I have written several articles law enforcement. A list of links have been provided at bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address different aspects on Law Enforcement.
The Justice Department Inspector General is expected to release on Thursday its report on alleged FBI misconduct during the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump supporters and opponents are already pre-spinning the report to vindicate or undercut the president. Unfortunately, the report will not consider fundamental question of whether the FBI’s vast power and secrecy is compatible with American democracy.
According to some Republicans, the FBI’s noble history was tainted by its apparent favoritism for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Democrats have gyrated over the past 18 months, first blaming the FBI for Clinton’s loss and then exalting the FBI (along with former FBI chief and Special Counsel Robert Mueller) as the best hope to save the nation.
In reality, the FBI has been politically weaponized for almost a century. The FBI was in the forefront of the notorious Red Scare raids of 1919 and 1920. Attorney General Mitchell Palmer reportedly hoped that arresting nearly 10,000 suspected radicals and immigrants would propel his presidential campaign. Federal Judge Anderson condemned Palmer’s crackdown for creating a “spy system” that “destroys trust and confidence and propagates hate.” He said, “A mob is a mob whether made up of government officials acting under instructions from the Department of Justice, or of criminals, loafers, and the vicious classes.”
After the Palmer raids debacle, the FBI turned its attention to U.S. senators, “breaking into their offices and homes, intercepting their mail, and tapping their telephones,” as Timothy Weiner noted in his 2012 book, “Enemies: The History of the FBI”. After the FBI’s political espionage was exposed, Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone, warned in 1924, “A secret police system may become a menace to free government and free institutions because it carries with it the possibility of abuses of power which are not always quickly comprehended or understood.” Stone fired the FBI chief, creating an opening for J. Edgar Hoover, who would head the FBI for the next 48 years. Hoover pledged to cease the abuses but the outrages mushroomed.
To Understand the F.B.I., You Have to Understand J. Edgar Hoover
In 2003, Republicans liked the F.B.I. far better than Democrats did, by a margin of 19 points, at 63 percent to 44 percent. Today, nearly 20 years later, that equation has flipped and then some. According to a recent Rasmussen survey, 75 percent of Democrats now have a favorable view of the F.B.I., in contrast to 30 percent of Republicans. Gallup puts the numbers further apart, with 79 percent of Democrats expressing approval and 29 percent of Republicans disapproval.
From James Comey’s firing in May 2017 through the Mueller report, the Jan. 6 investigation and the Mar-a-Lago raid, the F.B.I. has not always delivered on Democratic hopes. But its showdowns with Donald Trump have fundamentally changed its public image.
To some degree this switch simply reflects our hyperpartisan times. But the F.B.I.’s surge in popularity among Democrats also reflects a forgotten political tradition.
Since the 1960s, liberals have tended to associate the bureau with its misdeeds against the left, including its outrageous efforts to discredit the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and other civil rights activists. Before those activities were exposed, though, liberals often admired and embraced the F.B.I., especially when it seemed to be a hedge against demagogery and abuses of power elsewhere in government.
They pointed to the bureau’s role as an objective, nonpartisan investigative force seeking to ferret out the truth amid an often complicated and depressing political morass. And they viewed Hoover as one the greatest embodiments of that ethic: a long-serving and long-suffering federal civil servant who managed to win the respect of both Republicans and Democrats.
We now know that much of that admiration rested on wishful thinking — and today’s liberals would be wise to remember Hoover’s cautionary example. But for all his failings, all his abuses of power, he also promoted a vision of F.B.I. integrity and professionalism that still has resonance.
J. Edgar Hoover was a lifelong conservative, outspoken on matters ranging from crime to Communism to the urgent need for all Americans to attend church. He also knew how to get along with liberals. Indeed, he could not have survived in government as long as he did without this essential skill. First appointed bureau director in 1924, Hoover stayed in that job until his death in 1972, an astonishing 48 years. He served under eight presidents, four Republicans and four Democrats.
