Losing patience with the FBI

Congress’ relationship with the FBI always has been Frankenstein-like with the father of the monster regarding his creation with cautious affection rooted in fear. The result has been fawning accommodation and unlimited tolerance for whatever the bureau demands, no matter how outrageous or unwarranted, a willingness to excuse what clearly was the inexcusable from Waco to Ruby Ridge to 9/11.

Long before agents stormed into the Capitol Hill office of Louisiana Democratic Rep. William Jefferson, setting off a minor constitutional crisis in their pursuit of evidence of criminal activity, there were allegations of the bureau’s insensitivity to the separation of powers. But while some members of Congress complained about abuse of their rights _ Hale Boggs, Democratic majority leader, railed long and loud on the House floor about bureau encroachment _ most seemed unwilling to challenge the increasingly powerful national police force whose then-leader J. Edgar Hoover was said to have secret dossiers on nearly every official in Washington.

Whether Hoover’s secret files ever really existed _ they have never surfaced _ didn’t really matter. What was important was that everyone in Congress thought they did and acted accordingly. That included giving top priority to the bureau’s often outlandish budget and increased manpower requests at the expense of other under funded, under staffed federal law enforcement agencies; treating every bureau mistake with kid gloves, looking the other way as the bureau gobbled up more and more turf from sister institutions, and generally ignoring their mandated congressional oversight responsibilities

Time and again, through one Hoover successor after another, the Congress not only tolerated bureau incompetence but also accepted the FBI’s oft repeated excuse that whatever the failing, it had been the direct result of insufficient manpower. The message was clear: More troops would correct the problem.

That approach worked wonders, boosting the bureau to 12,000 agents, a huge budget, an army of support employees and a reach that went well beyond the nation’s boundaries. The bureau led a charmed life on Capitol Hill. That is until Sept. 11, 2001, when forces led by Osama bin Laden revealed just how ineffective this bureaucratic giant was when it came to carrying out its responsibility for protecting the nation from just such incidents. The number one domestic defender against the kind of terrorism the rest of the world had long suffered was so incompetent that it had missed a series of opportunities to thwart the entire affair, at times ignoring the obvious signs and stifling the warnings of its own dismayed agents.

The bureau was for the first time since the days of John Dillinger under severe criticism from its former allies in the House and Senate as one commission after another found it wanting. There was even serious discussion about relieving it of its counter intelligence mission. The new director, Robert Mueller, met every challenge with the promise of reform, pledging to change the thrust from chasing bank robbers to stopping terrorists. But more than 80 years of culture built on after-the-fact investigating is difficult to change.

Now the bureau’s woes have been exacerbated by the Jefferson affair resulting in outrage from the leaders of both parties in Congress and embarrassment to a president who badly needs a better relationship with the legislative branch. In an effort to cool down the rhetoric and avoid the growing constitutional brouhaha, President Bush ordered that whatever the bureau took from Jefferson’s office be sealed for 45 days. It hasn’t deterred a House committee from conducting hearings on possible constitutional violations. The committee’s chairman, James Sensenbrenner, is contemplating legislation to prevent a recurrence.

While this encroachment can be expected to pass, it clearly is another blow to the FBI’s reputation. A number of constitutional scholars believe the action leaps the barrier separating the branches of government. Clearly evidence gathered prior to the raid points to Jefferson’s involvement in a bribery scandal. Why the bureau and its Justice Department bosses felt it necessary to step over a line it has come close to in the past but avoided crossing until now is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it is best to chalk it up to continuing bad judgment.

Whatever the reason, the Prometheus that remained unchained so long faces a new challenge to stay that way and to prevent the growing number of lawmakers who would relieve it of its responsibilities from succeeding. Maybe more agents are needed.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)