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June 7, 2002
FBI Goodbye

Give defense a chance. Why not use this as a rallying cry for progressives?

The evidence is in. The September 11 hijackers were clumsy and broke most elementary rules of secrecy. Many of them knew each other; some even flew test runs in a group. They sometimes used their own names. For a chilling indictment of the country’s first line of defense against terror, read the memo by one of the FBI’s own agents, Coleen Rowley of the Minneapolis bureau, on how 9/11 might have been prevented. Rowley isn’t a dangerous radical, but a career cop who is ashamed of the FBI.

We should be too. A simple lesson can be drawn from the scandals engulfing the FBI: The United States never tried defensive measures against al-Qaeda. Far from needing new legal powers or an expanded budget, the FBI needs a good whipping—and a decent burial.

Formed in 1908, the FBI rushed into political surveillance during World War I, hounding draft resisters and radical immigrants. Hooked on Red Scares, the bureau’s authoritarian boss, J. Edgar Hoover, intimidated political opponents through spying and lying campaigns. Dubious and downright false claims of disloyalty have stood behind every previous drive to eradicate threats to homeland security. Among the left, the appearance of disloyalty even became a badge of honor.

It’s time to shut down a domestic security agency that notched its greatest victories against African-American civil rights leaders, dangerous radicals such as Albert Einstein, and Vietnam War protesters. Yet when it came to al-Qaeda, the FBI ignored warnings from its own agents about foreign visitors at flight schools learning to take off but not to land.

Progressives must seize this as an opportunity to build—for the first time in American history—a democratic means of internal security. It isn’t enough to call for a good defense and invoke the usual (and justified) caveats about the need to respect civil liberties and avoid unnecessary force. With so many politicians of the center advocating war (see the recent call by House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt for an invasion of Iraq), the left needs to do the unusual: Think deeply about domestic security problems and conceive a defensive plan for securing the homeland.

To be sure, the whole concept of “domestic security” first must be retrieved from the junk pile of conservatism before any serious alternatives can be designed. Given the historical baggage, there’s a temptation to dismiss security as illegitimate—or worse, as an invariable cover for repression. That security measures masked repression of dissent in the past does not mean that the left must abdicate serious thinking about the subject. There is nothing inherently authoritarian about defending U.S. residents from terrorists. There are ways to improve security that don’t require assassination, torture and racial profiling.

Start with diplomacy. Halt the folly of chasing terrorists around the world, from the mountains of the former Soviet republic of Georgia to the jungles of the Philippines. End the cave-hopping, cat-and-mouse game in Afghanistan. Let the Pakistanis, Malaysians, Colombians and the rest arm and train their own terror gangs. Remove American troops from Saudi Arabia. Stop threatening Iraq with military punishment. Begin official contacts with Iran. Bring an international peacekeeping force to Israel and Palestine to promote fairness and reconciliation. Give Muslims around the world a reason to view America as a defender of democratic ideals rather than as an overfed bully.

At home, Congress should disband the FBI and create a new domestic security agency, solely dedicated to preventing acts of terror, whatever their source. (Remember Oklahoma City?) The anti-terror agency would be overseen by a board of citizen directors—a kind of grand police-review board—some of whom could be directly elected, others appointed by Congress and the president.

The answer to terror isn’t taking war to the far corners of the globe. To quote an old sports cliché, defense wins championships. Now let’s give defense a chance.


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