June 10, 2003

MAKING A FEDERAL CASE OUT OF EVERYTHING? Gene Healy has a nice piece on the federalization of crime, using the Jayson Blair case as a jumping-off point. Excerpt:

James Comey, Orrin Hatch, and other officials pushing the expansion of federal jurisdiction ought to reacquaint themselves with the Founding documents. Staying out of local affairs isn't only their legal responsibility as servants of the people sworn to uphold the Constitution. It could also be a matter of life and death. As Nobel economist Milton Friedman has pointed out, when government begins to do what it should not, it ceases to do what it should. That's a lesson we should have learned after September 11th.

As was widely reported, the Phoenix FBI office knew about Al Qaeda activity at U.S. flight schools prior to September 11 but could not get the Bureau's main office in Washington, D.C., to take action. In fact, Kenneth Williams, the FBI agent who recommended canvassing flight schools for Islamist radicals prior to 9/11, couldn't concentrate on terrorism full-time because he was ordered to head up an arson investigation. Williams' memo about Bin Laden-ist pilots-in-training disappeared down a bureaucratic black hole. Meanwhile, according to the Los Angeles Times and other sources, the FBI was engaged in an 18-month-long sting operation at a brothel in New Orleans that netted 12 prostitutes. While Al Qaeda was preparing for 9/11, federal law enforcement was down in the French Quarter acting like the local vice squad.

There are limited resources available to law enforcement and defense. Spend time and money pursuing prostitutes, arsonists, and dishonest reporters, and there are fewer resources available for the fight against Al Qaeda. It's well past time for the federal government to get its priorities straight.

(Emphasis added). He's absolutely right on this, and it seems clear that priorities are still askew. It's hard to cut the Justice Department the slack it wants for the overwhelmingly important war on terror when the Justice Department itself doesn't seem to treat the war on terror as overwhelmingly important.

UPDATE: Here, by the way, is a link to an excellent ABA report on the federalization of crime, a subject that brings together folks as different as me, Gene Healy, Jeralyn Merritt, and Chief Justice Rehnquist.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Clayton Cramer has posts on this topic here and here.