Leashing the FBI
With candor rare among law-enforcement officials, FBI Director William S. Sessions has acknowledged that his agency’s long surveillance of Americans critical of the Reagan Administration’s Central American policies was seriously flawed and “unnecessarily broad.” He has made an example of six FBI supervisors who made what he called “mistakes in judgment” by letting the investigation run away from them; three were suspended without pay for two weeks, three others censured. All that is commendable, but now the FBI should make amends with the hundreds of Americans caught in the agency’s net simply for exercising their First Amendment rights. Now that it is clear that they violated no laws, their names should be expunged from FBI records.
Although Sessions told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the FBI never intended to interfere with “legitimate domestic political activity,” its investigation did exactly that. It may have begun innocently enough, with a request from the Justice Department to probe the Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador (CISPES) for possible violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. A tip from a now thoroughly discredited informer led the FBI to broaden the investigation; CISPES was said to be aiding terrorist acts by the chief guerrilla organization in El Salvador, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front.
Eventually all 180 CISPES chapters nationwide were targeted, as were hundreds of organizations--among them the New York Council of Churches, the Roman Catholic Sisters of Charity and the United Auto Workers--suspected of operating as fronts for CISPES. FBI agents not only photographed demonstrations against U.S. involvement in Central America but also tailed protesters, monitored university seminars and tapped telephones. As Sessions admitted, the FBI carried out 178 separate investigations and compiled information on hundreds of individuals with no link at all to international terrorism.
The FBI and the Justice Department’s Office of Intelligence Policy and Review ought to get some credit for dropping the CISPES investigation in 1985, when it became obvious that the suspicions about the group were unfounded. But the damage cannot be repaired as long as CISPES-related documents remain in the files. CISPES may have been publicly absolved of all wrong, but what of the individuals who may someday encounter difficulties in obtaining a government job or a security clearance or a small-business loan because of their FBI records? The way to guard against such potential harm is to expunge the names or destroy the files--no loss, in our view. Sessions’ offer to consider expunging the names on the request of those named is insufficient.
The Senate committee, while full of praise for Sessions’ forthrightness, should attend to some other loose ends, too. Still unexplored is the allegation that the FBI’s informer, Frank Varelli, provided information from FBI files on Salvadoran activists to death squads operating in that country. And, with its House counterpart, the Senate panel should consider whether the voluntary guidelines that were adopted a decade ago to keep the FBI away from constitutionally protected activities are adequate; FBI inspectors found that agents violated those guidelines at least 15 times during the CISPES probe. Sessions has imposed amendments to tighten internal controls over terrorism investigations and the screening of informants. But guidelines depend on the good will of individual agents, who once again have shown themselves to be less than sensitive to civil liberties. To ensure against repetitions of CISPES, Congress may need to revive legislation first proposed a decade ago that would allow the FBI to initiate an investigation only if it has reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.