It has often been said that Hoover remained in power for so many decades because politicians feared him — and there is much truth to that view, especially in his later years. But Hoover’s late-in-life strong-arm tactics do not explain much about how he rose so fast through the government ranks, or why so many presidents — including Franklin Roosevelt, the great liberal titan of the 20th century — thought it was a good idea to give him so much power.
Hoover spent his first decade as director establishing his good-government bona fides; he championed professionalism, efficiency, high standards and scientific methods. So in the 1930s, Roosevelt saw Hoover not as a far-right reactionary but as an up-and-coming administrator thoroughly steeped in the values of the modern state — a bureaucrat par excellence.
Roosevelt did more than any other president to expand the F.B.I.’s power: first, by inviting Hoover to take a more active role in crime fighting, then by licensing him to become the nation’s domestic intelligence chief. Hoover’s agents became known as G-men, or government men, the avenging angels of the New Deal state.
Today’s F.B.I. still bears the stamp of the decisions Roosevelt made nearly a century ago. A hybrid institution, the F.B.I. remains one part law-enforcement agency, one part domestic-intelligence force — an awkward combination that we now take for granted.
It also retains Hoover’s dual political identity, with a conservative internal culture but also a powerful commitment to professional nonpartisan government service. This combination of attributes has helped to produce the F.B.I.’s inconsistent and sometimes contradictory reputation, as different groups pick and choose which aspects to embrace and which to condemn.
Hoover went on to do outrageous things with the power granted him during the Roosevelt years, emerging as the 20th century’s single most effective foe of the American left. But many Washington liberals and civil libertarians did not see those abuses coming, because Hoover continued to reflect some of their values as well. During World War II, he distinguished himself as one of the few federal officials opposed to mass Japanese internment, labeling the policy “extremely unfortunate” and unnecessary for national security.
After the war, despite his deep-seated racism, he stepped up the F.B.I.’s campaign against lynching in the South. “The great American crime is toleration of conditions which permit and promote prejudice, bigotry, injustice, terror and hate,” he told a civil rights committee convened by President Harry Truman in 1947. He framed white supremacist violence not only as a moral wrong but also as an acute challenge to federal authority.
By contrast, he promoted himself as the embodiment of professional law enforcement, the polar opposite of the Ku Klux Klan’s vigilantes or the conspiracists of the John Birch Society. Many liberals embraced that message, despite Hoover’s well-known conservatism. “If a liberal came in, the liberal would leave thinking that ‘my God, Hoover is a real liberal!’” William Sullivan, an F.B.I. official, recalled. “If a John Bircher came in an hour later, he’d go out saying, ‘I’m convinced that Hoover is a member of the John Birch Society at heart.’”
The height of Hoover’s popularity came during the Red Scare of the 1950s, when he emerged as both a hero of the anti-Communist right and the thinking man’s alternative to Senator Joseph McCarthy. Today, we tend to view Hoover and McCarthy as interchangeable figures, zealots who ran roughshod over civil liberties. At the time, though, many liberals viewed them as very different men.
Truman feared the F.B.I.’s “Gestapo” tendencies, but far preferred Hoover to a partisan brawler and obvious fabricator like McCarthy. President Dwight Eisenhower heaped lavish praise on Hoover as the nation’s responsible, respectable anti-Communist, in contrast to McCarthy the demagogue. Both presidents cast the story in terms that might be familiar to any 21st-century liberal, with Hoover as the protector of truth, objectivity and the law, and McCarthy as those principles’ most potent enemy.
One irony of the liberals’ stance is that it was actually Hoover, not McCarthy, who did the most to promote and sustain the Red Scare. Long before McCarthy burst on the scene, Hoover had been collaborating with congressional committees to target Communists and their sympathizers, conducting elaborate campaigns of infiltration and surveillance. And he long outlasted McCarthy, who was censured by his fellow senators in 1954. Hoover’s popularity grew as McCarthy’s fell. A Gallup poll in late 1953, the peak of the Red Scare, noted that a mere 2 percent of Americans expressed an unfavorable view of Hoover, a result “phenomenal in surveys that have dealt with men in public life.”
