The FBI has been under non-stop assault since the election of 2016 — first by Democrats who decried its eleventh-hour decision to restart the Clinton email investigation, then by Donald Trump with his firing of James Comey. The Bureau is currently portrayed in the mainstream media as a friend of justice, suggesting an image rehabilitation after its lawlessness was exposed in the mid-1970s. Already, we have witnessed Comey and Andrew McCabe — who oversaw the FBI in the critical period during Trump’s ascent — painted as brave truth-tellers, instead of the repressive law enforcement agents they were. One can anticipate more of this, especially with the prospect of release of Robert Mueller’s report.
Who are these people presented to us as heroes? And who will a re-legitimating of the FBI benefit?
The Agency’s Sordid History
Despite much focus on the FBI recently, the history of those who lead it and the nature of the organization has largely remained unexamined in the mainstream media. In the case of Mueller, for example, we are told much about his appointment as special counsel after Comey’s firing, but little about his role as FBI director during George W. Bush’s administration. It was during that time that the FBI repeatedly targeted Muslim communities with informant-sting operations which were then touted as successful efforts at stopping terrorism. At the same time, the government adopted the USA Patriot Act, which ushered in a new era of governmental repression and supplied the FBI with an array of new suppressive tools. Also obscured from contemporary discussion is Mueller’s putting the FBI stamp of approval on the myth of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as a pretext for the murderous U.S. war there. In short, with all the waiting for Mueller’s report, what is too often ignored is his essential role in some of the most repressive and egregious undertakings of the U.S. over the past two decades. Mueller has already caused trouble for Trump, and this is certainly welcome, but that is no reason to lose perspective on who he actually is and the role he has played in U.S. history.
This applies to Comey as well, who replaced Mueller as FBI director. In 2003, Comey was deputy attorney general under John Ashcroft. While he has often been hailed for refusing to sign off on a particular surveillance order during that time, less discussed is his role in facilitating torture. Comey himself is aware of his legacy, and is quite defensive, writing at length in his book that he did not want to become the “torture guy.” What comes through in his own account is that he knew torture, a crime against humanity, was being used by the U.S.; that his office had sanctioned it, and yet, aside from some internal pushback, he did nothing further to stop it. All of which is telling, not only of Comey personally, but of the agencies he led.
McCabe — who was promoted to the FBI’s top leadership first by Mueller, then Comey — does not carry that particular stain, though he was, amid standing controversy, a key player in the Clinton email affair. It is worth remembering the Bureau’s initial role during the election of 2016: When Comey was director and McCabe was deputy director, the FBI’s attention to Hillary Clinton appears to have been elevated to, or above, interest in a hostile foreign power intervening in a U.S. presidential election. In that respect, there is an argument to be made that McCabe, Comey and the FBI played a role in getting Trump elected, all of which ought to give pause to those lined up now in support of the Bureau.
This becomes even clearer when looking at the makeup of the agency. Beyond the fact that Mueller, Comey, McCabe and current FBI Director Christopher Wray are Republicans, the Bureau — unlike the rest of the U.S. — is overwhelmingly white and male. Further, the FBI has been known to attract a particularly conservative element — for example, recruiting from and attracting members of the Republican-inclined Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and evangelical Christians. While that does not prove the Bureau is, by default, an ultra-conservative organization (officially it is supposed to be nonpartisan), it suggests the opposite of being middle-of-the-road, let alone progressively inclined.
Given all this, we find ourselves in a situation where people who had either despised or had a healthy skepticism of the FBI are now full of illusions about it. This is largely a consequence of Trump firing Comey in May 2017 — first under pretense of his handling of the Clinton email matter, and later, articulated specifically by Trump because of “this Russia thing.”
