In 1919 the Attorney General of the United States, A. Mitchell Palmer, exacerbated public fears of Communism in order to generate publicity for his candidacy in the upcoming presidential election. Coming only two years after the Russian Revolution of 1917, there was widespread hysteria in America concerning Communists and other supposed radicals. Attorney General Palmer capitalized on this by creating an antiradicalism division in the Justice Department. He selected a young government attorney named J. Edgar Hoover to lead the new division.
Hoover's division became the F.B.I. In 1919 the bureau staged the first of what became known as the "Palmer Raids." Agents invaded the offices of suspected radical political organizations and labor unions. These raids rounded up thousands of legal aliens who had committed no crime, but were suspect only because of their political beliefs (many were Communists or socialists) or their immigrant backgrounds (many had Russian or German ancestry). Since they lacked U.S. citizenship, many were deported without indictment or even a trial.
The only evidence of domestic terrorism that the raids netted were blueprints that the bureau maintained were for a bomb, intended to be used to overthrow the government. It was eventually discovered that the blueprints were actually for a new and improved record player. Despite a lack of evidence that the suspected radicals were actually a threat, in January 1920 the F.B.I. staged its infamous "New Year's Raids." This time, in addition to entering offices, the agents invaded thousands of people's homes, largely without search warrants.
Almost 85 years later, little appears to have changed in the F.B.I. According to the Justice Department's report, the inspector general identified 108 instances of violations in 2004 and 2005 regarding wiretaps and other methods of obtaining intelligence. The report also found violations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which governs how and when the federal government can eavesdrop on domestic communications. In 2004, 48 percent of the F.B.I. violations trampled on FISA, and this figure surged to 69 percent last year.
The inspector general's report also revealed that the duration of the violations grew over the last two years. This was the case regarding the "overcollection" of intelligence data, in which the F.B.I. collected more evidence than a court had authorized. In one such instance, the bureau obtained the complete content of 181 telephone calls related to an intelligence investigation, but a court had only authorized the bureau to obtain billing records.
This was also the case with "overruns," in which the F.B.I. allowed a wiretap or other method of obtaining intelligence to run longer than a court had approved. In one instance, a wiretap lasted 373 days longer than it had been approved for. The average duration in which overcollections and overruns were permitted before the bureau stopped them was 22 days in 2004, and 32 days in 2005.
The spokesman for the F.B.I, John Miller, attempted to justify these violations of civil liberties by arguing that some violations are inevitable "given the scope and complexity of national security investigations." However, it's more likely that the bureau is simply perpetuating longstanding practices. The Justice Department would do well to view its report as a serious comment on the blatant lawlessness within the F.B.I., and to demand serious reforms within the bureau. It's long overdue.