That consensus finally began to crack in the 1960s. Hoover’s current reputation stems largely from this late-career period, when the F.B.I.’s shocking campaigns against the civil rights, antiwar and New Left movements began to erode earlier conceptions of Hoover as a man of restraint.
Its most notorious initiative, the bureau’s COINTELPRO (short for Counterintelligence Program), deployed manipulative news coverage, anonymous mailings and police harassment to disrupt these movements. In 1964, in one of the lowest points of Hoover’s regime, the F.B.I. faked a degrading anonymous letter implicitly urging Dr. King to commit suicide. Agents mailed it to him along with recordings of his extramarital sexual activities, captured on F.B.I. microphones planted in his hotel rooms.
Even then, though, key liberal figures continued to champion Hoover and the F.B.I. President Lyndon Johnson, a friend and neighbor of Hoover’s, proved second only to Roosevelt in his enthusiasm for the director. And he urged his successor, Richard Nixon, to follow suit. “Dick, you will come to depend on Edgar,” he told Nixon in the Oval Office in late 1968. “He’s the only one you can put your complete trust in.”
Despite such official support, by the early 1970s polls were starting to note that Hoover’s reputation among liberals and Democrats seemed to be in swift decline, thanks to his advancing age, aggressive tactics and conservative social views. “Now the case of J. Edgar Hoover has been added to the list of issues — ranging from the war in Vietnam, to race relations, welfare and the plight of the cities — which are the source of deep division across America today,” the pollster Louis Harris wrote in 1971.
While conservatives still expressed widespread admiration for the F.B.I. director, liberals increasingly described him as a danger to the nation. The decline was especially precipitous among coastal elites and university-educated young people. By contrast, working-class white Americans in the Midwest and South expressed support.
Today, those sentiments are reversed. According to Rasmussen, the F.B.I. is now most popular among Americans making more than $200,000 per year. Young voters like the F.B.I. better than older voters do. This division is being driven by national politics: When Mr. Trump attacks the F.B.I. as part of an overweening “deep state,” his supporters follow while his critics run the other way.
But it also reflects a larger clash of values. Mr. Trump has long scored political points by attacking the administrative state and its legions of career government servants, whether at the F.B.I., the C.I.A., the State Department or, improbably, the National Archives. In response, Democrats have been forced to reaffirm what once seemed to be settled notions: that expertise and professionalism matter in government, that the rule of law applies to every American, that it’s worth employing skilled, nonpartisan investigators who can determine the facts.
Hoover failed to live up to those principles — often spectacularly so. And today’s F.B.I. has made its own questionable choices, from surveillance of Black Lives Matter protesters to mismanagement of delicate political inquiries. But its history of professional federal service, of loyalty to the facts and the law, is still worth championing, especially in an era when suspicion of government, rather than faith in its possibilities, so often dominates our discourse. Whatever else we may think of Hoover’s legacy, that tradition is the best part of the institution he built.
In the 1948 presidential campaign, Hoover brazenly championed Republican candidate Thomas Dewey, leaking allegations that Truman was part of a corrupt Kansas City political machine. In 1952, Hoover sought to undermine Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson by spreading rumors that he was a closet homosexual.
How did J. Edgar Hoover change the FBI?
Hoover expanded the FBI into a larger crime-fighting agency and instituted a number of modernizations to policing technology, such as a centralized fingerprint file and forensic laboratories. Hoover also established and expanded a national blacklist, referred to as the FBI Index or Index List.
In 1964, the FBI illegally wiretapped Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s presidential headquarters and plane and conducted background checks on his campaign staff for evidence of homosexual activity. The FBI also conducted an extensive surveillance operation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention to prevent embarrassing challenges to President Lyndon Johnson.
From 1956 to 1971, the FBI carried out “a secret war against those citizens it considers threats to the established order,” a 1976 Senate report noted. The FBI’s Operation COINTELPRO involved thousands of covert operations to incite street warfare between violent groups, to get people fired, to portray innocent people as government informants, to destroy activists’ marriages, and to cripple or destroy left-wing, black, communist, white racist, and anti-war organizations. Even feminists were eventually added to the target list. Senate investigators warned, “(The) FBI intelligence system developed to a point where no one inside or outside the bureau was willing or able to tell the difference between legitimate national security or law enforcement information and purely political intelligence.”
