- The Washington Times - Friday, May 31, 2002

It's essential that the reforms announced this week by FBI Director Robert Mueller and Attorney General John Ashcroft be implemented in ways to protect Americans from terrorism without jeopardizing the basic, constituionally guaranteed civil liberties of Americans. The Bush administration had planned to overhaul the bureau ever since the September 11 attacks, but its efforts were clearly foundering until Coleen Rowley, a senior agent based in Minnesota, dispatched a blistering memo to Mr. Mueller last week describing how FBI headquarters in Washington had sabotaged her field office's investigation in August into suspicions that Zacarias Moussaoui had links to foreign terrorist cells.
After Mr. Moussaoui was arrested and detained on immigration charges, Washington refused to push for the Minnesota field office's request for a warrant to authorize a search of his computer, where they would have learned that he was interested in learning about crop dusters and flight patterns over New York City. Instead, Mrs. Rowley said, an unidentified agent actually changed the wording in ways that weakened the request. The Minnesota agents were unable to get permission to conduct such a search until after September 11, when it was too late.
The new guidelines announced by Messrs. Mueller and Ashcroft seek to address this problem by giving field offices like those in Phoenix and Minneapolis the authority to open terrorism investigations without having to get clearance from headquarters in Washington. Mr. Mueller noted the obvious in pointing out that, in order to prevent future attacks, the FBI must do a far better job of collecting and analyzing information from field offices.
Under guidelines that have been in place since the 1970s, the FBI is barred from sending investigators into places of worship, such as mosques, unless agents can show they must be there as part of a criminal investigation or preliminary inquiry; as a practical matter, Justice Department officials say, agents have received so much bureaucratic flak whenever they seek to investigate terrorist cells that may be operating in mosques (such as in Jersey City and Brooklyn, where Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center attack, was recruiting followers for his own jihad) that they avoid conducting such inquiries at practically any cost. The new guidelines would give agents greater discretion to launch investigations of terrorist activity emanating from such mosques.
However, the new regulations shouldn't be seen as a "silver bullet" that will magically make us safe. Not everything done with the mantra of "security" is either wise or necessary. Many of the problems that have plagued the FBI in recent years, such as the botched Wen Ho Lee investigation and the coverups of outrages at Waco and Ruby Ridge, were the result of bureaucratic mendacity and incompetence, problems that Messrs. Mueller and Ashcroft will have to address. Finally, color us skeptical of any government assumption of new powers, particularly the expansion of police powers. It's only good citizenship to be suspicious, and it will be up to Congress to exercise its oversight function to ensure that, in the name of fighting terrorism, the government doesn't take for its ease and convenience a vast array of new and largely unsupervised powers to erode the freedoms that America is all about.


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