Cautious restructuring of FBI required
It was rank partisan politics when Democrats clamored to know what President Bush knew, and when he knew it, before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. But it was also rank partisan politics when Republicans termed "unpatriotic" a Democratic initiative to launch an investigation into the run-up to the tragedy.
Of course there should be a sober, constructive and nonpolitical congressional investigation. One reason is to lay to rest the wooly conspiracy theories that abound on the Internet.
But one doesn't need an inflamed imagination to recognize that a serious intelligence failure occurred prior to Sept. 11. For the first time, a senior law-enforcement official, a nonpolitician, FBI Director Robert Mueller, has suggested that more diligent pursuit of known leads might have detected the terrorist plot, although it might not have prevented the attack.
It's long been clear, however, that it's not ineptitude that's the problem at the agency; far from it. It has long attracted bright and dedicated agents.
It's more a matter of culture and style. The FBI has long been the world's best at solving crimes and catching perpetrators, but what the 21st century is demanding is prevention.
The restructuring announced this week sensibly entails shifting agents from the "drug war" and criminal investigation to the anti-terrorism effort. It envisions moving more CIA agents into the FBI to ensure a sharing of information.
Experts have recommended these changes for years. They address the root of the problem, which is how the agency fails to process to advantage the information readily available to it.
What worries us are the measures outlined by Attorney General John Ashcroft to loosen restrictions on the FBI in domestic surveillance.
These restrictions, according to the New York Times, grew out of J. Edgar Hoover's spying on antiwar demonstrators, the Ku Klux Klan and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Hoover, of course, abused his powers then, which raises the question: What prevents these powers from being misused today?
Congress must closely scrutinize the remaking of the FBI. It's needed, but that mustn't be a pretext to degrade the freedoms that make America great.