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The daily news cycle is a hungry beast with a short memory, so maybe it should come as no surprise that the revelations of Minneapolis FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley came and went so quickly. Still, you’ve got to credit W and company. The administration has dispatched her story with impressive speed and political acumen.
First they took advantage of the cover afforded by the Rowley firestorm to announce sweeping rollbacks in the U.S.’s meager edifice of rules against indiscriminate domestic spying, rules spawned by the exposure of prolific FBI abuses in the 1960s. Under the new guidelines set forth in John Ashcroft’s little-noted May 30 diktat, there is no longer any pretense that intelligence agencies need “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity to mount prolonged fishing expeditions into the affairs of private individuals.
The administration then turned to defusing Rowley’s story. Hence the rushed announcement of plans to reorganize the entire intelligence apparatus, even though the particulars are so ill-formed that Bush has no intention of soliciting funds for it this year. Thus, too, the sudden fanfare regarding the arrest of Jose Padilla a month earlier. After the Padilla story had simmered for a couples of days, the administration cheerfully conceded it was less than advertised. It was unlikely Padilla would ever be prosecuted; as a Defense Department deputy told CBS, “I don’t think there was actually a plot beyond some fairly loose talk.”
Job well done. Padilla served his purpose, which was to steal the last bit of thunder from Rowley’s Congressional testimony a few days earlier. There’s no mystery as to motive: Her disclosures concerning quashed pre-9/11 leads (along with news of the FBI’s so-called Phoenix memo and some unattended CIA leads) called into doubt a main premise of the Bush program-the frantic contention that what we need most going forward is a vastly expanded repertoire of police powers and resources.
Only the most gullible could believe that a desire to combat terror is the sole agenda here. Every administration since Reagan’s has chased after rollbacks in the civil liberties and curbs on police power wrought in the ’60s and ’70s by the civil rights movement, the Warren Court and post-Watergate reformers. And it’s usually done in the name of war, be it on drugs, pornography, child abuse, “welfare as we know it,” or terrorism. The present threat is certainly more real and more precipitous than the sham domestic wars of our recent past, but it’s fair to ask how much additional security we can expect to buy with a wholesale surrender of freedoms and privacy rights. The answer, by FBI Director Robert Mueller’s own sidelong admission, is probably not much. Testifying before a Senate committee in May, Mueller said that the 9/11 hijackers “contacted no known terrorist sympathizers [and] left no paper trail. As best we can determine, the actual hijackers had no computers, no laptops, no storage media of any kind.” In short, they seem to have done nothing that would have made them any more visible under the expansive new Bush/Ashcroft rules on snooping, electronic and otherwise, than they already were.
Once the immediate embarrassment engendered by Rowley has passed, we’re bound to see her complaint spun a different way. Why, pundits will be prompted to ask, did FBI administrators refuse to seek a search warrant for Zacarias Moussaoui’s belongings? Another sad case of law enforcement shackled by old liberal due process rules and PR concerns. The moral: Slip the shackles! Let the FBI be the FBI! In truth (and Rowley says as much) the agency had ample cause for a warrant under existing standards, but no one in the bureaucratic daisy chain recognized the possible significance of the case or could be bothered to raise their heads to pursue it.
The apparent lesson here is that the old powers of domestic surveillance are quite potent if the FBI is doing its job. American intelligence had plenty of information about September 11, we now know. What it lacked was the coordination or the resolve to add two and two. Bush’s new cabinet department is supposed to remedy this, but no executive “clearinghouse” is going to make the FBI and the CIA/NSA play well together. Jealously safeguarding what they know, particularly from each other, is the foundation of their political power.
The official rejoinder is obvious enough: We have to err on the side of sacrificing freedoms and empowering police agencies, however marginal the gains in domestic security. The stakes are too high to do otherwise. Cold comfort, wouldn’t you say, when the most glaring problem exposed to date is the intelligence machine’s failure to do anything with the information it already had?
Steve Perry is a frequent contributor to CounterPunch and a columnist for The Rake.
He can be reached at: email@example.com