Renaming FBI's home would befit the times

July 01, 2002|By Tim Baker

THE FBI building in Washington presents a sobering perspective from which to evaluate the broad new investigative powers that the Bush administration has entrusted to the FBI in the war on terror.

The stark unfinished concrete structure looks forbidding, but what should truly frighten us is the name still engraved beside the main entrance: The J. Edgar Hoover F.B.I. Building.

By 1976, the mounting revelations of Mr. Hoover's egregious abuses of power led the Justice Department to forbid the FBI to surveil or infiltrate religious and political organizations unless it had evidence of a crime. Now Attorney General John Ashcroft has abolished those restrictions. So FBI agents may now infiltrate mosques, churches and synagogues, political clubs, groups and gatherings without any evidence that a crime has been or might be committed.

Surely our shocking new vulnerability to terrorism requires some expansion of law enforcement's powers to prevent further atrocities. We simply cannot give terrorists immunity to plan and prepare their attacks in the sanctuary of religious or political groups.

Yet the history of Mr. Hoover's abuses urges caution. By now, we've all heard of his obsessive spying, wire-tapping and harassment of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other political dissidents. But episodes continue to come to light.

For example, a law suit filed by the San Francisco Chronicle under the Freedom of Information Act in 1985 has now finally forced the FBI to release 200,000 pages of confidential records covering a campaign of political repression which Mr. Hoover, working secretly with the CIA and then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, waged against faculty members whom he considered subversives at the University of California.

Of course, these abuses occurred nearly 40 years ago in a seemingly ancient era still haunted by the country's anxieties about communist subversion. But Sept. 11 has aroused new fears of conspiracy in the land.

So I am not totally reassured, especially when I hear Mr. Ashcroft claim that the FBI can arrest an American citizen on American soil and turn him over to the military for indefinite detention without charges, without trial and without even judicial review solely on the administration's say-so that he is associated with foreign terrorists.

Actually, I am not completely reassured by the attorney general himself. Is he a reasoned voice of moderation and restraint in the pursuit of justice? He sure doesn't sound like one.

Rather he seems to relish every opportunity to hog the limelight -- holding TV news conferences, even while traveling abroad, to announce frightening new and dubious "dirty bomb" threats, accusing his critics of aiding terrorists if they oppose his legislative initiatives and generally demonstrating an unbridled self-aggrandizement which, according to news reports, now seems even to worry the Bush White House.

Nor am I entirely reassured by the FBI itself.

Yes, the agency today is a vastly different institution than the personal fiefdom over which Mr. Hoover ruled without controls or accountability. But if the FBI has truly reformed its attitudes, then why didn't it promptly come clean in 1985?

Instead, it spent the last 17 years fighting the Chronicle's Freedom of Information Act request and finally only released the documents last month after the federal courts had repeatedly insisted on it.

I could be reassured. But it would take an act that dramatically symbolized our reawakened recognition that power always carries the potential for abuse.

So I endorse the proposal, long advocated by others, that we rededicate the FBI Building. Because that concrete fortress still bears, with seeming pride, the name of one of the great villains in American history -- an evil colossus who once bestrode this country doing more, in his day and beyond, than any terrorist to threaten and subvert our nation's precious constitutional heritage.

Tim Baker was the U.S. attorney for Maryland from 1978 to 1981.

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