If you watch TV crime shows, you would think the Federal Bureau of Investigation works tirelessly to protect us from terrorists and criminals. But the real FBI is a much less impressive organization.
After the horrendous Colorado shooting last week, we learned that the alleged shooter, Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, had a record of violence and arrests. His brother described him as mentally ill, paranoid and “very anti-social.” He was also on the FBI’s radar because of someone with whom he associated.
In this, Alissa joins a long list of “known-wolf” killers, including Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter; the Tsarnaev brothers, who conducted the Boston Marathon bombing; Omar Mateen, the Pulse nightclub shooter in Florida; and some of the 9/11 hijackers.
The FBI’s failure to catch that last set of perpetrators is especially enraging — and shows the agency has been atrophying for a long time. “For two and a half weeks before the attacks,” as Slate noted, “the US government knew the names of two hijackers. It knew they were al-Qaeda killers and that they were already in the United States.”
The two, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, lived under their real names, loud and proud. Per Slate: “They used those names for financial transactions, flight school, to earn frequent flier miles and to procure a California identity card.” Nevertheless, the FBI failed to nab the pair until, on Sept. 11, 2001, they slammed an airliner into the Pentagon.
The bureau’s performance disappointed FBI agents themselves. Agents trying to get a warrant to search the laptop of 9/11’s “20th hijacker,” Zacarias Moussaoui, joked that Osama bin Laden must have had a “mole” in the FBI’s DC headquarters because they were meeting with so much interference.
And as the Boston Herald’s Howie Carr reminds us: “Remember serial killer Gary Sampson? Before he murdered three innocent men in 2001, he called the FBI office in Boston from a pay phone in Abington and offered to turn himself in on some unsolved bank robberies.” But the FBI apparently keeps banker’s hours, and the call came on a Friday afternoon; the bureau ignored the call. “The following day, Sampson started his two-state carjacking murder spree.”
So what’s the FBI good for? The answer is, the kinds of things that wouldn’t make for flattering TV.
Some of it is humorous, as when the bureau sent no fewer than 15 agents to investigate a “noose” in race driver Bubba Wallace’s garage that turned out to be an innocent pull cord.
Most of it isn’t so funny.
Agents in the FBI’s Boston office, for example, protected notorious mobster James “Whitey” Bulger from law enforcement, while simultaneously accepting gifts from him. They may even have helped him in his efforts. Carr also notes that the bureau’s Boston office was guilty of “railroading four Boston men onto death row for a 1965 murder they did not commit, allowing them to rot in prison for 35 years while corrupt FBI agents protected the real murderers from justice.”
The FBI also failed to catch a Russian mole in its own ranks — Robert Philip Hanssen — for more than 20 years.
The FBI’s Crime Lab, presented as the gold standard for “CSI”-style forensic science, turns out to be unreliable. As The Washington Post reported in 2015, “nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.” Many of those defendants were sentenced to death.
“CSI” is a TV show. The FBI is, unfortunately, real.
Then there is the mountain of political misbehavior of the last several years. The bogus Operation Crossfire Hurricane, investigating nonexistent Russian “collusion” with the Trump campaign. Wiretaps of journalists. The absurd “interview” of President Donald Trump’s first national-security adviser, Gen. Mike Flynn, that led to him being prosecuted for lying to agents (the agents themselves didn’t think he had lied). The texts between adulterous lovers Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, who also happened to be FBI agents working together on a politicized investigation (many of which texts mysteriously disappeared).
Looking at the FBI’s record, it’s hard not to conclude that it is far better at pursuing press and political opponents than at actually keeping us safe. It’s enough to make you wish those TV shows were fact and the FBI we actually have fiction.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and founder of the InstaPundit.com blog.