Hoover served as FBI boss until his death in 1972. A New York Times obituary noted, “The more awesome Mr. Hoover’s power grew, the more plainly he would state, for the record, that there was nothing ‘political’ about it, that the FBI was simply a ‘fact-finding agency’ that ‘never makes recommendations or draws conclusions.’” This was the myth that allowed a federal agency to accumulate vast power which it continues to covertly exercise. The FBI pirouettes as the saintliest institution in Washington while its leaders dish dirt to their political or media favorites.
The pending IG report will likely spark renewed demands for the FBI to behave in a strictly non-partisan manner. That is an ideal that will likely be realized nowhere except in newspaper editorials. The sweeping discretionary power the FBI captures from enforcing thousands of federal criminal laws is destined to be abused.
The first step to reining in the FBI is to open the agency’s files. Oversight is often a mirage thanks to FBI spurning of congressional subpoenas and other information demands. Federal judges have been riled by FBI false testimony and withholding of evidence in major court cases ranging from Ruby Ridge, Waco, Orlando Pulse Massacre, and Bundy Ranch showdown. The FBI has perennially exempted itself from the Freedom of Information Act.
It has been more than 40 years since a Senate committee had the gumption and the sway to reveal the stunning details and breadth of FBI misconduct. It is time for another independent investigation with the courage and the clout to compel full disclosure from the most powerful domestic government agency. Investigators should receive all the crowbars they need to pry open FBI records.
In the coming weeks, we will be assured that a few firings and perhaps a few indictments is all that is needed to put the FBI on a straight and narrow path. But the Founding Fathers never intended a secret police force to be an independent fourth branch of the federal government. As James Madison warned in 1788, “Wherever the real power in a Government lies, there is the danger of oppression.”
Recent FBI investigations relevant to the 2016 presidential election have become the latest battleground in our deeply divided and partisan politics.
Some Republicans, disappointed by the lack of charges over Hillary Clinton’s emails and distressed by the continuing probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election, suddenly perceive corruption in the FBI. Democrats counter that the casting of doubt on the nation’s top national law enforcement agency is an unprecedented outrage.
Everyone agrees that the FBI should be as professional and impartial as possible and that its investigations should not be driven by any political agenda or vendetta. That has always been the ideal.
But various parties to the current imbroglio have been suggesting that somehow this is the first time the bureau may have fallen short of that ideal — or even been accused of doing so, rightly or wrongly.
Surely there is a massive case of collective amnesia afflicting Washington and much of the media commentariat on that score.
The fact is, controversy about the FBI is anything but new — and achieving political goals of one kind or another have been part of the reason for the FBI since its inception.
Still, the “this is not normal” narrative is strong, and it is also coming from within the FBI community itself.
Chris Swecker, who finished his 24-year bureau career as an acting assistant director, told NPR’s Ryan Lucas this week that “there’s been plenty of controversies, but never accusations that the FBI has become a political tool for one party or another, or one set of political beliefs or another.”
In his defense, Swecker’s FBI tenure coincided almost exactly with that of Louis Freeh, Robert Mueller and James Comey, the directors of the agency from 1993 to last May. In these years, under these men, the FBI has been arguably less politicized and less of a political tool than at any time in its 109-year history.
But to use the word “never” when discussing the history of the FBI’s service to a political party or to a set of political beliefs is to invite not only disbelief, but also bitter derision.
Political since its inception
In 1969, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover presents a gold badge to President Richard Nixon, making him an honorary member of the agency, during graduation ceremonies for the FBI National Academy.
As a matter of reality, the FBI has been political from its outset. While it has always had an ethos of professionalism and objectivity and devotion to law, the people in charge of it and the people in charge of the administrations under which it has served have been as political and as partisan as it is possible to be.
One could say the idea of a federal agency that conducts criminal investigations has been political by definition, practically from its inception.
