Here is the test of whether we still live in a society governed by the rule of law: Will anyone at the FBI be fired over the latest report out of the Office of the Inspector General?
Let’s review. Earlier this year, a comprehensive OIG report revealed that for years the FBI had ignored the paper-thin procedures demanded by our National Security Letter statutes to obtain sensitive telecommunications records of thousands of Americans, not just without a court order—because apparently we’re fine with that now—but without any kind of legitimate process at all. With nothing more elaborate than a Post-It Note requesting the data. As far as the public record is concerned, nobody has suffered any consequences for this massive abuse of the public trust.
Now we learn that an FBI supervisor, in an exercise of spectacularly poor judgment, sent a rookie out to monitor an antiwar rally—evading the charge of monitoring Americans based exclusively on the basis of First Amendment protected activity only because of the laughable pretext that said rookie was there to eye the crowd for any international terrorists who might be in attendance. Fine. But when Congress got wind of this and began to inquire into why this had occurred—and why said rookie had filed a report on “antiwar activity” that focused on whether any persons of apparent “Middle Eastern descent” had been involved—the OIG found that someone at the FBI had utterly fabricated a retroactive justification for the investigation, involving dubious “terror suspects” that nobody had actually believed at the time might be present at this rally.
According to the FBI, this fabrication was then offered up by FBI Director Robert Mueller before the Bureau’s overseers in Congress. This leaves us with a limited number of possibilities. One is that the head of the FBI was aware of and welcomed what the OIG determined to be a complete invention designed to cover up for an improper investigation. If that’s what happened, the head of the FBI committed perjury and should be prosecuted for it. But the OIG doesn’t believe that’s how it went, and I’m inclined to believe them: It would be irrational to risk perjuring oneself before the Senate Judiciary Committee over a minor error like this, however foolish.
But then someone gave the FBI director a pack of lies to feed to Congress, and the OIG was inexplicably unable to trace this fabrication to its source—which even allowing for the FBI’s massively dysfunctional computer systems seems implausible. So now we have a pressing question: If we don’t think the head of the FBI decided to lie to Congress, who concocted the lies he told them? Are we to believe that the nation’s top cops are either so inept or so indifferent to the question that they can’t answer it? I suspect they very well could find out if they were so inclined. If they don’t, and if there are no consequences for this clumsy cover-up, why should we believe that congressional oversight of intelligence will ever discover or check abuse of investigative power? The message will be clear: Concoct lies to protect your bosses, and your colleagues will wink at your deception, perhaps grateful for having been spared the obligation of making up their own lies. One lie out of a hundred might be called out in an OIG report—they only have so much time and so many resources—but even if it is, no harm will come of it. The investigators will be mysteriously unable to identify the liar, and everything will blow over. Why risk telling the truth? The initial fuss will subside, and Americans will soon enough be distracted by the next episode of Jersey Shore.
I think we’ve had quite enough of that. Someone at the FBI decided that it was a good idea to lie to Congress in order to cover up improper monitoring of an unpopular political group. In this case, it was pacifists, but who knows who’ll be next. If brazen lies aren’t punished the one case out of a dozen or a hundred that draw the attention of the overseers, why should they ever bother to observe the rules? So watch the Department of Justice. If someone is fired over this, maybe we still live in a country governed by the rule of law. If not, they’re convinced we’re so dim and besotted by reruns of Friends that they no longer even feel obliged to put up a good show.