W A S H I N G T O N, Aug. 9, 2002 -- This is one of those startling turns of events that, upon reflection, surprises no one — FBI Assistant Director John Collingwood has announced his retirement.
Few people in Washington have lived as stress-filled a life in the past decade as this guy.
He was working for FBI Director Bill Sessions when the incoming Clinton administration, with a reported boost from certain people within the bureau, was trying to dislodge him.
Then he served through all the turbulent times with FBI Director Louis Freeh, a director who almost literally made war on the White House, his president, and very often his attorney general.
And somehow Collingwood managed yet another transition, serving what will have been the first hair-raising year of FBI Director Bob Mueller's tenure. There is no other senior official who has survived all three directors.
Because Collingwood oversaw the press operation, there were (still are) some reporters foolish enough to think of him as just the chief spokesman for the bureau. In fact, his bailiwick in recent years has been both congressional and public affairs — overseeing hundreds of employees dealing with issues as diverse as the Freedom of Information Act and the FBI tour.
But even more than all that, his value has been that of trusted adviser. As one official told me, often in the past several years, only General Counsel Larry Parkinson knew as much or sat in on as many meetings with the director as Collingwood did.
To some exasperated reporters, it's always been clear that Collingwood preferred dealing with the Hill, and indeed that's where his true value lay for both Freeh and Mueller. All too often, desperate reporters would only get their calls returned at night, as Collingwood was driving home. All too often, his cell phone would go dead at just the most critical point in a conversation. He has even teased (at least I think it was teasing) that he saved the dying batteries for my calls. But often he would stick with the conversation right into his driveway — or when he pulled into the pizza place to pick up a late supper.
One still-embittered former Justice official wished Collingwood good riddance, still holding him responsible for some of Freeh's backroom dealings with Republicans in Congress on campaign finance that so undermined former Attorney General Janet Reno.
But Reno's last spokesman, Myron Marlin, always had good relations with Collingwood despite the battles raging between others in the two buildings. He told me, "John's a guy with immense knowledge who knows how the game is played and plays it very well. It's going to be tough to replace somebody like a John Collingwood."
Attorney General John Ashcroft's former spokeswoman Mindy Tucker was even more enthusiastic, saying how much she enjoyed working with him, adding, "he is somebody that is a workhorse, not a showhorse. ... He does a lot more than most people realize and is probably more valuable than most people understand."
Tucker felt she and Collingwood had been able to rebuild a relationship of trust between Main Justice and the FBI that had been missing. Ironically, relations with her successors have not been so smooth.
One longtime Justice official told me, "I don't think Bob [Mueller] realizes the ramifications [of losing Collingwood]. Who is he going to find to take that position, who is knowledgeable enough about the bureau, about the press, about Congress, and is able to keep all sides happy without pissing off the director?"
Interestingly enough, some officials believe that Mueller will split up the congressional and press jobs, finally realizing it's just too much work for any one human being. Of course, as the still-angry former official noted, why should the FBI have its own lobbying shop anyway? Ashcroft should close that down and tell the bureau that Justice will take care of its needs on the Hill, he maintained.
In a statement, Ashcroft praised Collingwood as "a principled and dedicated man." Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he had handled both "good news and bad news, and we have come to rely on his candor and his judgment."
Mueller, in his statement, said, "I will miss John greatly." In language that seemed more than boilerplate, the director added, "He has given me wise counsel during one of the most important periods in the FBI's history. He has been a valued friend. It's a tremendous understatement to say that he will be sorely missed."
In his letter of resignation, Collingwood had told the director that he still feels "a beaming sense of pride in being a part of the Bureau, a sense of pride that has not diminished in the slightest since the day I first walked through the door. I cannot understand how anyone could ever feel otherwise. It has been quite a ride, far beyond anything I ever could have imagined."
And Collingwood praised Mueller for "leading the FBI down the path which this moment in history demands it must go. ... It is reassuring to me to leave knowing those who remain are in such good hands."
When he informed his own staff, he thanked them for their hard work and asserted that "while I am often the lucky one who hears the praises for what you do, I am not so foolish as to think it is anything other than your skill and dedication."
Collingwood is joining MBNA, the huge bank holding company in Wilmington, Del., that is otherwise known as the FBI alumni association. Five former top FBI officials — including, coincidentally enough, Louis Freeh — have already ended up there. Collingwood will be handling government affairs so he will still be cutting quite a swath on Capitol Hill.
