More than 2,000 guests attended the FBI’s 100th birthday celebration last week at the National Building Museum.
Lending an historical note to the occasion, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III introduced Walter Walsh, who, at 101, is the oldest living special agent. In the FBI’s gangster era, Walsh worked on the Baby Face Nelson and Ma Barker cases.
The event went off without a hitch, with the exception of when a retired agent accidentally fell into the pool of a fountain and became completely submerged.
Besides Mueller and Attorney General Michael Mukasey, three former directors of the FBI sat on the dais. Their presence underscored how much directors have shaped the bureau since it was formed on July 26, 1908 with just 34 agents.
The father of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, reigned as director for almost 50 years. As outlined in the Newsmax story “Newseum Highlights Mysteries of J. Edgar Hoover,” he brilliantly conceived what has become the most admired law enforcement organization in the world.
He created field offices that respond to orders from headquarters. He gave agents broad training so they could be shifted, as needed, from espionage to kidnapping investigations or from Mafia to terrorism investigations.
When forensics was in its infancy, he created the FBI laboratory. When police brutality was common, he insisted that FBI agents treat suspects with dignity.
Long before the Supreme Court's 1966 decision in Miranda v. Arizona, Hoover required FBI agents to warn suspects of their rights when they were arrested. Reports had to be written honestly and without typos.
Before computers, he created a filing and indexing system that effectively kept track of massive amounts of information.
Marred by Controversy
But during his career as FBI director, Hoover also presided over massive abuses. He ordered illegal wiretapping of domestic targets, blackmailed presidents and members of Congress to keep his budget and his job, spied on political opponents for presidents, and illegally used the FBI to maintain and refurbish his home.
When he became FBI director, Clarence M. Kelley, a former police chief, demanded that investigations be opened only when there was reason to believe a law had been violated. He emphasized quality over quantity in selecting cases.
William H. Webster, a former prosecutor and judge, mounted major offensives at the biggest targets that were sacrosanct under Hoover, such as the Mafia and corrupt members of Congress.
Under Webster, the FBI began developing sophisticated techniques for combating spying. Instead of merely conducting surveillance of KGB officers assigned as diplomats to the U.S., the FBI took what it calls a proactive approach, operating double agents to eat up KGB officers’ time, learn what they were after, and eventually help expel them.
In what became known as the foreign counterintelligence program, the FBI engaged in a secret and highly effective dance with the KGB and the GRU — Soviet military intelligence — watching, learning, and moving in when necessary to thwart a spy operation.
The climax to the bureau’s effort to perfect its counterintelligence program came in 1985, known as the Year of the Spy, when the FBI arrested 11 spies. They included John A. Walker Jr., a Navy warrant officer; Jonathan J. Pollard, the Israeli spy; Ronald Pelton, a former NSA employee; and Larry Wu-Tai Chin, a spy for the Chinese. All pled guilty or were convicted.
Like Webster, William Sessions, who followed him as director, was a former prosecutor and judge. He focused on the personnel, technical, and systems aspects of the bureau, trying to improve advancement opportunities for women and minorities and pushing such techniques as DNA typing. But when he was director, he engaged in abuses ranging from having the FBI install a fence with no security value at his home to using the FBI plane for trips to visit his daughter in San Francisco for Christmas.
When his wife Alice demanded a pass so she could enter FBI headquarters without being escorted in, the director ordered it done. Only employees with a top-secret security clearance are allowed to have the pass, yet the FBI issued her building pass No. 14592, which entitled her to the special privileges accorded an assistant director or above.
Alice Sessions saw herself as a co-director of the FBI. When referring to her husband becoming FBI director, Alice Sessions said, “When we were sworn in.” She called herself her husband’s “eyes and ears.”
As a result of disclosure of Sessions’ abuses in my book “The FBI: Inside the World’s Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency,” President Bill Clinton fired him.
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When Louis Freeh became director, agents were overjoyed. Besides being a former judge and prosecutor, he had been an agent himself. But while Freeh had the foresight to expand the FBI’s offices overseas, he had no use for technology.
Weldon L. Kennedy, appointed by Freeh to be associate deputy director for administration, remembered that Freeh kept a computer on the credenza behind his desk.
“I never saw him use it, nor did I ever see it turned on,” Kennedy says.
Because of the lack of computers, the FBI could not handle all the intelligence that poured in before 9/11. While the agents were smart and dedicated, they had few analysts who could sift the data and connect the dots to try to zero in on potential investigative targets.
Under Freeh, the bureau became so politically correct that agents trailing suspects were not allowed to follow them into mosques, even though mosques are open to the public. FBI agents could not sign on to online chat rooms to develop leads on people who might be recruiting terrorists or distributing information on making explosives.
The FBI had to determine first that there was a sound investigative basis before entering a chat room that any 12-year-old could enter.
During Freeh’s tenure, the FBI lurched from one debacle to another. A prime example was the botched and misguided investigation of Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese-born scientist who worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory and was exonerated of charges that he gave secrets to China.
A week before 9/11, Mueller, a former prosecutor and head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, replaced Freeh. He found that the FBI’s computers were pre-Pentium machines, incapable of using the current software, connecting to the Internet, or even working with a mouse. The FBI’s internal e-mail was so slow that agents used their personal e-mail addresses. The FBI system did not allow e-mail outside the agency.
Local police were far more technologically advanced than the bureau, often because of funds from the Justice Department. Because few of the FBI’s computers could handle graphics, agents would ask local police departments to e-mail photos of suspects to their home computers.
Immediately, Mueller ordered thousands of new Dell machines. He began to turn the bureau into an agency that emphasizes preventing terrorist incidents, rather than prosecuting them after the fact.
Now, according to Arthur Cummings, who heads counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigations, when an agent wants to arrest a terrorism suspect, Cummings tells the agent, “Your objective is not to make the arrest. Your objective is to make that suspect our collection platform. That guy now is going to tell us just how big and broad the threat might be. He now becomes a means to collection, instead of the target of collection.”
If an agent wants to proceed with an arrest without exhausting every means to turn the suspect into an asset, Cummings informs him he is putting Americans in jeopardy,
“It’s a completely different approach and bears little resemblance to the previous one,” Cummings told me for my book “The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack.”
[Editor's Note: Get Ronald Kessler's book. Go here now.]
While we hear much about infringements of rights, since the Hoover days, no court has found that the FBI has engaged in an abuse — meaning an illegal act for improper or political purposes.
As Mueller said during the FBI’s anniversary celebration, “It is not enough to stop the terrorist — we must stop him while maintaining his civil liberties.”
As one high-ranking agent puts it, Mueller is an “animal,” working incredible hours, demanding that the bureau follow every terrorism lead, and easing out those who do not give him the straight story.
Rather than infringing on rights, the FBI, along with the CIA, has been successful in stopping another 9/11 attack. One reason is that since 9/11, those agencies have rolled up 5,000 terrorists worldwide. Indeed, every few months, the FBI announces new arrests.
The FBI now has 12,710 special agents. Their fight against terrorism and other crimes has produced an American success story. If your child were kidnapped, you would want the FBI on your side. In the same way, FBI agents have protected this country against foreign and domestic enemies for the past 100 years.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
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