Fixing what's broken both within and between the FBI and the CIA will do more to help prevent terrorist attacks than expanding their surveillance powers.
The disparate clues that might have helped prevent the September tragedy didn't require a greater ability to snoop; they needed closer attention, communication, and a connecting of now-infamous dots (see related story, page 1).
Nonetheless, while the administration tries to achieve that improved coordination and communication, it's also expanding the FBI's surveillance powers a move with pragmatic value in fighting terrorism, but with a potential negative effect on civil liberties.
Last week, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced new FBI guidelines that will allow field agents to go to, and monitor, any public venue without receiving approval from FBI headquarters. The new internal rule would allow the agents to attend public gatherings at churches or mosques, political rallies, and other public settings as well as Internet websites and chat rooms, based merely on suspicion alone.
The decision has civil libertarians, and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, James Sensenbrenner (R) of Wisconsin, among others, more than a little disturbed.
For Representative Sensenbrenner, the changes are all too reminiscent of the days when the FBI spied on Martin Luther King Jr. Certainly, the idea of a secret police presence at public meetings, gathering information, is unsettling to many Americans. Will an FBI agent lie if asked his occupation and the purpose in being there?
While there's nothing illegal about the changes FBI agents will no longer need a "proven lead" or an investigation already under way in order to engage in such public surveillance.
FBI excesses under former director J. Edgar Hoover prompted the investigative restrictions on agents during the 1970s. Lifting them will help end the "competitive advantage" of terrorists, says Mr. Ashcroft. But he must be careful not to let the pendulum swing too far toward intrusiveness into private dealings.
The pressure will be on FBI field officers to maintain a high degree of integrity and internal controls as they balance civil liberties with expanded law enforcement. The agency must keep the public trust as it sniffs out, and, it is hoped, snuffs out, would-be terrorism.