Collingwood told me that Mueller "didn't want me to go" and "tried to persuade me to stay." But, he said, it was a funny thing — for years people had told him he'd know when it was time to go.
And suddenly it had struck him, "it just felt right." And he said he feels blessed because he's leaving while he still loves his job, and has not yet become either bitter or burned out.
Other Proposed Changes in FISA: Lowering Standards
I wrote last week about one proposed change in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), with Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., offering legislation that would address the so-called lone wolf problem.
Space, alas, did not permit an explanation of yet another proposed change on which there was also testimony at that same hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, but I feel confident you want to know all about it.
This amendment was submitted by Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, but it encountered much rougher going than Schumer-Kyl.
As DeWine himself described it, his bill (S.2659) "would change the burden of proof, which must be met by the government, from probable cause, to reasonable suspicion, but only in very specific circumstances. That change would only apply for terrorism investigations of non-U.S. persons."
This might sound like gobbledygook, but the words "probable cause" are enshrined in the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. The Justice Department's James Baker, head of the Office of Intelligence Policy Review (OIPR), which actually brings warrant applications before the FISA court, testified that the Bush administration is still "studying" the DeWine amendment because it "raises significant legal and practical questions" — in other words, it's a dead duck.
In one of those strange-bedfellows moments, Jerry Berman of the Center for Democracy and Technology cited Ashcroft's earlier testimony before Senate Judiciary as questioning the constitutionality of DeWine's amendment.
When the very liberal Berman and the very conservative Ashcroft are in agreement about a Fourth Amendment question, you know the thing's not going anywhere.
Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham, D-Fla., initially seemed quite drawn to the proposal, but attempted to elicit specific definitions of the two terms from his witnesses. He asked Catholic University Professor Clifford Fishman: If we're talking about a 100-yard track, with probable cause at 80, how close would reasonable suspicion come? 60? 70? He appeared quite shocked when Fishman replied "30 or 35."
Perhaps what was most interesting about the DeWine amendment was some of the additional discussion its proposal elicited. DeWine defended his bill partly because "it would address one of the concerns voiced about the FISA process — that its use has sometimes been encumbered by an overly cautious culture and that officials responsible for implementing it have been, in certain circumstances, too slow to request a FISA order from the court."
OIPR's Baker did admit that the FISA court has approved every single application ever submitted by an attorney general with "one exception for technical reasons many years ago."
Thus, Graham worried that OIPR has become too concerned about its track record and may be too conservative in seeking FISA warrants: "If you're hitting 1.000, then maybe you're only coming to bat when you have a relatively inept pitcher."
But Baker denied that his office, or the FBI agents who work with it, are risk-averse. "We are being appropriately aggressive in our use of FISA," he maintained.
He pointed out that Judge Royce Lamberth, who until this past May had served seven years as the chief judge on the FISA court, has spoken in public about the ongoing interaction between the court and the department; the judges ask questions, probe, demand additional information, etc. It is a collaborative process, in other words, and certainly not just a rubber stamp.
The FBI's Bowman concurred; "Frankly," he said, "it would not bother me a bit to lose" an application, "but we do work them very hard." He added, "Sometimes it just takes a little extra gumshoe work by the special agents, but I don't think it's fair to say that we're risk-averse."
In fact, there are people in law enforcement who agree that Justice has been so fearful of an adverse ruling from the court that it has not pushed issues hard enough. Some believe, as one said to me, "we do read FISA too narrowly," and that OIPR has been unwilling to test the limits of the statute. One official believes that OIPR was "for a long time too scared of Judge Lamberth." Various Clinton administration officials who felt his sting would no doubt empathize.
However, that very same official is also worried about too much tinkering with FISA. Isn't there anybody around here, he wonders, who remembers history? It has not been that long ago that the NSA listened in on U.S. radicals, and the CIA investigated demonstrators.
Even more recently, the FBI was caught investigating members of CISPES, an organization that supported Salvadoran rights, for engaging in clearly protected First Amendment activities.
If it appeared at the Intelligence Committee hearing that the skids were completely greased for Schumer-Kyl, that appearance may have been deceiving. As Kyl himself made clear, he believes the amendment must be vetted by the Judiciary Committee. And several people, from both Justice and the Hill, told me that Judiciary Chairman Leahy is quite skeptical of the proposal.
Even though Leahy has stated that Justice has read FISA too narrowly, he is said to believe that Schumer-Kyl goes too far.
Beverley Lumpkin has covered the Justice Department for 16 years for ABCNEWS. Halls of Justice appears every Saturday.