It is a symptom of the consensus disease in American politics that veteran Justice Department bureaucrat Robert Mueller was confirmed as head of the FBI without a single dissenting vote in the U.S. Senate. Despite a good deal of posturing in the Judiciary Committee, accompanied by some reasonably telling critiques of the direction and culture the FBI in recent years, not a single Senator used the confirmation process as a vehicle to protest the arrogance and imperial overreach that have been characteristic of the FBI for at least a decade.
One could argue, of course, that while Robert Mueller is unlikely to be the kind of hard-charging, no-nonsense reformer and downsizer the FBI really needs right now, he was probably better than the other candidates whose names were bandied about during the period between former director Louis Freeh’s announcement of his impending resignation and President Bush’s formal appointment. One could argue that it would be unfair to vote against a candidate simply because the agency he was chosen to head has had a lot of problems, especially since he acknowledged problems during confirmation hearings and promised to do better.
In the insular world of Washington, one can understand, you want to give a new man assuming a position of enormous power the benefit of the doubt or at least not get on his bad side. And since there was little likelihood that a small coterie of senators upset with the FBI would be able to deny Mueller the job, voting against him would be pointless, and possibly mildly dangerous.
Still, the unanimity was striking. In the greatest deliberative body in the world not a single member mustered whatever it might have taken to cast a dissenting vote against what is likely to be business as usual with a few cosmetic reforms, and explain it not as a personal insult to Mueller, but as a vehicle to express profound dismay at the arrogant, bureaucratic, mistake-prone organization the once-proud FBI has become.
It is also dismaying that while certain aspects of the FBI’s problems Waco, Ruby Ridge, Wen Ho Lee, crime lab problems, Oklahoma City investigative blunders were subject to tongue-lashing from legislators, most of the policies that have contributed to this sorry record received little serious discussion. In short, the FBI has grown too fast to maintain a semblance of quality control, and this growth has been tacked onto an agency that already had a culture of secrecy and insularity bordering on arrogance.
The FBI’s recent expansion into an international law enforcement agency rather than a relatively straightforward national investigative agency should have been questioned much more seriously, both as a symbol of arrogant overreach and for substantive reasons. There is virtually no justification for this expansion other than the eternal dynamic of expansion present in virtually any bureaucracy and its neat dovetailing with the increasingly imperial pretensions of the American government at large. At least a few senators should have demanded cutbacks in the FBI’s international role as part of the confirmation process, if not an outright reversal of the rapid overseas expansion that the lamentably uncensured Louis Freeh is likely to consider his lasting legacy.
Now I have some doubt about the constitutionality or wisdom of the FBI as a domestic institution. The founders clearly saw routine law enforcement activities devising criminal codes, apprehending malefactors, trying, convicting and punishing criminals as a function of state and local government. This decentralized approach, while it permits certain inconsistencies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, has by and large served this country well. The constitution does not specifically authorize a centralized national law enforcement agency, and sticklers for the enumerated powers can argue quite plausibly that such an agency lacks constitutional legitimacy.
Some may bridle at such an argument and argue that the FBI obviously has a legitimate role in domestic law enforcement perhaps, as originally designed, as a specifically investigative agency available to help local officials and to handle the few crimes that are genuinely national in scope, like treason and espionage. But there is no legitimate reason for the FBI to expand into something of a Washington-based Interpol, an international enforcement agency licensed to track down what it views as crime anywhere in the world. That the FBI’s vastly expanded international role has hardly inspired more than a murmur or two of concern about unfortunate cultural clashes with enforcers in other countries is testament to the placid acceptance in Washington of the imperial nature of the United States government.
The presence of some FBI agents overseas is not unprecedented, although overseas law enforcement was hardly part of the FBI’s mission when it was reorganized in the 1920s. As usual, expansion of the FBI’s mission, like the expansion of the power and scope of so many government agencies, was triggered by war. During World War II there was significant concern, some of it justified, about Nazi spies, so the FBI started stationing legal attaches, or “legats,” in key US embassies in the 1940s.
As Robert Higgs explained in his landmark book, “Crisis and Leviathan,” after a war or other crisis the expanded government agencies might pull in their wings a bit, but they never return to their prewar levels. The expansion becomes as close to permanent as anything in this life is. So when Louis Freeh assumed the directorship in 1993, there were still FBI agents, some fairly active and some without very specific real duties, in place in a number of overseas embassies and offices.
Louis Freeh saw an opportunity for bureaucratic empire building. He doubled the number of overseas operatives between 1993 and now, opening FBI offices in unlikely places like Warsaw. Of the bureau’s 44 overseas bureaus, 19 were opened in the last five years.
The style of some of the FBI’s overseas operatives described as “hard-charging” by sympathetic observers and “arrogance bordering on idiocy” by others has created some international tensions. In February, US Ambassador Barbara Bodine had enough clout to veto a return visit by the FBI agent supervising the investigation of the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. Agent John O’Neill had managed to alienate Yemeni officials, who privately called him “Rambo.”
This is hardly surprising, given the way FBI agents sometimes operate, and it would be amazing if FBI agents had not rubbed officials in other countries the wrong way but not enough to elicit official complaints. The preferred nickname for the FBI among almost all local police departments in the United States is “F -ing Bunch of Idiots.” And most of these are guys who were raised to revere the FBI.
Cultural clashes and tensions, however, are not nearly as important as the policy implications of internationalizing the FBI. The FBI justifies the expansion by pointing to a few successes. Four people apparently involved in the 1998 Kenya-Tanzania embassy bombings allegedly masterminded by the ever-convenient Osama Bin-Laden have been convicted. An extortionist who bombed some hardware stores in North Carolina was eventually tracked down in part due to the work of “legats” in Estonia, Panama and Denmark. The Algerian stopped at the US-Canada border in 1999 with bomb-making chemicals in his car was convicted.
Quite frankly, with the possible exception of the embassy bombers, these are pretty small-potatoes cases. And it is by no means certain that the vast international expansion of the FBI was all that important to making any of these cases. A strict cost-benefit analysis of the few highly publicized cases the imperial FBI helped to solve compared with the cost of Louis Freeh’s expansion program would probably find scant justification for the additional expense involved.
If you take into account the policy and international diplomacy angles, the justification becomes even more difficult. Expanding the FBI overseas sends a clear message to every other country that the United States views the entire world as its domain when it comes to law enforcement and sends the far-from-subtle message that the avatars of wisdom in Washington don’t trust other governments to do an adequate job of law enforcement. Foreign governments might appreciate the training and subsidies that come with the FBI’s expanded international role. But there can be little question that there’s an undercurrent of resentment as well.
I don’t imagine that it’s politically feasible to downsize the FBI to what might be considered a legitimate role in domestic law enforcement handling only cases that have a clear-cut interstate or federal aspect to them rather than sending in hordes of FBI agents for clearly local cases that have grabbed headlines. But most Americans probably agree that the FBI has little if any legitimate role in law enforcement in Poland, Russia or Tanzania. It’s too bad the worthy solons in the US Senate didn’t make this case and push for reversing the implied policy of making the FBI the world’s police force.