Q. How about justice? You hear a lot about justice with law enforcement.
A. Justice is merely incidental to law and order. Law and order is what covers the whole picture. —J. Edgar Hoover interview with Walter Cronkite, November 14, 1968
In the wake of the FBI’s April 9 raid on the office of President Trump’s personal lawyer, the cries of “witch hunt” from right-wing commentators Sean Hannity and Alex Jones, as well as from Donald Trump himself, have gone up another notch. They are alleging that there is an illicit conspiracy underway to undermine, discredit and remove the president of the United States from office. At the core of their conspiracy theory is the FBI and those who purport that Trump had the help of the Russian government in winning his current job. The Bureau, these conspiracy theorists argue, is serving partisan aims, and may even be breaking the law.
On the other side, those with an abiding hatred of Trump and everything he stands for argue that the FBI is under siege for upholding the United States’ democratic principles. In turn, former critics of the FBI — including large elements in and around the Democratic Party — are suddenly defending the Bureau and its leadership.
There are also forces that reject the right’s view but argue that the charge of “Russian collusion” is a red herring or neo-McCarthyism. While proponents of this position (people such as Max Blumenthal, Glenn Greenwald and Ray McGovern) have few illusions about the FBI’s historic role, they are extremely skeptical — if not incredulous — about the Trump collusion narrative.
Officially, the United States doesn’t have a secret police, but in actuality it has an abundance of them.
It is a bizarro world, one in which diverse political proponents do not line up in predictable ways. One need only take the example of James Comey. Leaving aside his role in the 2016 election, it was not that long ago that he was a target for some of his current defenders for his role in greenlighting the use of torture. Given such a confusion of opinion, it is worth taking a step back to look at what the FBI is, how it has acted in the past, what it is doing now and why it finds itself in the center of the current political storm.
The US’s Secret Police
Officially, the United States doesn’t have a secret police, but in actuality it has an abundance of them — albeit with peculiarly American features. These include the CIA, the NSA, myriad military intelligence agencies, local police intelligence and anti-terrorism squads. Collectively, these compose what may be the most elaborate and sophisticated secret police operation in the world. The domestic standout in this group is the FBI.
The FBI has always had two mandates: pursuing crimes that fall within federal jurisdiction (think white-collar and organized crime) and national security. It is in this second role that the Bureau has garnered some of its most controversial attention.
Created in 1908 as the Bureau of Investigation, it was headed for 48 years (beginning in 1924) by John Edgar Hoover, who previously served as head of the Bureau’s General Intelligence Division. Hoover and the Bureau cut their teeth during the infamous Palmer Raids of 1919, rounding up thousands of radical immigrants and suspected communists for detention and deportation. By 1935, the Bureau of Investigation had become the Federal Bureau of Investigation and had as a chief focus the ascendant Communist Party, a target that would occupy its attention throughout the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. By the ’60s, the FBI was also contending with a multitude of other forces, including various revolutionary and Black Nationalist groups, individual radicals and organizations emerging out of the New Left.
In the ’80s the FBI was forced to close down most of its domestic security investigations. In their place, the Bureau initiated investigations under the legally imprecise term of “terrorism.”
Their single biggest focus, however — consistent with the terrain of the Cold War — was communism. This manifested itself mostly in efforts to undermine and destroy the Communist Party, but also included efforts to undercut Trotskyist and Maoist organizations. There were many Bureau initiatives in this regard, but two are worth exploring here: the plan to round up dissidents and the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO).
For most of Hoover’s tenure, the Bureau oversaw an index, initially called the Custodial Detention Index, later called the Security Index, and later still the Administrative Index. This index, a database in today’s terms, was established to keep files on anyone deemed a threat to US internal security, communists being chief targets. The files, numbering over 10,000, were to be updated in a timely fashion so that in the event of a “national emergency” — war or some other calamity — those on the list could be put in detention camps, much in the way Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II (a move Hoover actually opposed). The index was not fully discontinued until January 1978.
The other standout activity of the Bureau was an array of counterintelligence operations — counterintelligence being efforts to undermine subversion, especially foreign subversion. Initially begun as an initiative against the Communist Party, it was expanded to include programs targeting Black radicals, the Puerto Rican independence movement, the American Indian Movement, the Socialist Workers Party, the New Left, white supremacists and others.
The problem for the FBI, it seems, is not so much domestic fascists and racists, but those who aggressively oppose them.
Rather than simply gathering intelligence, COINTELPRO deployed a huge bag of dirty tricks to disrupt and neutralize targets. Among its operations were an effort to convince Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide by sending him a letter exposing his extramarital affairs; an attempt to set the Chicago Black Panther Party against the Chicago gang Blackstone Rangers through the spreading of rumors (similar plans aimed at the Black Panther Party had dire results); passing the floor plan of Chicago Panther leader Fred Hampton’s apartment to the Chicago Police, who in turn used it to carry out a raid in which they fatally shot Hampton as he slept; various initiatives to undermine the Students for a Democratic Society, the largest radical student group of the ’60s; and the establishment of a phony Maoist faction within the Communist Party. Kept secret until 2015, this phony faction was first used to destabilize the Communist Party and was later used as an instrument to undermine the New Communist Movement.
By the late 1970s, with the onset of myriad revelations and scandals about US intelligence operations, the US defeat in Vietnam, the resignation of Richard Nixon, and larger geopolitical shifts, the FBI was forced to abandon most of its domestic intelligence operations. In turn, it was required to adhere to a different legal standard. It would now have to show actual evidence of plans for violence, versus vague suspicion, before carrying out an investigation. One of the consequences was the replacement of the Bureau’s de facto carte blanche for electronic surveillance by the establishment in 1978 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversaw the approval of wiretaps. That, of course, did not end electronic surveillance. In fact, according to Mother Jones, by 2013 the court had approved over 33,900 warrants, rejecting only 11, in its 33 years in effect.
