Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller recently announced an overhaul in the mandate of the FBI and in the ways it will be able to conduct its operations. The reorganization was based on the premise that, in post-9/11 America, the FBI must be changed from a reactive law-enforcement organization that solves crimes to a proactive domestic intelligence agency that will disrupt terrorist groups and prevent attacks before they happen.
To accomplish this new objective, Ashcroft overturned restrictions on the FBI's domestic investigative and surveillance powers, which had been in place for the past 30 years. With this new policy, the FBI will be able to monitor the internet and public forums - such as places of worship - in the fight against terrorism.
However, media coverage was not very supportive of the move. An analysis of editorial and op-ed pages around the country found far more skepticism than support regarding what the FBI would do with these new powers. Skeptical coverage outnumbered supportive articles by a ratio of 5 to 3.
Civil liberties advocates were up in arms over the move, concerned about the government's potential abuses of these powers. The Orlando Sentinel (June 4) wrote, "Since the attacks, Ashcroft has used the 9/11 tragedy to attack the US Constitution every which way. To Ashcroft, it seems, the answer to fighting terrorism is cracking down on American civil liberties and immigrants' basic human rights."
The shadow of past abuses under longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover loomed large in the debate, prompting the suspicion among the media. As The Washington Post (May 31) noted, "The FBI's history in domestic surveillance is an ugly one. Many articles reminded readers of the FBI's spying on Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others who have been critical of the government. Furthermore, there were questions about Ashcroft's commitment to safeguarding civil rights, indicating that the Justice Department under his watch has not inspired too much confidence in this area.
Several op-eds noted the changes face the larger obstacle of reforming the institutional culture of the FBI, which an editorial in Minneapolis' Star Tribune (June 2) described as "change-resistant and rabidly averse to any kind of criticism, especially self-criticism."
It would appear that both Ashcroft and the FBI have a credibility gap with the US media. The papers are too mindful of both past abuses of power and more recent bungled investigations to give the benefit of the doubt to Ashcroft and Mueller when they say the FBI will act within the Constitution in carrying out its new powers. A New York Times (May 31) editorial argued, "Ashcroft has a gift for making the most draconian policy changes sound seductively innocuous."
The St. Petersburg Times (June 2) took things a step further, alleging, "From the earliest days of J. Edgar Hoover, the bureau's leadership has been more focused on, and successful at, PR and political manipulation than core law enforcement functions."
There will be a very fine line between protecting the nation's security and safeguarding the civil liberties that are enshrined in its Constitution.
Those who have embraced the changes described them as a good first step, but no one is blindly accepting the FBI's new powers. If the media is reflecting the public's views, the FBI will have to earn back the trust of the American public through its deeds rather than through guarantees.
Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found at www.carma.com.