On a day when the U.S. Senate Judiciary committee rolled over like a Clinton intern for FBI Director Robert Mueller, one senator persisted, asking the tough questions the FBI needs to hear. That senator, I'm happy to report, was Washington's Maria Cantwell.
On June 6, Washington's junior senator spent 15 minutes grilling Mueller, while her committee colleagues lobbed softballs in between bursts of effusive praise. "Director Mueller willingly and enthusiastically accepted the difficult challenge of reforming the FBI," said Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). "It had to be overwhelming, as it is to lead any major organization."
Cantwell, however, cast doubt amid the lovefest, asking whether Mueller has what it takes to clean up the FBI. She also pushed Mueller to pay more attention to civil rights.
Mueller--a former Marine who is fiercely loyal to his troops--has a long reputation as a company man, and Cantwell was clearly frustrated that he has been slow to start cracking heads at the FBI.
"The response to this looks more like eavesdropping than housecleaning, and I think that's what really has the American public concerned," she said. "Where is the housecleaning process in this?"
Mueller gave the typical company-man answer: Don't worry about it. We're taking care of it ourselves. "In my belief," he said, "before disciplinary action is taken, the inspector general ought to look at that conduct and determine whether or not disciplinary action is appropriate."
Cantwell remained skeptical, and said the main September 11 response--giving the FBI more spying power--is the wrong answer. "Our fundamental problem was that at the end of the funnel of information we weren't processing it correctly, [and yet] we are now only going to widen that funnel and put more information into it," she said.
Cantwell called on Mueller to create a "director of privacy and civil liberties" position within the FBI to make sure "the organization is adhering to the policies that protect... individual civil liberties." Indeed, civil liberties have been given short shrift by Democrats and Republicans alike since September 11. With the passage of the USA Patriot Act, and with new FBI guidelines announced by Attorney General John Ashcroft earlier this month, the bureau has been handed more wiretapping authority and is now allowed to start spying on religious organizations. FBI agents can probe the lives of suspected "terrorists" for up to a year without showing any cause for snooping.
Mueller said he would be "happy to consider" Cantwell's proposal, in a tone that clearly said "Don't hold your breath."
Cantwell took Mueller's response in stride, but made it clear that she did not want to be dismissed. "If the agency is serious about those new guidelines, and serious about protecting civil liberties, then having someone in the agency whose main job is to help that culture understand those civil liberties seems to me to be a wise investment." And, she warned: "I'm sure we'll have more hearings."