The FBI Turns 100

This weekend the FBI will celebrate its 100th anniversary. As you might expect, the Bureau is trumpeting its record, i.e., the FBI has protected America from gangsters, Nazis, Communists,  mobsters, terrorists, and so forth.  The image has always been super-competent, super-honest agents who hunt down the evil-doers.

But what about the actual record of the FBI? Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) has long taken a skeptical view of the FBI and I think his remarks from a 1997 oversight hearing are on the mark:

[M]y father’s occupation was farming in Iowa. And in the ’40s and ’50s, when I was growing up, he taught me to respect the FBI. I came to Washington with a great deal of respect for the FBI. I know that my criticism of senior management, in the last year probably, doesn’t show that I was brought up that way. But it’s not easy for me to think of my father’s respect for the FBI, that they could do no wrong, and find some of the things wrong because, in decades of public service, I have never known an agency that right now is in need of more oversight, including congressional oversight, than the FBI. And that’s after a year of digging into issues that the Bureau has been involved with.

We all respect the good things that the FBI does. We know that there are thousands of agents out there in the field that are putting their lives on the line. And most Americans have the image of the FBI as very good, beyond reproach, the untouchables. The FBI has cultivated that image…. But serious problems with the Crime Lab punctured that image, also Ruby Ridge and Waco have. Beyond the veneer is an ugly culture of arrogance that uses disinformation, intimidation, empire building, to get what it wants.

And I’ve got some documentation, if you’re interested in my feeling about intimidation and disinformation. It resists oversight by an independent body. It resists cooperation and information-sharing with state and local law enforcement. Now I want to show some examples of these. I find that the FBI sometimes uses intimidation tactics when it wants to get its own way. When I have made inquiries, sometimes they simply refuse to respond. That’s not what legitimate oversight is about. It suggests that there’s something to hide. And that’s why problems like the FBI Crime Lab are allowed to exist and fester so long without detection — in that case, maybe about eight years.

While Congress has given the FBI more money than can be spent wisely — for instance, we tripled the amount of money, in just five years, for combatting terrorism. It reminds me of how Congress mindlessly pumped up the defense budget during the ’80s, and all that we did was increase the price of what we bought — hammers, pliers and toilet seats. In this case, I think that we need to carefully examine every nook and cranny of the FBI’s budget to make sure we’re getting what was advertised. And I intend to be a part of that effort in the coming months, because what I have found is that senior management within the FBI puts too much focus on its image and budget and not enough on product, and that product should be law enforcement and public safety.

Like Senator Grassley says, we should acknowledge FBI successes. But a proper appraisal of the Bureau’s actual record must take into account both the good and the bad. Two days ago, Cato hosted an event about the FBI’s record. The panel included the FBI’s official historian, Dr. John Fox, and an outside academic expert, Dr. Athan Theoharis. To view the event, go here.

Here are 10 people/events that the FBI would rather not discuss.

  1. Martin Luther King
  2. Richard Jewell
  3. Brandon Mayfield
  4. Joseph Salvoti
  5. Dr. Frederic Whitehurst
  6. Randy Weaver 
  7. Sibel Edmonds
  8. Anthony Hodgson
  9. Steven Hatfill
  10. The Branch Davidians.

For related Cato work, go here, here, and here.