Comey’s firing, nonetheless, has brought us to this moment. It is becoming clearer that there is now agreement among a cohort of people within the power structure that Trump and his cronies’ machinations with the Russians during the election, and Trump’s obsequiousness to Vladimir Putin, are not going to stand unopposed. And this was given an important boost with the results of the 2018 election and its mass rejection of Trump and the core that supports him. This helps explain why, as McCabe reports in his book, the “Gang of Eight” congressional leaders did not push back when McCabe told them that the Bureau was launching a counterintelligence investigation against the president after Comey’s firing. It also explains why the Mueller investigation has gotten as far as it has, and why Trump is besieged by an unprecedented array of other investigations. With all this, there is a certain denouement looming — amid continuing contention — and it is worth anticipating what we will be left with, particularly in how to view the FBI once the dust clears.
National Security Threats and Red Scares
In his new book, The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump, McCabe begins by describing what he feels would be in his FBI personnel profile if he still had access to it. (Having been fired by Trump, he no longer does.) It is fairly predictable stuff — his schooling, background, friends and family — but twice in his exemplary work, he makes a point about sedition: “None [of those contacted] had ever seen or heard McCABE advocate for the overthrow of the United States, or support any group or organization opposed to the government of the United States.”
McCabe’s inclusion of this point inadvertently raises the specter of “McCarthyism” and “witch hunts” that have been the currency of Trump and his supporters (along with some elements on the left). The irony is that by invoking McCarthyism, they raise the specter of a period that does have ongoing relevance.
Contrary to received wisdom that the McCarthy era — which began well before McCarthy and lasted long past him — was an aberrant period in U.S. history, it was, among other things, a highly successful effort that facilitated the organizational suppression of the Communist Party. Leaving aside the larger critique of communism for the moment, this was unprecedented. Scores of Communist leaders were jailed under the provisions of the Smith Act, which made it a crime to advocate, or even teach the desirability, of the overthrow of the government. Sympathetic artists and intellectuals were driven from the public sphere. Multiple laws were passed mandating loyalty oaths denouncing the Communist Party, driving communists from unions, which required members to sign affidavits declaring they were not communists. And those who failed or refused to renounce communism needed to register as such or face legal consequences.
As a result, by 1953, a political party representing many tens of thousands was de facto (if not de jure) illegal. At the center of all this was the FBI, which had compiled files on more than 12,000 Communists the Bureau fully intended to detain in the event of a “national emergency.” That list was sanctioned by law and supported — tacitly or otherwise — by all presidents from Roosevelt to Nixon. If one wants to understand the depths of political repression possible in the U.S. and the necessity of the FBI in instituting such, one can find no better example than this Red Scare.
Further, while on one level, McCabe’s reference to overthrowing the government seems an archaic relic of the Cold War past, it goes to something central about the FBI’s stated mission “to protect and defend the United States against terrorist and foreign intelligence threats.” Currently, the greater share of the Bureau’s near 35,000 personnel are allocated to counterterrorism/counterintelligence and the separate category of intelligence — approximately 20,000 personnel to the 15,000 assigned to criminal enterprises and criminal justice services. In other words, the larger component of the FBI’s work remains focused on things other than “crime” — and it is there, historically, where the FBI has squared off against political challenges to the U.S. power structure.
It is also worth noting that none other than Donald Trump himself raised a certain specter in his 2019 State of the Union, declaring, “America will never be a socialist country” — an admission that there are quite a few people within U.S. society that see capitalism as the fundamental problem. Trumpian demagoguery aside, the polarization of U.S. society means the road ahead will be a contentious one. While the organizations that will emerge and the politics they cohere around is an open question, what is foreseeable is that the FBI will play the role of antagonist — beyond the one it is already playing against Black Lives Matter, various anti-fascists, and others.
Today, we find ourselves at an odd confluence of interests among a broad array of anti-Trump forces that include former leaders of the FBI. In this, we are being maneuvered — subtly and directly — toward re-establishing the political norms that preceded Trump. In that respect, in a post-Trump world (one that hopefully will come sooner than later), the likelihood of a stronger FBI looms large, and this will be good for the U.S. ruling structure. However, one only needs to look at the Bureau’s history to conclude that a stronger FBI will not be good for those straining against the abuses and inequality at the core of U.S. society.