Commentary

Making a Federal Case Out of … Everything?

Plagiarism and deceitful reporting are disgraceful practices, but should they be federal crimes? U.S. Attorney James Comey seems to think so. He’s contemplated bringing the full weight of the federal government down on Jayson Blair, the mendacious reporter at the center of the New York Times scandal. If not for the Times’s recent refusal to cooperate with the investigation, Comey would still be making a federal case out of the Blair scandal. If you’re old-fashioned enough to think that breaches of journalistic ethics ought to be policed by journalists rather than federal prosecutors, or if you still think that not every problem demands a federal solution, well, then, you’re just not in tune with federal priorities in the 21st century.

Today, federal law enforcement officials interject themselves into every high-profile local incident whether or not that incident has any plausible connection to a federal interest. And, as actions prior to 9/11 show, such federal meddling in local affairs can divert resources, allowing the bad guys to get away and innocent people to suffer.

James Comey is not alone in thinking the federal government should be involved in every local issue. For instance, half a dozen federal agencies participated in the investigation of the tragic Rhode Island nightclub fire at a Great White Concert in February. And on May 13, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah) chaired a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that praised President Bush’s Project Safe Neighborhoods, a crime-control initiative designed to ramp up federal prosecution of gun-law violations ordinarily handled in state courts. Support for the program is nearly universal among congressional Republicans, who like to style themselves as the party of federalism and the Tenth Amendment. But there is no constitutional authority for the federal government to prosecute garden-variety gun crimes that are already illegal in all 50 states.

The government we have no longer bears any resemblance to the limited, decentralized system the Founders envisioned. The Constitution they gave us delegates limited powers to the federal government, reserving most other powers, as the Tenth Amendment declares, “to the states respectively, or to the people.” Among the powers reserved to the states was “the ordinary administration of criminal justice,” as Alexander Hamilton put it in the Federalist Papers.

James Comey, Orrin Hatch, and other officials pushing the expansion of federal jurisdiction ought to reacquaint themselves with the Founding documents. Staying out of local affairs isn’t only their legal responsibility as servants of the people sworn to uphold the Constitution. It could also be a matter of life and death. As Nobel economist Milton Friedman has pointed out, when government begins to do what it should not, it ceases to do what it should. That’s a lesson we should have learned after September 11th.

As was widely reported, the Phoenix FBI office knew about Al Qaeda activity at U.S. flight schools prior to September 11 but could not get the Bureau’s main office in Washington, D.C., to take action. In fact, Kenneth Williams, the FBI agent who recommended canvassing flight schools for Islamist radicals prior to 9/11, couldn’t concentrate on terrorism full-time because he was ordered to head up an arson investigation. Williams’ memo about Bin Laden-ist pilots-in-training disappeared down a bureaucratic black hole. Meanwhile, according to the Los Angeles Times and other sources, the FBI was engaged in an 18-month-long sting operation at a brothel in New Orleans that netted 12 prostitutes. While Al Qaeda was preparing for 9/11, federal law enforcement was down in the French Quarter acting like the local vice squad.

There are limited resources available to law enforcement and defense. Spend time and money pursuing prostitutes, arsonists, and dishonest reporters, and there are fewer resources available for the fight against Al Qaeda. It’s well past time for the federal government to get its priorities straight.

Gene Healy is senior editor at the Cato Institute.