Connect With Us

22. FBI: Sloppy, 0ut of Touch and Very Powerful

Source: THE NATION, Title: “The FBI,” Date: August 1, 1997, Author: David Burnham

SSU Censored Researchers: Katie Sims and Ben Brewer
SSU Faculty Evaluator: Patrick Jackson, Ph.D.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for years was perceived as the nation’s preeminent crime-fighting agency. That image took a blow from events at Waco and Ruby Ridge, where the FBI had major confrontations with citizens, as well as from a reported mess at the FBI crime lab. Now, after examining the bureau’s own records, a law enforce-ment reporter concludes that the FBI today is a sloppy, unresponsive, badly managed, uncooperative, and out-of-touch agency that is aggressively trying to extend its control over the American people.

The bureau concentrates on drug dealers, credit-card scams, and bank robbers, all tasks that could easily be left to state and local agencies. Meanwhile, insufficient attention is given to the financial loss and the physical pain and deaths that result from the work of the nation’s army of white-collar criminals.

Records also show that the success rate of FBI cases is dismal. Justice Department prosecutors find much of the FBI’s investigative work inadequate. From 1992 to 1996, only one-fourth of all FBI cases referred to prosecutors resulted in convictions. The much-touted FBI lags behind the Drug Enforcement Agency, Internal Revenue Service, Immig-ration and Naturalization Service, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in prosecution success rates.

Given the current system in which the FBI runs with a free hand, there’s little reason to expect the bureau to improve or change. Because the FBI operates within the Justice Department, most people assume that it is accountable to the Attorney General. This is incorrect. From his appointment in 1924 to his death in 1972, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was his own boss. This was largely due to the fact that Hoover understood the importance of information and how it could be used to garner power and influence. Hoover was untouchable. After his death, Congress attempted to put some controls on the FBI. Now the director serves a 10-year term and can be removed from office only for “just cause.” Subsequently, new FBI directors have a 10-year period to be their own masters with little accountability or oversight.

The FBI is continually pushing for greater control over and access to the private domains of American citizens. Evidence of this is given in a program quietly signed into law by President Clinton in October 1994. This program required the nation’s telephone companies to install a new generation of FBI-approved equipment that will make it much easier for the bureau to tap telephones throughout the country. The implications of this mandate are made even more far-reaching by the subsequent development of computer technologies that are able to monitor these wiretaps with little or no help from human operatives—making wiretapping considerably cheaper.

Testifying before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime in June, Louis Freeh, the current FBI Director, said, plainly: “We are potentially the most dangerous agency in the country.”

UPDATE BY AUTHOR DAVID BURNHAM: “The Federal Bureau of Investigation is the most powerful and secretive agency in the United States. Decade after decade, with no consideration of alternatives, it has continuously sought to expand its reach over the American people. Despite this steadily growing authority, the ‘B,’ as special agents refer to it, has rarely been subject to informed scrutiny.

“Most news organizations are satisfied with press releases and leaks that are always carefully crafted to serve the FBI’s purposes. While FBI Director Louis Freeh frequently testifies before Congress, the information he provides is almost always anecdotal. Public interest groups, lawyers, and scholars frame their questions about the FBI around individual horror stories that are easily dismissed as exceptions to the rule.

“The FBI article in The Nation was important because for the first time ever, it used the comprehensive internal records of the Justice Department to document what the bureau does and does not do, and how well or poorly it does it. FBI investigations result in thousands of convictions for drug crimes, bank robberies, and small-time fraud against the banks, but only a handful of convictions of big time white-collar criminals, fraudulent medical providers, or brutal cops. Even by its own standards, other agencies like the DEA appear to do a better job than the FBI in the enforce-ment of the nation’s drug laws.

“The data that served as the foundation of this article were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a research organization associated with Syracuse University. I am a founder and co-director of TRAC. At the time The Nation published the FBI article, we mounted an FBI Web site with more than 20,000 pages of maps, charts, graphs, textual material, and other information about the bureau’s operations. This information is available to every citizen, every reporter, every public interest group, and every congressperson who is concerned about the FBI, at http://trac.syr.edu/tracfbi. TRAC has created similar sites about the IRS, DEA, and BATF.

“Post Script: On August 5, 1997, just as The Nation was coming off the presses and TRAC’s Web site was going up, ABC’s Nightline ran a favorable program on TRAC and its FBI findings. For a transcript of the program, call me at 202/ 544. 8722 or e-mail me at trac@syr-edu. The Web site of TRAC is: http://www. trac.syr.edu.”