Settling old scores

April 20, 2006

Mixed with the outrage and incredulity at reports that FBI agents want to paw through the papers of a long-retired and now-deceased muckraking reporter is the obvious question: Don't they have anything better to do?

The investigative agency that was so antiquated in its methods and hidebound in its bureaucracy that it ignored clues its agents found before 9/11 still seems misdirected.

It's almost as though J. Edgar Hoover is still in charge and so obsessed with columnist Jack Anderson that he swooped in shortly after Mr. Anderson died last year to try and bust the folks who gave the reporter scoops.

Most troubling, of course, is the proposition that the FBI has the right - its spokesman would say, the duty - to reclaim classified papers, no matter how old or innocuous, that may have been passed along illegally.

Recent revelations about President Bush's handling of Iraq intelligence and of a program to reclaim public documents from the National Archives made clear that information is classified, declassified and reclassified arbitrarily. Those familiar with Mr. Anderson's at least 15-year-old files say he didn't save anything the government would find useful. But that's not the point. Whatever he got, he got. It all belongs to historians now.

Ostensibly, the FBI's interest in the 200 boxes of papers Mr. Anderson bequeathed to George Washington University was to search for fingerprints that might help the government prosecute two pro-Israel lobbyists charged with passing defense information to the press, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, which first reported the story.

The Anderson family decided to fight the request after agents said they would be obligated to claim any other classified documents they found among the files.

The FBI contends it has to protect "sources and methods" of gathering intelligence. But the real purpose seems to be thwarting whistle-blowers and turning reporters into spies. That's a far graver threat to national security than telling the American people what their government is up to.

Aren't there some real terrorists the FBI could go after? And maybe do its own investigative legwork for a change?

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