Don't forget the FBI charter
One little-noticed victim of election-year politicking by Congress and the White House has been urgently needed legislation to create a legal charter to govern the FBI. Languishing in both houses are bills that would spell out for the first time the duties and responsibilities of the federal law-enforcement agency and, equally important, provide specific guidelines for determining what conditions must exist for the bureau to launch an investigation. Nearly everyone in and out of government agrees some such statutory guidance is long overdue to protect the public from the kind of civil rights abuses FBI officials allowed to go unchecked in the latter days of J. Edgar Hoover's directorship.
However, with Senator Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a key proponent of charter legislation, still tied up on the presidential campaign trail and the Carter administration likewise making no push to get a charter enacted, Congress could easily let slip away an important opportunity for passage of a charter this year. One major risk of putting off action on a charter is that the passage of time is not likely to make enactment any easier. The public's memory tends to be short and, as the previous FBI excesses fade into the past, pressure on Congress for corrective legislation could eventually dissipate and disappear altogether. This must not be allowed to happen.
To his credit, FBI director William Webster has brought new vigor and openness and a new sense of direction to the agency. The Webster-initiated policies for the FBI are largely in line with the proposed charter which President Carter described in his 1980 legislative message to Congress as one of his top priorities. Nevertheless, without a charter written into law, future administrations would be under less constraint to slip back into the kind of laxness that once fostered abuses.
The proposed charter is highly controversial, with staunch law-and-order advocates, on the one hand, seeking to increase the bureau's authority and civil rights groups, on the other, anxious to keep a tighter reign on the FBI. In general, two key principles ought to be upheld in the charter: First, the FBI mandate must scrupulously avoid inviting First Amendment violations; it should, for instance, discourage FBI interference in political dissent. Second, the charter should remove any lingering concern about inherent presidential power in regard to the bureau; congressional oversight would ensure that the FBI is not viewed as a tool of the president. Moreover, the charter should provide for an independent audit of FBI activities; currently the Justice Department both supervises and audits the agency.
The Bar Association of the City of New York, in perhaps the most exhaustive independent study of the charter legislation to date, warned last week of "serious deficiences" in the proposed charter and urged that it not be enacted in its present form. Among the FBI practices targeted by the bar group is the increasing use of undercover operatives, as in its widely publicized Abscam investigation into alleged attempts to bribe several congressmen. The New York bar study recommends that the charter prevent agents from using methods to induce, or entrap, people who would not otherwise commit a crime into doing so.
These and other provisions need to be closely studied and vigorously debated. The FBI ought not to be unduly hampered in fullfilling its responsibility to enforce federal laws. But the bureau would be better assured of the public support and cooperation so essential to good law enforcement if the American public knew the agency itself was held strictly accountable under the law. Lawlessness in the US will not cease just because this is an election year. Neither should congressional efforts to enact the charter governing the FBI's battle against it.