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Not Saved by the Bell, but Saved by the Bill at the FBI

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All the hand-wringing (a good bit of it by me) over lost freedoms, Big Brother and this administration’s Homeland Insecurity pale by comparison to bad judgment and malfeasance. Jeffersonian democracy may be against the ropes in the 10th round, but it has a far better chance of being saved by the bill than the bell.

I’ll settle for that in these years of eroding constitutional authority. We Americans take what we can and do the best we can with it.

Dan Eggen over at the Washington Post writes in today’s paper;
(1-11-08) Telecommunications companies have repeatedly cut off FBI access to wiretaps of alleged terrorists and criminal suspects because the bureau did not pay its phone bills, according to the results of an audit released yesterday.

The report by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said that more than half of nearly 1,000 FBI telecommunications bills reviewed by investigators were not paid on time, including one invoice for $66,000 at an unidentified field office.

Thank god for small deliverances.
We have trillion-dollar government these days, unable to function in hurricanes or prevail against fundamentalist terror forces. Half that dough goes to the Pentagon, where they promptly lose it. The other half splits between actual needs and office-preserving earmarks. Boil it down and that means (in real and unadulterated and gold-backed dollars), the whole thing is worth about ten billion.
No one alive today even remembers gold-backed currency, but even ten billion isn’t chump-change (depending upon how you define both chump and change). No doubt the Congress will find a way—and soon—to do away with Inspectors General. IGs are just too embarrassing to the legislative ego, what with all that reporting and checking-up and keeping of tabs.
The report cited a case in which an order obtained under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act -- which covers clandestine wiretaps of terrorism and espionage suspects -- was halted because of "untimely payment."

"Late payments have resulted in telecommunications carriers actually disconnecting phone lines established to deliver surveillance results to the FBI, resulting in lost evidence," Fine said in a seven-page summary of the audit's findings.

Imagine that. The FBI (in kindergarten lingo) failed “to work and play well with others.” Not once, a bunch of times. Please have mommy come in to see me.

Along with losing their guns and laptop computers, agents have been caught with their pants down and fingers in the cookie jar—not a pretty sight for the federal police. Some of the cutoffs were do to not giving a damn, some to a ‘we’re the FBI” mentality and some to siphoning off funds into agent pockets.
The late payments were part of a broader pattern of lax bookkeeping identified by Fine's review, which focused on how FBI headquarters tracks special funds that are sent to field offices to pay for rental cars, surveillance and other expenses in undercover investigations.

A review of 35 employees with access to such funds found that half had personal bankruptcies or other financial problems, the report said. In one case prosecuted in June 2006, an FBI telecommunications specialist pleaded guilty to stealing more than $25,000 intended for telephone services.

In another example of the FBI's administrative difficulties, Fine's office reported in 2002 that the bureau could not account for hundreds of missing guns and laptop computers. His office noted more of the same in a follow-up report last year.

Administrative difficulties. Sounds like the Pentagon's trillion-dollar oops.

FBI Director Bob Mueller was either too chagrined or too caught up in the endless meetings (that make law enforcement subject to chagrin) to comment. He dropped that duty on Assistant Director John Miller’s desk. John immediately fired off memos and statements to cover various parts of his anatomy, stut, stut, stuttering . . .
"there is widespread agreement that the current financial management system, first introduced in the 1980s, is inadequate." Miller said the FBI "will not tolerate financial mismanagement" and is working to address the problems revealed by the audit.
Widespread agreement does not a solution make.

For the first thirty-five years or so of the FBI’s existence, Director J. Edgar Hoover ran a dictatorial and often criticized bureau. But the damned thing worked and by god his agents didn’t lose their guns.

The misnamed, misguided and mismanaged Department of Homeland Security exemplifies a unique and self-destructive government structure--an incredibly bloated system devised by those who purport to want smaller government.

It strives to know everything about everyone and thereby knows nothing about anybody. DHS took too many independent agencies (18 or more, depending on how you count), each of which more or less worked, and turned them into one gigantic, ungainly, ineffective and ungovernable statistical stew, stirred by 200,000 employees.

Inspectors General like Glenn Fine are the scorekeepers. I wouldn't say this as proven fact, but they seem to be the only people between the American taxpayer and absolute government chaos.

A break down of access is what concentrated the slip-ups that allowed the 9-11 attacks. A fine example of the nail that lost the shoe that lost the horse that lost the general that lost the war. The FBI agent with critical knowledge couldn’t get through. In Hoover’s time, you better damned well have something of value, but you could move information up the chain.

Back to Miller’s statement about not tolerating financial mismanagement, the Inspector General first tagged these problems in 2002. Six years of not tolerating? C’mon, John, get serious.
The seven-page report released yesterday was only a summary of Fine's 87-page audit, which has been deemed too sensitive for public release. The summary did not say which field offices had problems or identify any of the individuals involved.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which has been sharply critical of the Bush administration's surveillance practices, called on the FBI to release the full report. The group's national security policy counsel, Michael German, also said that the report raises questions about the motives of large telecom firms, which have, in many cases, allowed the government to run wiretaps on their systems without warrants.

"It sounds as though the telecoms believe it when the FBI says the warrant is in the mail, but not when they say the check is in the mail," said German, a former FBI agent.

I love it. Great line, Mike.

We all worry, with considerable reason, about who is looking down the front of our metaphoric blouse and for what reasons. But the larger worry is what we gained for what we lost. It doesn't seem like much of a bargain.

Living outside the United States, as I do, a U.S. citizen’s life is a nightmare of Patriot Act regulation that seems aimed at the innocent. Banking is virtually impossible as Americans are presumed to be drug dealers, money launderers or terrorists—all in the simple pursuit of living abroad and trying to access home.

  Yet the prosecution of those the government has dragged off the streets of the world and claimed to be terrorists, fails in case after case. We’re losing the keystone of our freedoms to the Keystone Kops of government.
The audit comes as the Bush administration is urging Congress to approve an overhaul of the 1978 wiretap law to grant telecommunications firms immunity from lawsuits for helping the FBI and other government agencies conduct secret surveillance.
Seems we’ve done enough updating of laws.

I’d settle (and maybe you would too) for taking our federal government back to 1978 instead of asking Congress to immunize the telecoms. And, if I were the telecoms . . .
. . . I’d just as soon have the Feds pay their phone bill.

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Jim Freeman's op-ed pieces and commentaries have appeared in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, International Herald-Tribune, CNN, The New York Review, The Jon Stewart Daily Show and a number of magazines. His thirteen published books are (more...)
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