The Bureau’s problem with certain social justice activism is impelled not by concerns over US sovereignty, but rather its desire to exercise domestic control.
As the ’70s gave way to the ’80s, the FBI was forced to close down most of its domestic security investigations — investigations targeting groups and individuals deemed threatening to national security. This was a result of scandals and exposures and the adoption of new investigatory guidelines by the attorney general. In their place, the Bureau initiated investigations under the legally imprecise term of “terrorism” — which it applied to both individual violence and groups the government claimed were bent on political violence. This change also corresponded with major shifts in global politics, including the diminishment of the perceived communist threat. The FBI did, however, continue domestic investigations — though often suggesting they were terrorist investigations — such as its investigation of the group CISPES (the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) in the 1980s.
With the passage of the USA Patriot Act in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bureau and other law enforcement agencies were able to expand their repressive toolkits, which they used to target forces they claimed to be implicated in terrorist incidents. The result was a proliferation of investigations and high-profile arrests in which, more often than not — the motor of the plot was an FBI informant. Indeed, the Bureau’s use of informants has been its most consistent and effective weapon. These anti-terrorism measures also strengthened the FBI’s ability to target protesters, as it did in Minnesota in 2010, using the statute of “material support for terrorism” to conduct raids against antiwar activists.
More recently, as Truthout has reported, the FBI’s creation of a new investigatory classification of “Black Identity Extremist” has paved the way for increased surveillance of Black activists engaged in anti-racist organizing. The designation, coming on the heels of the July 2016 shooting of police officers in Dallas in the wake of a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest, has the effect of conflating a social justice movement with an individual act of violence and opens the BLM to further repressive scrutiny. Indeed, Black Lives Matter activists reported that the FBI had “interviewed” them (subjected them to an FBI intimidation method) in advance of the 2016 Republican National Convention.
The FBI’s problem with Trump is not at all the same as its conflict with the activist left.
The Bureau has also identified “nine persistent extremist movements” on the FBI’s radar, including “white supremacy, militia, sovereign citizens, anarchists, abortion, animal rights, environmental rights, and Puerto Rican Nationalism.” The list is revealing of the Bureau’s priorities: White supremacist terrorists and fanatics who have killed abortion providers sit alongside certain animal rights and environmental activists who have been implicated in property damage.
As for the anarchist category, it now includes antifa activists. In an April 2016 assessment reported on by Politico, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI warned that anarchist groups could become more lethal if “fascist, nationalist, racist or anti-immigrant parties obtain greater prominence or local political power in the United States, leading to anti-racist violent backlash from anarchist extremists.” Here, too, the priorities are revealing: The problem for the FBI, it seems, is not so much domestic fascists and racists, but those who aggressively oppose them. What more is going on behind the scenes — for the Bureau’s “investigations” are about intimidation and disruption, not research — is a matter awaiting further revelations.
The Right’s Sudden Distaste for the FBI
Today, many activists on the left find themselves puzzling over what to make of right-wing attacks on the FBI. Some have responded by adopting the position of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”: Because the right is attacking the FBI, it is the left’s job (or, at least, liberals’ job) to defend the FBI. While this might seem to bear a degree of common-sense logic, it obscures an important reality: The FBI’s problem with Trump is not at all the same as its conflict with the activist left.
The FBI’s reasons for scrutinizing the president are pretty straightforward. When he ran for office, Trump publicly associated himself with Russia in unusual ways — from calling publicly for Russia to release Hillary Clinton’s emails, to making Paul Manafort his campaign manager, to demonstrating an obsequiousness to Vladimir Putin. It’s no wonder that these gestures drew the attention of the FBI, which sees one of its key mandates as its duty to “protect the United States against foreign intelligence operations and espionage.” Things may have changed considerably since the collapse of communism in the 20th century, but protecting sovereignty is still fundamental for nation-states, and the FBI is on the point of that. As a result, the FBI is keen to investigate whether Trump is compromising US sovereignty. What its inquiry will yield is not at all clear.
The Bureau’s problem with certain social justice activism, on the other hand, is impelled not by concerns over US sovereignty, but rather its desire to exercise domestic control. Movements and protests that are deemed disruptive of the social order, to say nothing of the larger stability of the US, are as a result, potential targets of the Bureau.
In that regard, it is important to note that Trump is not arguing that the Bureau should stop carrying out its overall mission — just that it should stop investigating him. Trump himself — in an anti-Comey Twitter rant on December 3, 2017 –– said as much:
After years of Comey, with the phony and dishonest Clinton investigation (and more), running the FBI, its reputation is in Tatters – worst in History! But fear not, we will bring it back to greatness.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 3, 2017
The “greatness” Trump wants to restore is, we suspect, one on which the Justice Department, the executive branch and Congress are all on the same page. Such was the case in 1971 when Democratic Rep. Frank T. Bow, member of the influential House Committee on Appropriations, fawningly told J. Edgar Hoover, “I think we sleep a little better at night because of your efforts.” Bow and his kind may have slept better, but the thousands under attack by the Bureau felt no such reassurance: Their lives had been upended, people had been sent to prison, and some had even been murdered. In that respect, harmony at the top of government means more disruption, harassment and worse for those fighting for a better world.
Today’s is a complex moment. On the one hand, the right’s attacks on the FBI are perilous, especially if they end up resulting in an upending of baseline democratic and constitutional norms. On the other, it’s important to remember that the FBI is not a force for justice. Indeed, justice has never been the Bureau’s mission. Rather, it is an instrument of law and order tasked with preserving the brutal inequality and injustice that is the status quo. For those fighting for something better, illusions to the contrary are dangerously disarming.