Book Excerpt: 'The Bureau'

"The life of the White House is the life of a court," George E. Reedy wrote in The Twilight of the Presidency. The president "is treated with all the reverence due a monarch."

To a lesser extent, FBI directors are treated the same way. "The power and the privileges go to their heads," said former FBI deputy director Weldon Kennedy. "They start to believe what they read about themselves and react to the deferential way people respond to them."

But agents themselves have a clear appreciation of the need to remain within the law. They joined the FBI to do good, to risk their lives if necessary to make sure others are safe. Nearly all FBI agents would turn in their badges before committing an illegal act. The bureau's record speaks for itself. Not since the days of Hoover and L. Patrick Gray has the FBI as an organization engaged in illegal conduct.

Since that time, innovations in communications have made it far more difficult for the FBI to conduct electronic surveillance. Instead of using one phone, criminals use cell phones and pay phones, not to mention E-mail and the Internet, often with the help of sophisticated encryption software.

Yet even after September 11, privacy advocates continued to oppose any change that would allow the bureau to keep up with the bad guys. Thus, the bureau could obtain authorization to wiretap specific phone numbers or to intercept E-mail from specific addresses but could not target the communications of an individual regardless of which phones or E-mail addresses he or she used. To keep up with a suspect who switched from a disposable cell phone to a pay phone to a fax, the bureau would have to obtain new court authorization every time. It was easier to obtain wiretap authorization against organized crime figures than against terrorists. Even when the FBI had probable cause and court authorization, it could not easily intercept and read coded electronic messages. That was because, during the Clinton administration, Congress would not pass legislation requiring software manufacturers to include in their products ports that would allow the FBI to unscramble the coded communications. The software industry maintained that allowing law enforcement to defeat encryption detracted from the value of its products. The same kind of opposition prevented the FBI from unscrambling coded digital phone calls. Terrorists could buy encryption programs at any CompUSA and assure themselves that the FBI would not be able to unscramble their messages. What was the point of allowing court-ordered interception if it could not be carried out?

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