J. WALLACE LaPrade delivered a slashing attack on the Department of Justice after he was removed Thursday as head of the FBI's New York office. Mr. LaPrade and other present and past members of the bureau think they are being punished wrongly now for having done things they believed to be in the best interest of the nation. Mr. LaPrade thinks the problem is not the failure of the FBI to obey the law, but rather its failure to gain independence from direct supervision. That line of thinking underlies practically everything Mr. LaPrade has said in his press conference and interviews, and it illustrates the difficulty the Justice Department and Congress face in putting the FBI on the right track.
To charge, as Mr. LaPrade did, that the indictments last week of three former FBI officials are part of a campaign "to exert political influence" over the FBI and destroy its independence is to demonstrate a lack of basic understanding of the American system of government. The indictment is an effort to exert governmental influence over the FBI and to ensure that its top officials are held responsible before the law for the actions they take. The bureau was never intended to be "independent" of the law.
We don't mean to suggest that the issues raised by the indictment and the continuing inquiry into past FBI practices are simple. It is not easy to square the commands of the Constitution with the reality of police work, especially in the field of conteresponiage. Nor is it easy to punish agents, either criminally or administratively, for acts they committed (to para-phrase Mr. LaPrade) in good faith and for the protection of the American people. But if the acts were illegal - a point not yet established in court - the motivation behind them is irrelevant. And the key fact about the indictment is that the attorney general though justice demanded that responsibility for wrongdoing be placed at the top.
There is one point on which we can agree with Mr. LaPrade. It is on the need for new legislation that spells out clearly the duties, responsibilities and limitations of the FBI and the CIA. Such legislation is on its way. The sooner it can be passed, the better. But Mr. LaPrade's view of the FBI's proper role, which holds, as far as we can tell, that the FBI should be free from supervision and allowed to interpret the law for itself so long as it acts in good faith and for the protection of the public, suggests how difficult drafting it may be to reach a consensus under legislation. His words put us in mind of the contrary and wise words of Justice Louis D. Brandeis written 50 years ago: "Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government's purposes are beneficient . . . The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning, but without understanding."