Let’s talk about Teddy Roosevelt for a moment. He started the precursor agency called the Bureau of Investigation way back in 1908. He did it because he wanted someone to look at the books of some of the country’s largest and most powerful businesses, which he suspected of violating the anti-trust laws meant to rein in the activities of monopolies.
Similarly, when the bureau was tasked with finding German spies during the World War I, it could be called law enforcement — pure and simple. But what about when it went rounded up and detained citizens who had not yet registered for the draft? Or harassed political radicals of various stripes whom the administration saw as security risks for their unorthodox ideas?
Pursuing Nazis, gangsters, political favors and payback
In the 1920s, the old BOI had a role in the Teapot Dome scandal that would eventually send several officials of President Warren G. Harding’s administration to prison.
But its role was not so much in exposing the oil companies that paid bribes for access to government oil reserves. It was, rather, in investigating a senator who had exposed the scandal. That forced the BOI director of the time to resign, opening the door to a young officer who became the agency’s head in 1924. His name was J. Edgar Hoover.
Thereafter, “the Feds” went after the heavily armed gangsters who sometimes terrorized the countryside and the urban landscape as well. Like the pursuit of spies, this work was broadly popular with the public. Hoover proved effective at demythologizing folk heroes such as Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd and George “Baby Face” Nelson, as well as at professionalizing the bureau itself. The idea of using a crime lab to solve cases largely began with Hoover’s agency, which added the word “federal” to its name in 1935.
Hoover’s 48 years on the job included not just such popular crusades as rooting out Nazis during World War II but also such errands as collecting the names of people who wrote anti-war or isolationist letters to the White House. Hoover would eventually hold the top job through eight presidencies, doing various political favors for nearly all of them (according to evidence unearthed by a 1975 Senate investigation chaired by Idaho Sen. Frank Church).
During World War II, Hoover’s bureau caught Nazi saboteurs and spies, but it also pursued people of Japanese descent and jailed those who objected. After the war, the bureau was prominent in pursuit of Communists, which came to mean a wide variety of people with divergent views.
And Hoover collaborated with the notorious blunderbuss Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin, whose years of committee hearings wounded many reputations but wound up unmasking no actual Communists.
Plenty of Americans have regarded these uses of the FBI’s resources as entirely legitimate, while plenty of others have found them entirely unacceptable. But you cannot argue they were not political. And in the hands of such figures as McCarthy or Richard Nixon, the FBI most definitely was a tool of one political party.
Rooting out “radicals,” from Communists to war protest and civil rights leaders
Hoover’s passion for rooting out radicals was formalized in what was called COINTELPRO (for counterintelligence program). Aimed originally at the Communist Party, the effort expanded to battle leftists in general and especially leaders of protests against the Vietnam War.
Hoover hounded Martin Luther King Jr. for years — at one point sending him tape recordings of his tapped telephone and urging him to commit suicide.
The program was also a scourge of the civil rights movement, most prominently Martin Luther King Jr. Hoover had a kind of obsession with King, hounding him for years — at one point sending him tape recordings of his tapped telephone and urging him to commit suicide.
At largely the same time, under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, the FBI engaged in disruptive tactics against the Ku Klux Klan in the South. But after bloody riots erupted in many U.S. cities in the mid-1960s and later, Hoover turned his focus to “black nationalist” groups such as the Black Panthers, bringing disrepute and sowing dissent in its ranks.
Here again, the FBI was proving its worth to at least one concept of law enforcement even as it showed itself as a dangerous and repressive institution to others. But what one cannot deny was that it became a political tool — not just repeatedly but continually over many years.
Infamous unverified dossiers
Hoover also used his bureau to compile dossiers on people in government he thought might be security risks. These included hundreds of officials and bureaucrats he thought might be vulnerable to blackmail because they were gay. Hoover compiled mountains of evidence regarding people’s sexual orientation, a store that was eventually destroyed by one of his successors in the 1970s – after Hoover’s death.
At the same time, thousands of other Americans were able to get access to the files the FBI had kept on them and their activities for decades. Many of these records included totally unproven and unverified accusations included in “raw files” that were not meant for general release but available to various authorities at Hoover’s discretion.
