FBI at Work
The FBI Obsession with Secrecy
In 1997, on national television, a senior FBI executive told the American people that his agency was committed to providing the public comprehensive information about how and where the bureau enforced the criminal law.

"We'd be happy to talk about what we do in the criminal area," said Tron Brekke, the deputy chief of the FBI's Office of Public and Congressional Affairs."We owe it to the American people. They're the ones that pay our salary. And we recognize our responsibility to them."

But the FBI, continuing its long-held tradition of profound secrecy, did not deliver on Mr. Brekke's very public promises. And the bureau today remains one of the most closed and least examined enforcement agencies of the federal government. The failure of this powerful and growing institution to provide Congress, public interest groups, reporters and individual members of the public with complete information about its basic activities raises the question of whether the FBI sees itself as operating outside the normal boundaries of representative government.

The bureau's failure is particularly disturbing because FBI Director Louis Freeh seems to understand what is at stake.

Indications of the bureau's resistance to even minimal levels of oversight are plentiful. In its annual budget submissions to Congress, for example, the FBI has never provided the House and Senate appropriation committees with the basic kinds of information they require to assure themselves that the agency is being run in an effective manner. How many FBI employees are working in each FBI district? How many individuals are charged with criminal violations each year as a result of bureau investigations? How has this number changed? How many FBI indictments concerned various categories of crime: drugs, official corruption, bank robbery, and white collar crime? How many individuals in each category ultimately were convicted? Without such basic kinds of information, of course, true accountability is not possible.

One specific category of information that Mr. Brekke told the Nightline audience the FBI would be "happy to talk about" were the number of FBI personnel assigned to handle special problems like white collar crime, organized crime, health care fraud and the investigation of civil rights violations. Facts about how many people are working on different kinds of problems and where they are working are of course essential to judging any institution's performance. But during a meeting with the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) two months after the ABC broadcast, no staffing information was forthcoming. This failure was consistent with a previous letter to TRAC from the then head of the FBI's Freedom of Information Section that staffing "is treated as secret and classified since its disclosure would jeopardize FBI investigative efforts."

An annual report or statistical summary can also be helpful to public understanding. Two sister agencies of the FBI -- the Internal Revenue Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service -- publish yearly reports about what their agents are doing and where they are doing it. While neither the IRS nor INS reports are perfect, they are vastly more informative than anything offered by the FBI.

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