Giving the FBI a license to snoop

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 OSS 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 thomassondan(at)


  1. sherry

    London Times had a very interesting article regarding sweeping “security” changes. It is proposed that every land line, cell phone, email be recorded and stored. Then there is the National ID card.
    I can’t believe Brits are settling for this. They should be taking to the streets.
    When it comes here, and it will, what will WE do?

  2. Kibitzer

    I don’t understand. How can they get away with this without showing probable cause? What’s the argument? And if that’s where Mukasey is in this, where’s the likes of the ACLU? To say: Who’s mounting a lawsuit?

    Last thing I knew, FISA still had a role to play in all this.

    As for the UK, Sherry: Indeed. As an expat, I’m over here, keeping an eye on things in both countries, and yes, it’s abominable. But at least we have the likes of the Guardian, and the Independent, and a Privacy Commissioner who is doing a good job, and an ACLU-type body called Liberty….they all do a good job getting the info out; but the Labour Party has climbed into bed with the same corporate elite who are running things in the US (making the world safe for fascism), and the Conservatives are, well, Tories, so they’re no help in such matters (except for some individuals therein). And the Lib Dems are ineffectual as a political power. The hope is that, with the star of the Conservatives rising, they will keep to their current attitude, under new-broom David Cameron, of being more in touch with ‘the people’ than in the Thatcher era (from which they have distanced themselves), and will not dance to the same New World Order tune that the current PM Gordon Brown has chosen to do, carrying on in the same vein as Tony ‘Downing Street Memo’ Blair.

    It may be a forlorn hope. In which case, you in the States may WELL see the Brits “taking to the streets”. There’s quite a tradition of that sort of thing over here. In point of fact, it’s what ended the Thatcher era, with her hated poll tax. So – irony of ironies – ‘England’ may well help seed the expression of a new revolution in America.

    I’m trusting that the Demos, gaining clear power in both houses of Congress in Nov., will start rolling back the legislation that has put a fascist takeover of America in place. But that’s for another blog, and thread. (Anybody want to start broaching this subject here on CHB??)

  3. almandine

    Spot on… spot on…

    spot on… spot on… spot on… spot on… ad infinitum.

    Throw the bums out.

  4. history guy

    Have any of the Dems ever said they would roll back the Patriot Act and its friends? Not a one.
    Don’t hold your breath waiting for this to happen. Biden is a long time drug warrior, property seizing, government watching everyone kind of guy.