The FBI wants to Google you. Online, offline, underline. And they’d prefer to do it without your knowledge, thank you very much.
They are asking us to trust them.
They have a surprisingly short memory of the history of their institution.
During a hearing before the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties today a bipartisan group of skeptical members of Congress will ask why we should not reign in the power of the FBI to issue so-called “national security letters,” which require institutions to turn over sensitive personal information about private U.S. citizens.
Never mind that under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI ran roughshod over the civil liberties of citizens for decades. The Director actually maintained a file – some would call it a Blackmail File – that contained embarrassing information on a range of important people, including politicians. It took the Church Committee, after years of congressional abdication of its oversight responsibilities, to curtail some of the worst abuses.
No need, however, to go back to the Communist Era to find abuses of power at the FBI. The Department of Justice’s own Inspector General issued scathing reports last year about the FBI abusing its power to collect information on private citizens. The resource that allowed them to do so? The national security letters.
These abuses are in no way comparable to the outrageous behavior of the Bureau under Hoover. Rather, it appears to be largely a case of sloppiness and overzealous prosecutorial mindsets. Perhaps a culture addicted to Jack Bauer and idiotic portrayals of law enforcement and national security measures tends to seep into the culture of our nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency. Just enough, anyway, to justify in the minds of some agents that it’s okay to manufacture emergencies where none exist in order to gather intelligence. The IG did not offer motive for such abuse, only the evidence of its existence.
Frankly, the motives are irrelevant. I would guess that the motives are based on the credible and sincere effort to stop another September 11th. And for this, the men and women working anonymously in our national security infrastructure deserve our thanks. However, nothing justifies the abuse of fundamental American civil liberties and rights.
I’ve long been baffled by the jugular-thickening protests of our nation’s normally reserved and bookish librarians, who would have us all believe that the FBI is crouching behind every bookshelf seeking access into our most private and personal reading materials. The truth is, the Internet and New Media has forever altered the way Americans gather information – for good or ill purposes – and we must allow our law enforcement to adapt accordingly.
What is required is not a knee-jerk opposition to new tactics (think of Nancy Pelosi and the House’s refusal to reform FISA); what is needed is greater independent oversight. Congress should never again fail in its responsibility to oversee the activities of organizations as powerful and potentially threatening to American civil liberties.
Meanwhile, the FBI is asking for “more time” to get its own house in order to rectify these recent abuses of the national security letters. The FBI doesn’t need more time; it needs more self-discipline. Who signed off on these national security letters based on shoddy paperwork and even false circumstances? What disciplinary actions were taken against the supervisors who did sign off on them? What rules are in place to prevent such abuses from occurring again?
And most importantly, what actions are available to Congress should the FBI again fail to enforce such professionalism and self-discipline itself?