The Apathetic FBI

Monday, January 29, 2007

CONGRESS WASN'T the only institution whose performance fell short when it came to protecting teenage pages and former pages from the predatory behavior of former representative Mark Foley (R-Fla.). A report by the Justice Department's inspector general depicts a disturbingly passive FBI response to creepy, albeit not sexually explicit, e-mails he sent to a former page. As with the lawmakers and staff who received early warnings of Mr. Foley's troubling behavior, the FBI agents who reviewed the messages seemed more interested in figuring out how to drop this hot potato than in taking steps that could have stopped the congressman.

The FBI did face a conundrum in dealing with the Foley e-mails. As its agents concluded, the e-mails on their face did not present evidence of criminal behavior. As a general matter, that's where the bureau's job should start and stop. No one wants a return to a J. Edgar Hoover-era FBI that feels empowered to rummage through people's private lives. As the agent in charge of the FBI's cyber crimes squad told the inspector general, the FBI needs to have a reasonable basis to believe that a crime is about to be committed before acting, because "we're the big, bad government."

But given that minors were involved, the FBI should have done more. The messages were disturbing enough to the former page that he forwarded them to a congressional staffer with the comment that they were "sick" and "freaked me out." The FBI agents who looked at them concluded, variously, that they were "odd" and "inappropriate"; one who read them remembered thinking, "What a freak."

As the report by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine concluded, the e-mails "provided enough troubling indications on their face, particularly given the position of trust and authority that Mr. Foley held with respect to House pages, that a better practice for the FBI would have been to take at least some follow-up steps with regard to the e-mails" -- interviewing the former page, notifying House officials in charge of the page program or at the very least telling the group that had forwarded them to the FBI, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), that it did not plan to take any additional steps. "We are not the ethics police," the agent in charge of the cyber crimes unit told the inspector general. True, but as the report points out, the FBI's own guide to Internet safety points out that predators often "gradually seduce" their targets with attention and gifts.

All too characteristically, when Mr. Foley's misbehavior came to light, the FBI blamed its inaction on incomplete and "heavily redacted" information provided by CREW and the organization's alleged refusal to provide additional details. As the report makes clear, that was not accurate. It was the FBI's apathy, not CREW's recalcitrance, that was at fault here.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company