Walter E. Williams bio photo

Walter E. Williams

Bradley Prize Winner 2017

Professor of Economics.
(703) 993-1148
D158 Buchanan Hall
Department of Economics
George Mason University

Related Sites:
The homepage of George Mason University.
Homepage of the Department of Economics at GMU.

Aren’t you a bit perplexed at how rapidly our FBI and CIA identified, arrested or detained so many people involved in the terrorist attack? The answer’s easy. The FBI and CIA had a lot of information about terrorists and their organizations before the attack, but they were hamstrung. According to a Sept. 24 Human Events interview of Herbert Romerstein, a former staffer on House committees on internal security and intelligence, we’ve emasculated our intelligence services.

Emasculation of our intelligence services began during the Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, and Rep. Otis Pike, D-N.Y., committee hearings in the 1970s. As a result of those hearings, Congress enacted the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA) in 1979. Liberal Democrats in control of the Congress wanted to protect Americans against domestic spying. What they ended up doing was to protect terrorists and others who might do us harm.

You say, “What do you mean, Williams?”

For example, suppose there’s a person who hasn’t engaged in spying or terrorism, but is a member of an organization that does. Herbert Romerstein says FISA provides that only leaders of the organization can be wiretapped, not the rank and file. Therefore, had bin Laden been in the United States, the FBI could have wiretapped him, but not the rank and file men who flew the planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

According to Matthew Robinson, in his Oct. 1 article, “FBI Forbidden to Tape Hijack Suspect,” in Human Events, on Aug. 17, the FBI detained Zacarias Moussaoui for immigration violation. He was the man who paid $8,000 in cash to a flight school for lessons on flying a Boeing 747, and he was uninterested in learning takeoff and landins. On Sept. 1, the FBI received French intelligence that Moussaoui had spent two months in Pakistan just prior to coming to the United States and among his possessions when arrested was a manual on crop-dusting.

The FBI went to its Justice Department superiors for a warrant to allow it to collect intelligence on what appeared to be a criminal conspiracy or terrorist planning. It was denied. The Justice Department Office of Intelligence and Policy Review (OIPR) refused to take the case to a judge who could consider a warrant request.

According to a just-released General Accounting Office report, OIPR makes it difficult for the FBI to coordinate investigations within the Justice Department: “Criminal Division officials believe these (OIPR) concerns, while well-intentioned, are overly cautious.” The Moussaoui case is the rule rather than the exception where, a National Commission on Terrorism said, “OIPR does not generally consider the past activities of the surveillance target in determining whether the FISA probable cause test is met.”

Protecting civil liberties against government abuse is laudable, but hamstringing our intelligence agencies so that terrorists can roam free in America is stupid. I think Congress should grant U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft some of the investigatory tools that he’s requested to protect Americans against future acts of terrorism.

But there should be two important stipulations: first, none of the intelligence gathered under the new provisions may be used to prosecute any American engaged in criminal activity, unless that activity is terrorism or espionage. Second, any changes in the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act of 1979 and other legal measures enacted to prosecute terrorists should contain a sunset provision whereby all changes become null and void two or three years after their enactment. At that time Congress can decide reauthorization.

We Americans had better get used to the idea that a large portion of the world Islamic community hates our guts, and we’re going to have to become less naive about what’s necessary to protect ourselves.