U.S. justice: under-monitored intrusion?

July 28, 1996|By David W. Marston | David W. Marston,Special to the Sun

"Main Justice," by Jim McGee and Brian Duffy. 384 pages. Simon & Schuster. $25

Do the crime, do the time. Prosecutors like to make it sound simple, automatic, but in fact, the process which produces criminal justice like legislation and sausage, is untidy, uneven and often unsettling. In most courthouses, the urgent commerce of lawyers haggling out plea bargains in the corridor sets the mood. Proceedings in one court may be as tedious as a telephone book, while the trial next door holds spectators breathless.

"Main Justice" captures much of that drama and tedium. Americans who believed there is no national police force will be startled to learn that there are 93,000 federal law enforcement employees, and this ambitious effort to track their activities is generally brisk and compelling, serving up rapid-fire inside insights. But it is also occasionally uneven and tedious. It includes a chapter called "Mary's Law" which is flat out baffling.

Co-authors McGee and Duffy, investigative reporters with the Washington Post and U.S. News & World Report, respectively, clearly have deep Justice sources, although they decline to identify them. No matter, Lyndon Johnson used to figure out who leaked a news story by identifying the unnamed source described most glowingly (e.g., the brilliant young aide; LBJ would have instantly concluded, for example, that U.S. Customs agent Edward Kacerosky and Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Theresa Van Vliet were at least highly cooperative with the authors. Both are painted larger than life here, implacable architects of a riveting international chase which ultimately cripples the Cali drug cartel. But even if some of the "Main Justice" portraits seem idealized, its focus on street-level players reminds readers that the relentless punching and jabbing of federal crime fighting is done by dedicated, courageous career employees, not by their politically appointed bosses.

Career employees like spymaster Mary Lawton, who, "possessed of one of the most brilliant legal minds of her generation," was a Justice official who served under 13 attorneys general. Eventually, she was the single DOJ official who approved the highly sensitive and often warrantless wiretaps in national security cases, apparently on the basis of something called Mary's Law.

"Mary's Law was many things," McGee/Duffy confide mysteriously, "but mostly it was the gold standard of legality in the world of counterintelligence." A little fluffy for a law, especially since after her untimely death, it was discovered that "[Lawton's] review process to prevent factual and legal errors was virtually nonexistent." In the end, astonishingly, it is not clear that anyone even read the hundreds of wiretap requests approved by Mary's office.

Finally, the single most momentous disclosure in "Main Justice" seems curiously understated. All but unnoticed, the authors assert, there has been a de facto merger of the CIA and the FBI, vastly expanding wiretaps and surveillance against American citizens in national security cases. The number of national security wiretaps - for the first time ever - now exceeds criminal wiretaps. But while expressing dismay that this occurred with out public debate or meaningful journalistic scrutiny, the authors make no suggestion that this might be a frontal assault on the Constitution.

Which is a major shortcoming, because by comparison, J. Edgar Hoover's dreaded COINTELPRO operation looks about as threatening as a game of whisper-down-the-lane.

David Marston, a partner in the Philadelphia law office Reed Smith Shaw & McClay, co-authored "Inside Hoover's FBI." He was a U.S. attorney in Pennsylvania from 1976 to 1979 and before that was a legislative counsel.

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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