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
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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