TCS Daily

A Proactive War

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - June 7, 2002 12:00 AM

The FBI has significantly revamped its guidelines to adapt to the war on terrorism. The new guidelines allow the Bureau additional latitude to monitor religious sites, informational institutions, and the Internet without having to gain evidence of potential criminal activity. Under these guidelines, it is likely that the FBI will conduct preemptive espionage activities in mosques and other Islamic institutions, and will surf the Web for the purpose of developing leads, not merely following up on them. In a nod to the firestorm that was set off by Special Agent Coleen Rowley's revelation that FBI headquarters sought to hold back the investigation of local FBI branches into people like Zacarias Moussaoui and his activities, the new FBI guidelines will devolve more decision-making authority to the local level. Pursuant to the guidelines, field office directors will be able to launch terror probes and investigations without first consulting headquarters.

As a whole, Americans should welcome these new guidelines. For far too long, the FBI has been reactive in fighting the war against terrorism. Its modus operandi has been to arrive at the scene after the completion of a terrorist attack. Now, it will work to prevent such attacks.

It would seem axiomatic in the aftermath of September 11th that we would expect the FBI to head off terrorism, not merely investigate in its wake. But if these new guidelines were presented absent a catastrophic attack on America, they would have been roundly denounced, and would have been made to confront insurmountable and overwhelming obstacles to enactment.

Even still, as it stands now the new FBI guidelines have attracted a great deal of criticism. The ACLU accuses the FBI of preparing to spy on Americans even as they perform legal and everyday activities. The ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers, has accused Attorney General John Ashcroft, of wanting to use September 11th to expand his powers, and roll back civil liberties protections.

Much of this criticism is overblown and hyperbolic in nature. The FBI has not, through the change in its guidelines, decreed that previously legal activities on the part of Americans have suddenly become illegal. It merely gives the FBI a more proactive mission in fighting terrorism. As the Washington Post points out, many of the activities highlighted by the new change in guidelines, are already available to FBI agents. The only difference is that the FBI is clearing up any confusion among agents that it can pursue those activities.

One of the key ways in which FBI agents are encouraged to be proactive is in the use of the World Wide Web. Startlingly, the FBI has not used the Web to initiate investigations, or to search for clues that may point to a potential attack. The new guidelines address this problem by demanding that FBI agents search the Web like everyday citizens would, in order to find useful and important information. L. Gordon Crovitz pointed out that in the past, the FBI would never initiate Web searches to gather clues, and that the private sector would occasionally have to help the FBI out in gathering clues from the Web.

The Daniel Pearl case highlighted the FBI's need to develop basic Web research capabilities in order to solve crimes and battle terrorism. Crovitz notes that FBI agents "were surprised by how quickly [Dow Jones reporters] were able to bring them news reported from wire services and newspapers in Pakistan and other background information, courtesy of the Internet-based information service Factiva (a joint venture between Dow Jones and Reuters)." In turn, Dow Jones reporters "were equally surprised to learn that the FBI's extraordinarily professional, highly trained agents were not given access to the kinds of online research services now common on the desks of cub reporters or junior salespeople, with Factiva's products alone on some 1.5 million desktops world-wide. The old policy intentionally kept the FBI from information easily available to the civilians they protect."

Clearly, the FBI cannot continue to prevent its agents from surfing the Web for information the way any private citizen would-particularly given the fact that the FBI's Web investigations are more important than just about any Web query from any private individual. It should surprise and alarm no one that the new FBI guidelines would encourage agents to make full use of the World Wide Web. The only surprise and alarm stems from the fact that the FBI held on to its Luddite practices for so long.

The devolution of authority to local FBI branches is also welcome. The FBI is simply too encumbered and bogged down by bureaucracy to be able to coordinate activities through its national headquarters. As the Coleen Rowley episode points out, the FBI has too often neglected valuable intelligence and proactive capabilities in its local branches. It must decentralize, and delegate decision-making authority to local branches if the FBI is to be more nimble and adaptive to terrorist schemes.

Beyond the change in guidelines, the Coleen Rowley incident proves the need for the FBI to reward those who speak honestly about the state of the Bureau's investigations. Unfortunately, during the tenure of former director Louis Freeh, people who spoke out against the view of FBI headquarters were punished for the comments and their honesty. If the FBI wants to be able to defeat terrorism, it must learn not to shoot the messenger when bad or disputatious news is delivered. It is refreshing that Director Mueller encourages people to disagree with him, or to bring him bad news. This policy must be continued, and must be enhanced so that subordinates are fully encouraged to bring honest opinions to any discussion.

Needless to say, the FBI should also take care not to press its newfound authority too far. As mentioned, there are people who remain opposed to any expansion in the authority of the FBI-the enhanced threat of terrorism notwithstanding. Should the FBI be perceived as overstepping its authority, or unfairly infringing on the civil liberties of Americans, those people will agitate for a new reduction in FBI powers, thus weakening the ability of the United States to respond to terrorism. It is incumbent on the FBI to act responsibly with its newfound powers so that it can continue to remain a prime actor in the war against terrorism, and so that opponents of the new guidelines will not be given an excuse to argue that they should be changed.

The FBI's new guidelines generally appear to be well founded, and appropriate in nature. If properly executed, the new guidelines could serve to enhance the FBI's ability to fight terrorism. The new guidelines, and the FBI's newfound willingness to encourage differing opinions among subordinates will serve to make the Bureau a leaner and tougher agency. Terrorism will only be defeated when law enforcement agencies realize that they need to change certain longstanding practices, and demonstrate a capacity to institute those changes. The FBI appears to be demonstrating such a capacity. In doing so, it may at long last give terrorists something to fear. And that will reduce our fears, as law-abiding American citizens.



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