The nation's top cop says the FBI needs greater and broader spying power to prevent terrorism. For constitutional and practical reasons, he is wrong.
In late May, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that he was immediately loosening restrictions on the FBI. Ashcroft said the new rules would allow agents to do such benign tasks as search the Internet, listen in on chat rooms and monitor religious sanctuaries.
Ashcroft emphasized his respect for civil liberties. "We intend to honor our Constitution and respect the freedom that we hold so dear."
This week, Ashcroft announced another broadening of government power. At his behest, the U.S. government will require tens of thousands of Muslims and Middle Eastern visa holders to be fingerprinted and register with the government.
Again, the attorney general emphasized his respect for the Constitution. He said, "We are an open country." As long as you weren't born in Syria, that is.
Ashcroft's arguments were persuasive, even if only on the emotional level: "A band of men entered our country under false pretenses in order to plan and execute murderous acts of war," Ashcroft said. That much is irrefutable.
Still, a critical question remains: Is the key to preventing terrorism a looser leash on domestic spies? The answer is no.
Ashcroft falsely implies that FBI agents have been hamstrung by rules imposed during the 1970s. Under those rules, he suggests, an agent "cannot surf the web the way you or I can. Nor can they simply walk into a public event or a public place to observe ongoing activities. They have no clear authority to use commercial data services that any business in America can use."
FBI agents, Ashcroft said, have been required to "blind themselves to information that everyone else is free to see."
Framed in such a way, it's hard to argue with the attorney general's conclusion. But his characterizations are misleading. FBI agents have always been free to read newspapers or surf the Web. Government watchdogs point out that many investigations have been precipitated by things agents have read in the papers.
Furthermore, agents have been free to infiltrate churches and attend political rallies. And they've been authorized to monitor electronic and other communication. But they've been authorized to do so only when there's been evidence that a crime has been or is about to be committed.
That's a reasonable search. When police investigate people in the absence of evidence of a crime, that's an unreasonable search. Forbidding the latter is a bedrock American principle. The looser FBI rules flout the Constitution.
Ashcroft's program of registering legal aliens suffers from the same flaw. Because 19 hijackers came here from the Middle East, Ashcroft proposes to register, fingerprint and monitor tens of thousands of people who've evidenced no reason for such scrutiny. Whatever else this is, it is not the American way.
In addition to the constitutional flaws in the Ashcroft policies, there is also the matter of common sense. We have learned since Sept. 11 that the nation's spies and border control did not react to the clues they had, not that they lacked clues to which they could react. Is the appropriate response, then, to open the floodgates of information, thereby making it more difficult to connect the investigatory dots? Clearly, it is not.
We know what happened before, when the FBI enjoyed broad spying powers granted under the pretext of preventing subversion. Innocent people suffered. The Constitution faltered. We've traveled this path before. It's a road best not taken.
Copyright 2002, The Daily Camera and the E.W. Scripps Company