FBI needs oversight

The arrest of Robert Hansen, a spy for Russia within the FBI, the missing Timothy McVeigh documents and the botched investigation of nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee have turned one of the world’s most prestigious law enforcement agencies into a shamed institution. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) was correct when asking, “If there were mistakes on high-profile cases where there should have been extra care, what is going on with lower-profile cases?” This reflects the view most Americans have of the FBI – an unruly and negligent agency that can’t seem to do their job right. This must change, and thankfully, lawmakers are using their power to help fix the many problems of the FBI.

Lawmakers have set up a series of separate reviews of the agency. Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered an internal review of the bureau. Also, the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding hearings that will result in recommending reforms. This is fortunate because when law enforcement agencies – especially ones with such broad scope and power as the FBI – resist allowing outsiders to conduct investigations they will always be regarded with some suspicion. Though there is some merit in the contention that outsiders might not be totally knowledgeable of the agency’s culture, that is not enough reason to prevent external oversight. Considering all of the recent blunders, it appears everyone wants answers to what went wrong and who is to blame. Knowledge of how these mistakes occurred will be helpful, yet it will only bring the government slightly closer to a solution.

In a move that will simultaneously take the heat off of himself as well as open up the FBI to new leadership, current Director Louis J. Freeh has resigned two years before the completion of his ten-year term. New blood is what President George W. Bush sought when looking for Freeh’s replacement, and he succeeded in doing just that with the nomination of U.S. prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III. Those who support Mueller believe he will complete his own review of the bureau upon taking charge. Mueller faces tough challenges though. He must lead and reform an organization that has become careless, lazy and possibly corrupt in its everyday dealings. Mueller has a strong record that shows he might be able to do the job. Any fresh blood would ideally create change, which is certainly something the agency needs.

With mistakes as large as the ones the FBI has made, a changing of the guard is not the sole answer, but a step in the right direction. In a more worthwhile step, Ashcroft announced the Justice Department’s inspector general will be able to investigate the FBI. Previously, inspectors general had to be granted permission from the attorney general or a deputy. Janet Reno had denied two requests to investigate the FBI in her term as attorney general – two requests that could have helped prevent the FBI’s current embarrassments.

If the bureau wants to operate without too much outside oversight, it must be able to prove it is an agency working in the best interests of the United States. Recent events, however, no matter how those within the agency may try to spin them, are a clear sign of the need for external review. The FBI needs to be more accepting of the fact that, at least for the immediate future, it will need to be under the watchful eye of governmental baby sitters. However, the FBI will only be able to benefit from these overseers if they allow real and significant changes to take place. The agency’s culture of arrogance must be replaced, and then the FBI can finally return to its business of stopping crime and enforcing the law.