Another occasion of historical significance involving the FBI was the Watergate scandal and subsequent congressional and law enforcement action leading to Nixon’s resignation as president in 1974.
Deep State déjà vu?
Watergate was happening just as the FBI was finally transitioning to a new director. Nixon appointed an outsider named L. Patrick Gray, who lasted less than a year. But during that period, the No. 2 man in the bureau, W. Mark Felt, got wind of various forms of skulduggery practiced by Nixon’s re-election campaign in 1971 and 1972, culminating in the burglary at the Watergate hotel that gave the scandal its name.
Felt managed to convey much of what he learned to a young reporter he knew who worked at The Washington Post. The reporter was Bob Woodward, and the rest is history — highly politicized history. Those who still defend Nixon today have to contend with the role played by Felt in prompting the congressional and legal proceedings that forced Nixon to resign in 1974.
Perhaps it is that episode in the long history of the bureau that is making some on Capitol Hill and some conservatives in the media uneasy about where the current investigation of Trump’s campaign and cronies could be going. For these individuals, any indication that evidence gathered by the FBI could bring Trump or members of his circle to legal reckoning would be a bad case of déjà vu.
And that is the opposite of unprecedented.
On Monday night, Federal Bureau of Investigation officials raided former President Donald Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago after following through on a search warrant. In so doing, a federal government agency undertook the most severe and egregious action against a former president in the history of our country. This raid goes far beyond an alleged need to recover documents and return them to the National Archives. This is about the weaponization of the federal government against political opponents and the American people.
To say this raid was unprecedented would be an understatement. Never before have such measures been taken in similar circumstances. In fact, I served on the Benghazi Committee that, in part, investigated Hilary Clinton’s illegal handling of classified information during her time as secretary of State. We proved she was keeping thousands of classified documents at her private residence unlawfully. Did the FBI raid her home, looking for these documents? Absolutely not! As of yet, there is no claim that the documents in Trump’s residence were at risk of being destroyed or published. Contrast that with Clinton, who used BleachBit to make sure no one ever saw the material she possessed.
The simple truth is that this is but one example of the Democrats continuing to weaponize federal government agencies against Americans who do not share their narrow political ideology. This isn’t about Trump; it’s about you.
The Democrats are gearing up to chase hard-working small businesses and families by hiring 87,000 new IRS agents to target Americans. How long before these new agents are unleashed on the American people? How long before they start going after Christian, pro-life pregnancy centers? How long before working and middle-class Americans – cops, machinists, and farmers, to name a few – start being audited due to their donations to the Republican Party?
The IRS has a very recent history of denying approval to conservative non-profits because of their political views. They weaponized the FISA warrant process to go after innocent Americans based on Rep. Adam Schiff, D-CA, and Hillary Clinton’s Russia Hoax. The Department of Justice (DOJ) wasted $32 million taxpayer dollars on the Mueller report, which found no evidence of collusion or obstruction of justice.
The Biden DOJ weaponized the FBI against America’s parents by labeling them “terrorists” if they voiced concerns about Marxist-based, critical race theory subject matter in a free and democratic manner. Health and safety rules were abused to keep children, especially kids in underprivileged areas, from attending school, leaving them behind for years and potentially the rest of their lives.
And the same Justice Department still hasn’t found the time to prosecute Hunter Biden for a litany of shady foreign deals that might implicate his father, the current president of the United States. Why is the DOJ slow-rolling this effort? It is the (D) next to Joe Biden’s name.
Here’s another example. In mid-June, following the pro-life Dobbs Supreme Court ruling, America experienced scores of attacks on pregnancy centers across the country, many of them firebombing or arson. So far, DOJ has yet to make a single arrest in any of these cases. Yet when a Planned Parenthood center was attacked in July, a multi-agency coalition was able to locate the suspect and arrest him within four days. Why the double standard? Because Planned Parenthood is a bastion of progressive ideology and a stronghold of Democrat donors.
