- The Washington Times - Monday, October 9, 2000

H.L. Mencken quipped in the 1920s that the name "Justice Department" was an oxymoron. Attorney General Janet Reno has vindicated Mencken and given solace to cynics across the land.
In July, controversy erupted over "Carnivore," the FBI's e-mail wiretap software that reportedly can vacuum up vast amounts of private e-mail regardless of whether the feds have a search warrant. FBI officials "explained" the program's ominous name by stressing that they never thought the public would learn of the program's existence. Janet Reno took charge by announcing she would require the FBI to change Carnivore's name.
The Justice Department also promised to appoint independent experts to evaluate the program and to issue a report showing it posed no threat to privacy. Several top academics snubbed the feds, doubting the review could be bona fide. Late last month, the Justice Department proudly announced that a team affiliated with the Illinois Institute of Technology would conduct a thorough evaluation of Carnivore. The Justice Department is scheduled to release this independent expert report exonerating the Carnivore system in December.
But glitches happen. The Justice Department posted an information file, including the contract proposal, on the project on its Website. Key parts of the researchers' resumes were blacked out or so the Justice Department thought. Computer buffs at www.cryptome.org easily opened the documents and learned that among the "independent" experts is a top adviser to Mr. Clinton's 1992-93 transition team who performed several studies for federal agencies in recent years, a former Justice Department lawyer, some consultants for the Internal Revenue Service, and others who had top security clearances from the National Security Agency and the Pentagon. The proposal promised that two of its key experts would "be of special assistance in the public comment phase of the project… . to help the public overcome popular myths and understand the limitations associated with Carnivore."
Declan McCullagh, Wired News' ace reporter, noted "the irony of public disclosure of personal information, by the very people who are in the midst of claiming they can be trusted to protect it." On the other hand, perhaps the hefty list of the Carnivore reviewers' government connections merely proves they are "independent enough for Clinton administration work."
The same charade occurred with the "independent" company hired to evaluate the film footage of the re-enactment of the FBI's final assault at Waco held earlier this year at Fort Hood, Texas. The Justice Department endlessly repeated that the Vector Data Systems is an independent British company. However, Vector is actually owned by Anteon, a large American corporation whose web page brags of its contracts with 50 federal agencies including the White House Communications Agency, the Pentagon and the Justice Department. Perhaps the Justice Department assumes the best measure of the independence of a company is how many federal contracts they have snared and hope to receive in the future. Not surprisingly, Vector provided the correct answers thus seeking to absolve the FBI of some of the most serious charges against it at Waco.
The recent "independence scams" should be no surprise. The Justice Department has no concerns about conflict of interest because the government is presumed to be incapable of committing any wrong. In a 1996 speech to government prosecutors, Miss Reno declared: "All of you public lawyers are but little lower than the angels, and I salute you." Miss Reno showed her belief in angels in 1994 when she decreed that federal prosecutors would no longer be bound by the ethics guidelines of state bar associations. Miss Reno's power grab for federal prosecutors was unanimously condemned by the Conference of Chief Justices, representing all the state supreme courts.
The longer Miss Reno clings to office, the more convinced she becomes that she personifies justice. Consider her flip-flop on the independent counsel law. Miss Reno urged Congress in 1993 to renew the independent counsel law because "there is an inherent conflict whenever senior executive branch officials are to be investigated by the department and its appointed head, the attorney general." But the longer she served as attorney general, the more contemptuous she became of public confidence in the justice system. Last year, she flipped and told Congress that the existing law should be replaced with a system that gave any attorney general unfettered authority to veto any indictments and to fire any special counsel at any time on any pretext, thereby perpetually politicizing investigations of wrongdoing by high-ranking government officials. Miss Reno illustrated how the new system works with her choice of Clinton golfing buddy John Danforth to head the most recent federal Waco whitewash.
Miss Reno and the Justice Department have rarely gone wrong overestimating the gullibility of the American public and media. If George W. Bush wins next month, Americans will have a better chance of finding the hidden skeletons in the Justice Department's closet.
But the biggest mistake would be to expect the Justice Department to become instantly trustworthy with Miss Reno's departure. Folks who go around giving the name "Carnivore" to programs designed to stomp the hell out of privacy cannot be trusted regardless of who is attorney general. The only sure way to make the Justice Department respect justice is to dramatically reduce its size and radically curtail its arbitrary power. Indeed, "Carnivore" should be a wake-up jolt to any American who still believes governments are not predators.

James Bovard is the author of the just published "Feeling Your Pain: The Explosion & Abuse of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore Years" (St. Martin's Press).

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