Yesterday, Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, no doubt because the Bureau may be getting too close to Trump’s badly kept secrets about his campaign’s collaboration with Russia to sabotage the 2016 election. For leftists and progressives, it felt a bit like being between a rock and a hard place — a choice between the FBI (and various other security agencies) and the Trump neo-fascist, overtly racist death machine. Former FBI and CIA agents and former George W. Bush operatives have become spokespeople for the anti-Trump media. Meanwhile, the Watergate scandal has become the template for the drama that is gaining momentum, as the buffoon-like “you’re fired!” antics of Trump and his cracker-in-chief, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, fuel the fire. For those of us who care about the future of this country and the world, it can be hard not to root with a full throat for a complete dismantling of the Trump administration, however it may occur.
But while hoping for a political transformation of unparalleled proportions, we should also be aware of the history of the intelligence organizations and leaders who are now the savants telling us how to think about our latest political scandal. It should be remembered that the Watergate scandal led to the investigation of the FBI, CIA and NSA by Sen. Frank Church’s Senate Committee, and the exposure of unparalleled official illegality. The FBI was front and center with its COINTELPRO program that had operated since the FBI’s inception in the 1920s, and had employed a wide range of aggressively unconstitutional tactics, first against Marcus Garvey, the Socialist Workers and Communist Parties, and later against the labor, antiwar and civil rights movements.
The FBI’s COINTELPRO tactics started out with an emphasis on public disinformation and outright lies that were designed to destroy people’s lives and their organizations’ credibility. These tactics progressed in the 1960s — with an intense focus on organizations of color — to fomenting violence, framing leaders with bogus criminal charges, “black bag” burglaries, and, in the case of Chicago Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, political assassination. In April of 1976 the Church Committee concluded that the FBI’s COINTELPRO program not only targeted the Black Panther Party but also intended to destroy it. The Church Committee also condemned the FBI’s activities against Dr. King and published FBI documents showing that Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown were also among the leaders targeted, as were the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Nation of Islam. The evidence documented by the Committee also demonstrated that a quarter of the Ku Klux Klan’s members were FBI informants, that these informants were often in leadership positions within the Klan, and that they were frequently responsible for Klan violence and even murders, most notably the murder of civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo.
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The evidence before the Church Committee also established that the CIA, the NSA and military intelligence were all deeply involved, contrary to law, in intelligence and counterintelligence activities within the United States. Moreover, it showed that the FBI’s COINTELPRO program mirrored that of the CIA’s counterintelligence activities abroad. The CIA had “neutralized” Congolese revolutionary leader Patrice Lumumba by assassinating him, disrupted elections long before the Russians returned the favor this past year, overthrown democratically elected governments across the globe and regularly engaged in disinformation tactics.
Unfortunately, the Watergate and Church Committee hearings did not put an end to FBI and CIA illegalities at home or abroad, and many of the counterintelligence tactics exposed in the 1970s have been adopted with little dissent in the so-called “war on terror.” It is important to remember that back in 1964, the FBI, in a Bureau-wide directive, had predicted that its COINTELPRO-like tactics would continue in some form or another because COINTELPRO “only encompasses everything that has been done in the past or will be done in the future.”
So, before we jump to the unquestioning defense of Comey and the FBI, or swallow whole the offerings of former intelligence agents and Bush-era apologists, it is important to keep in mind this sordid history of institutionalized illegality. This history now contains not only Comey’s actions in the run-up to the election, but also the repression that his FBI has visited upon this generation’s movements for social change. Only with this historical memory and a fixed eye on the ultimate prize — transformative social change — can we return to rooting, with controlled fury, for the demise of Donald Trump’s neo-fascist regime.