Celebrating the G-Men

By Ronald Kessler
Saturday, July 26, 2008; 12:00 AM

When it created the FBI 100 years ago today, Congress worried that the new agency would become a secret police force, trampling civil rights and carrying out the whims of successive presidents. After a century of bumpy history, that concern hasn't gone away.

Critics paint a portrait of a bureau that has no qualms about probing the reading habits of sinless grandmothers. High-profile bumbling in the Wen Ho Lee and Richard Jewell cases has shed further doubt on the bureau's intentions. And on some occasions, the FBI has been forced to admit overstepping, as when Director Robert Mueller said earlier this year that the bureau had misused "national security letters" to obtain personal records on American citizens.

But the idea that the FBI doesn't mind -- and may even like -- running roughshod over rights is misguided. In fact, the bureau has demonstrated remarkable restraint over most of the course of its history, at the same time that it has established an impressive record of success in investigating and pursuing threats.

Much of the criticism mischaracterizes problems. For example, in uncovering the deficiencies with national security letters, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine said the FBI did not intentionally violate any rules. He determined that the FBI in most cases had obtained information to which it was, in fact, entitled. Few press reports carried those caveats.

Critics have claimed that the USA Patriot Act allows the FBI to use "sneak and peek" tactics in libraries to find out who is reading "Tom Sawyer" without informing the targets until after a search. But the FBI always had authority, with a judge's approval, to conduct a search without telling the suspect until a later point in the investigation.

If the FBI were trying to stop a terrorist bombing and needed to search the computer of a suspect in order to round up the plotters without tipping them off, would anyone want the FBI to inform the suspect that his computer was about to be searched? If the FBI cannot be trusted to search computers or wiretap within the framework of the law, then why trust agents to make arrests or carry weapons?

To be sure, under Director J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI engaged in illegal wiretapping of domestic targets and spied on political opponents for presidents. But since the Hoover days, no court has found that the FBI has engaged in an abuse -- meaning an illegal act for improper or political purposes.

Under the Clinton administration, the bureau was so cautious that agents were explicitly prohibited from following suspects into mosques. And they had to jump through hoops before they could sign on to online chat rooms to develop leads -- though any 12-year-old could easily enter. FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III has struck the right balance. As he said during the FBI's anniversary celebration, "It is not enough to stop the terrorist -- we must stop him while maintaining his civil liberties."

Mueller has turned the FBI into an agency that emphasizes preventing terrorist incidents, rather than prosecuting them after the fact. Since 9/11, the FBI and CIA have rolled up 5,000 terrorists worldwide. Every few months, the FBI announces new arrests.

Besides fighting terrorism, the FBI developed criminal profiling, which has led to the arrests of thousands of serial rapists and serial killers. It pioneered the use of DNA to pinpoint or to exonerate suspects. It wiped out the Ku Klux Klan and has largely eviscerated the Mafia. It has taken down financial titans who defrauded investors of billions of dollars, and it has uncovered some of the most damaging spies in U.S. history. If your child were kidnapped, you would want the FBI on your side.

The FBI's fight against terrorism and other crime has produced an American success story, fully justifying faith in the bureau. But only if we continue to provide FBI agents with the tools and other powers they need to uncover clues to terrorist plots will we win the war for the country's survival.

Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post reporter, is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com and author of The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company