Jacob Heilbrunn

The FBI's Bungling

One of the hallmarks of the Bush administration, allegedly devoted to small government, was that it relentlessly expanded state surveillance and power. A fresh instance has come to light with the publication of a report by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine. His report chronicles the FBI's attempts to monitor antiwar activists like People for the Ethical Treament of Animals and Greenpeace from 2001 to 2006, as the Washington Post reports.

The FBI is priding itself on the fact that the report, in the words of FBI spokesman Michael P. Kortan, "did not uncover even a single instance where the FBI targeted any group or any individual based on the exercise of a First Amendment right." Hip, hip hooray! But what Mr. Kortan's statement does not address is this: why was the FBI wasting its time on these groups in the first place?

The FBI's multiple investigations are yet another sign of bureaucracy running amok in what the Bush administration liked to call a war presidency. The paperpushers at the FBI were clearly only too happy to launch investigations that didn't discover a single instance of dangerous behavior. Instead, like the East German Stasi, surveillance becomes an end in itself, a way to justify the existence of the bureaucracy. Thus Fine's report notes that agents launched investigations that were "factually weak" and prolonged probes "without adequate basis."

This story comes at a moment when Sen. Lindsey O. Graham has just delivered a speech at the American Enterprise Institute complaining that

we just keep punting on the hard positions surrounding Guantanamo and the law of war on terror in general. Congress has been AWOL. Democrats are scared to death to talk about this. And most Republicans just demagogue it.

But it clearly isn't just a political problem. As Bruce Hoffman notes on this site, Washington is mired in the past when it comes to thinking about how best to combat terrorism. The government bureaucracy--the swollen national security state that has glutted itself on rampant spending in the past decade--is unwieldy and ineffective. But don't expect anyone to try and trim it back, even if the Tea Party enters Congress this fall. Instead, expect more stories about inept, bungling investigations from the very agencies supposedly safeguarding America.