealed recording device (wire) to record what transpired," Wright said in a sworn statement.

But after consulting with, and receiving approval for the wire from the U.S. Attorney supervising the investigation, Wright got some startling news.

"When I returned, my supervisor summoned me to his office and advised me that [the Muslim agent] was not going to wear the wire and that I should forget about it," he recalled.

Wright says that, in the following weeks, he learned that the Muslim agent had refused to allow conversations with Muslim terrorist suspects to be secretly recorded on at least two other occasions.

The Muslim agent had also allegedly contacted individuals he knew to be the subject of investigations being conducted by the Dallas FBI office, without disclosing those contacts.

"Due to the serious nature of the events surrounding this terrorism investigation, a senior special agent of the Chicago FBI attempted on three separate occasions to determine the proper procedure to initiate an inquiry into [the Muslim agent's] refusal," Wright explained. "The attempts made through the FBI Chicago security office were never responded to by FBI headquarters."

After other FBI agents began to question whether the Muslim agent was sympathetic to certain terrorist groups, he filed an equal employment opportunity complaint, claiming that he was the victim of discrimination based on his Muslim religion and Arab/Middle Eastern national origin.

Wright did not know the outcome of that claim, but did say that no disciplinary action has been taken against the Muslim agent for refusing to allow his conversations with suspected terrorists to be secretly recorded.

Wright has chronicled the obstacles he encountered in a manuscript that he wants to deliver to Congress.

Currently, he says the FBI has forbidden him to release the document to members of Congress, telling him that he may instead "report any concerns he might have to an investigative entity with appropriate jurisdiction such as ... the relevant congressional committees that are investigating the terrorist attacks."

But Wright says when he tried to come to Washington, on his own time, to talk to members of Congress, he was ordered not to leave the jurisdiction of the FBI's Chicago field office without permission. When he asked for that permission, Wright says it was denied.

David Shippers, one of Wright's attorneys, says the bureaucracy of the FBI will never change, despite claims to the contrary by Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller.

"It seems to me that this is just the typical method; throw it over to the Congress, tell the Congress that they can investigate, and then tell Agent Wright he's not allowed to divulge anything to the Congress," he said.

Shippers says that he is advising Wright to obey the FBI's restrictions for now, but he is not happy about it.

"We'll follow their guidelines, the same guidelines that put 3,000 people on the street, dead, in New York," he said.

Existing Guidelines Tied Agents' Hands

Ashcroft says existing guidelines, not "political correctness," tied agents' hands in the past.

"Under the current guidelines, FBI investigators cannot surf the web the way you or I can. Nor can they simply walk into a public event or a public place to observe ongoing activities. They have no clear authority to use commercial data services that any business in America can use," Ashcroft explained.

"These restrictions are a competitive advantage for terrorists who skillfully utilize sophisticated techniques and modern computer systems to compile information for targeting and attacking innocent Americans," he concluded.

In response, Ashcroft changed those guidelines effective May 30 to allow:

- Online research and use of commercial data mining services, independent of particular criminal investigations; - Expanded criminal intelligence investigations, longer authorization periods, easier approval and renewal requirements; - Entry into any public place that is open to private citizens, unless prohibited by the Constitution or federal statute; - Investigations of suspected terrorists, even if they have ties to religious and political groups, using the same investigative techniques used when investigating members of any other type of organization.

The Pendulum Swings In The Direction Of 'Big Brother'

Civil libertarians believe the FBI probably could have done more to uncover and disrupt terrorism prior to Sept.11, but they say increasing the potential for civil rights abuses is not the way to make the agency more effective.

"Taken as a whole, all the various changes that we've seen coming out of Congress and the Justice Department are very much moving in that direction of giving government too much, far more power than it needs to actually carry out the legitimate function of trying to prevent terrorism," said Steve Dasbach, executive director of the Libertarian Party.

Laura Murphy, director of the Washington national office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), questions the message the relaxed guidelines will send.

"The government is rewarding failure," she said in a statement. "When the government fails - as it increasingly appears to have done before September 11 - the Bush Administration's response is to give itself new powers rather than seriously investigating why the failures occurred."

Both Murphy and Dasbach say it's important to remember the origin of the restrictions Ashcroft is now lifting.

"They were put in place as a response to FBI abuses of surveillance back during the civil rights movement and the anti-[Vietnam]-war movement," Dasbach recalled.

"They had FBI agents that were going in and weren't simply observing the way that the attorney general is describing, but went further and actually opened dossiers, engaged in activities to disrupt lawful organizations, and acted sometimes as a provocateur to encourage the organizations to break the law so that they could then, of course, come in and arrest them," he said.

Marvin Johnson, legislative counsel with the ACLU, fears that the new guidelines will allow the FBI to freely infiltrate religious services and organizations, eavesdrop on online chat rooms, and read online bulletin boards "even if it has no evidence that a crime might be committed."

Authorities conducted similar surveillance and infiltration of the civil rights groups founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Dr. King's legacy is not just the gains made toward political and social equality," Johnson said. "His persecution by law enforcement is a necessary reminder of the potential abuse when a government with too long a leash seeks to silence voices of dissent."

Don't Lengthen The FBI's 'Leash,' Shorten It

Dasbach believes the FBI's "leash" is already too long. He wonders if the bureau failed to follow up on reports of potential terrorist activities by Wright and Minneapolis FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley because of "political correctness," or because the agency is simply investigating in too many legal areas.

"They're involved in too many things, trying to do too much, and having too many things fall through the cracks," he said. "It's just too easy for things to slip by and not be noticed."

The USA Patriot Act, which gave federal law enforcement sweeping new authorities to conduct wiretapping, surveillance, and searches is a good example of moving in the wrong direction, Dasbach says.

In a previous report, detailed the provisions of the bill, which were called "unconstitutional" even by some members of Congress.

"If we scale back some of those things," Dasbach concluded, "then I think people would be a little more comfortable, perhaps, with loosening some of these other restrictions. But loosening these restrictions, on top of the other powers that the FBI has been granted over the past several months really is an ominous trend."