FBI Meltdown: The Root Cause

Attorney General John Ashcroft has told the FBI that it has lost the full trust of the American people. The reason: the Hanssen spy case and goof-ups on the Oklahoma bombing prosecution. The agency can and must change to become the "foremost law enforcement agency in the world."

Did Stalin ever give a similar pep talk in the guise of a rebuke?

"Comrades," he might have said, "I fear that the NKVD has lost the full trust of the people. Some rats in the organization have double-crossed me by spying for the US. Also, we have failed to put a criminal to death quickly enough. It’s no wonder that the workers and peasants say that they are frustrated with the current level of service. This much change! There must be a new NKVD!"

If he did give such a speech, he would have missed the point. So has Ashcroft. The problem isn’t the particulars of how it carries out its mission, or the inevitable failure of a bureaucracy to manage itself. The problem is the mission itself, and the very existence of an agency which is, by its nature, despotic.

To be sure, its failures are manifest, but its dangers even more so. When the FBI revealed that it is missing 449 weapons — including submachine guns, perhaps privatized by employees — we were reminded that this agency is armed to the teeth and stockpiling more. Where’s the anti-gun lobby when we need them? Why worry about private firearms when these people are licensed to kill, and to carry weapons citizens aren’t allowed to possess?

Everyone in the FBI longs for the days when J. Edgar Hoover brought status and prestige to the operation. Under FDR and in the postwar period, it was seen as a nearly infallible guardian of the national interest. Thanks to these master sleuths, the nation was protected from nefarious criminals and political enemies of the left and right.

Because of that reputation, young men aspired to a career in the FBI, in hopes of basking in the fame and glory that came with it. Maybe there was a time too when the Soviet or Nazi secret police enjoyed public credibility, and they too longed for those days once people discovered the truth. Far from being protectors, people learn, they are part of the problem, even an imminent threat to the citizenry.

Contrary to Ashcroft, who has revealed himself to be a real company man, not one regular person in the country was hurt by Hanssen’s spying. Hanssen stands accused of revealing to the Russians that the US was digging an underground tunnel to their DC embassy. Oh, yes, and he may have also revealed the identities of Russians who were similarly duping their government. (Yawn.)

This is Spy-versus-Spy stuff, a conflict between governments that has no bearing on anything else. If you work in the "intelligence community," it’s big news. There’s also a human interest story here: how did this bourgeois, Church-going family man come to do this? But the outcome has nothing to do with our lives otherwise.

As for the Oklahoma fiasco, it was never clear whether the evidence withheld until the week before Tim McVeigh was scheduled to be poisoned might have impacted the verdict or sentence. The Justice Department said, hey, sorry we were tardy in delivering tens of thousands of documents, but these documents surely don’t reveal anything important. We were just supposed to take their word for it.

But as the days went by, we learned that the documents dealt mainly with details that were in dispute: were there other people involved, for example. Were we dealing with incompetence here or cover up? There’s no good reason for not believing it was a cover up, unless you just a priori believe that the FBI never acts with malice.

It’s certainly true the FBI has lost the public trust. A Gallup poll shows that people trust their local police twice as much as the FBI, as well they should. But the reason is not the spy case or incompetence. It is because people don’t like what the FBI does and do not like the way it does it. It’s the very heart of the FBI’s role in American life — not its foibles — that is objectionable.

Nothing in the Constitution permits the federal government to have its own police force. But the FBI claims the right to intervene in any local criminal issue, trumping the rights of state and local law enforcement. And not for the good. The FBI played a notorious role in the Ruby Ridge murders, and in the destruction of the religious community in Waco, Texas. It violates civil liberties as it helps prosecute the drug war, and generally acts as an arm of the wildly unpopular central government.

These revelations were a disaster for the FBI. Ashcroft only vaguely mentioned "earlier tragedies in Texas and Idaho" without actually assigning blame to the government. The problem is that the FBI has no customer base to whom it is responsible. Its high status with Congressional budget committees is due entirely to its history and traditional reputation. It is that reputation that allows such a completely unaccountable agency to exist at all. The FBI has guarded it with ferocity.

The Ashcroft speech appeared to be a serious upbraiding, but in fact it was designed for public consumption. Though he never mentioned the agency’s abuse of power, we are led to believe that this problem is being addressed. We are encouraged to believe that the rogue agency has been reined in.

This is nonsense. The problem of the FBI is not a failure of the current management. It is a failure of power itself. The federal government should not have a police force. Such a thing is incompatible with freedom, just as the NKVD and the Gestapo are contrary to freedom. The FBI should be not be reinvented or reformed, but abolished. The day it becomes the "foremost law enforcement agency in the world" is the day all our liberties are gone.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. [send him mail], is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama.

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