Nothing succeeds like failure. Suddenly, everyone wants to grant the FBI and other intelligence agencies even more power despite their spectacular failure to use the expansive powers they had to head off terrorism before Sept. 11. In a sign of mass impotent rage, liberal columnists and politicians are joining right-wing talk show blatherers in insisting the FBI not be "hamstrung" by the restraints of civil liberty.
First to go? Freedom from discrimination based on ethnicity, race or nationality. Racial profiling, popular since the Dark Ages, is again in vogue. Consider Sen. Dianne Feinstein's (D-Calif.) comments Sunday that to prevent terrorism "one isn't going to look for blond Norwegians" and that "the racial profiling debate has [had] ... a chilling impact" on the FBI. The truth is that the bureau was hamstrung not by constitutional limits on its powers but rather by incompetence and bureaucratic arrogance at the organization's top, which ignored ample warnings from below that something terrifying was afoot.
Furthermore, the FBI's parent bureaucracy, the Justice Department, was itself hobbled by Attorney General John Ashcroft, who remained steadfastly focused on the so-called war on drugs despite urgent warnings from the previous administration that terrorism was the main law enforcement problem.
The rest of the Bush administration was equally distracted before Sept. 11, focusing on the illusory promise of missile defense rather than on the hard reality of terrorism. Former White House officials have told me that despite the passionate warnings of Richard Clarke, a top anti-terrorism official under both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the latter's Cabinet went the first eight months of his administration without discussing terrorist threats.
The killing of thousands of people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11 got their attention, though. Ashcroft charged up the Hill to demand -- and receive -- sweeping new law-enforcement powers under the USA Patriot Act, hastily passed by a stunned Congress. He didn't, however, admit under congressional questioning that his FBI had had ample warnings from field agents that a great many suspicious men were training in U.S. flight schools or that FBI headquarters had failed to act on the reports.
More recently, Ashcroft has approved changes in the FBI's internal regulations to permit increased spying on Americans, deceitfully shifting the onus for the failure to protect society from the incompetence of the Justice Department and the CIA to the alleged deviousness of John Q. Public. These new powers intrude on the lives of law-abiding citizens and add nothing that would have helped prevent the terrorist attacks.
Take, for instance, Feinstein's call for the FBI to engage in racial profiling of Arab-Americans: Police departments across the country have found that such tactics alienate otherwise loyal minority communities whose cooperation is indispensable to their investigations, and it also wastes limited resources. Consider the FBI budget and manpower used to hound Taiwanese-born Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee for five years without finding evidence of spying.
Meanwhile, for more than a decade, FBI headquarters harbored the biggest spy of all, top agent and Soviet mole Robert Hanssen. Perhaps the FBI should racially profile straight white males like Hanssen? Of course that will never happen, anymore than it did during WWII, when the feds were unwilling to round up Hitler's extensive fifth column in the German-American community even as apolitical Japanese-American gardeners were sent to concentration camps.
If we were to be honest in making the case for profiling, we would go after Saudi Arabians and their business partners and other associates in this country. The Sept. 11 attacks were -- from Osama bin Laden, to 15 of the 19 hijackers, to the money that supported them -- an operation with top-to-bottom links to Saudi Arabia, a kingdom that our military has protected for half a century and that enjoys close ties with Bush's family. Instead of harassing loyal Arab-Americans, the FBI would be better advised to squeeze executives from U.S. corporations, such as the Carlyle Group and Bechtel, that have extensive ties to the Saudis.
What we don't need is a witch hunt against the American people, ferreting through their private lives or detaining them because of their ethnicity. If there is a group that should be looked at closely, and with suspicion, it is the top officials of this administration, whose indifference and incompetence before Sept. 11 may have permitted an incredible tragedy.