The raid on Mar-a-Lago was an attack on all Americans and a harbinger of what is to come. The progressive left sees the institutions of our federal government not as safeguards that serve the American people, but as useful tools, even powerful weapons, that must be utilized to advance their specific agenda.
Our next president will have to do more than just publish civil service reform, such as Schedule F, although that’s a good start. He will need to ensure every federal civilian employee is subject to hiring, firing, and promotion based on merit and performance – just like all those working outside the government swamp. Until then, we must continue to call out this governmental malfeasance and demand that every citizen be treated equally under the law by our federal government. They work for us; we are not their enemy – nor will we be their victims.
WHILE TERRORISM IN the U.S. is relatively rare, over the last decade most politically motivated violence has come at the hands of far-right extremists. Despite that reality, the FBI has devoted disproportionate resources to the surveillance of nonviolent civil society groups and protest movements, particularly on the left, using its mandate to protect national security to target scores of individuals posing no threat but opposing government policies and practices.
Since 2010, the FBI has surveilled black activists and Muslim Americans, Palestinian solidarity and peace activists, Abolish ICE protesters, Occupy Wall Street, environmentalists, Cuba and Iran normalization proponents, and protesters at the Republican National Convention. And that is just the surveillance we know of — as the civil liberties group Defending Rights & Dissent documents in a report published today. The report is a detailed catalog of known FBI First Amendment abuses and political surveillance since 2010, when the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General published the last official review of Bush-era abuses. The incidents the report references, many of which were previously covered by The Intercept, were largely exposed through public records requests by journalists, activists, and civil rights advocates. The FBI relentlessly fought those disclosures, and the documents we have were often so heavily redacted they only revealed the existence of initiatives like a “Race Paper” or an “Iron Fist” operation, both targeting racial justice activists, while giving away little detail about their content.
But the targeting of political dissent is nothing new for the FBI. In fact, one of the bureau’s first campaigns, which began a hundred years ago next month, was an abusive crackdown of politically active immigrants it viewed as disloyal potential terrorists.
On the second anniversary of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, law enforcement agents at the direction of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Investigation — the FBI’s precursor — raided the Russian People’s House in New York City, where immigrants gathered to take classes, and beat and arrested everyone they found there. In the months following, local and federal police across major U.S. cities rounded up thousands of men and women, mostly foreign-born, who they accused of being subversives and Communists. The raids followed politically motivated investigations into immigrant associations, labor organizing groups, and leftist and anarchist circles.
Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, seen through the window of his home at in Washington, D.C., after it was bombed on June 2, 1919.
The Palmer Raids, as they came to be known, after Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, ushered in an era that tested the nation’s commitment to the civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution. One hundred years later, the FBI continues to target political dissent with a broad mandate, little oversight, and next to no transparency. The FBI continues to routinely conflate dissent with terrorism, and remains particularly fixated on leftist ideologies. Like the old bureau under Palmer, today’s FBI also casts its net around a wide range of civil society and social justice groups as well as racial and religious minorities.
“What is known is that there is a persistent pattern of monitoring civil society activity,” the report concludes, calling for strict oversight and reform of the bureau. “The FBI continuously singles out peace, racial justice, environmental, and economic justice groups for scrutiny. This is consistent with a decades-long pattern of FBI First Amendment abuses and suggests deeply seated political bias.”
After reviewing the report, a spokesperson for the FBI wrote in a statement to The Intercept that every activity the FBI conducts “must uphold the Constitution and be carried out in accordance with federal laws.” The spokesperson added that the bureau’s investigative activities “may not be based solely on the exercise of rights guaranteed by the First Amendment” and that its methods “are subject to multiple layers of oversight.” On its website, the bureau calls the Palmer Raids “certainly not a bright spot for the young Bureau” but adds that they did allow it to “gain valuable experience in terrorism investigations and intelligence work and learn important lessons about the need to protect civil liberties and constitutional rights.”
In fact, FBI violations of civil liberties and constitutional rights continued to be exposed at different points in the bureau’s history — most notably in the aftermath of the civil rights movement and in the post-9/11 years. Yet the bureau’s propensity for the policing of political dissent has remained largely unchallenged, the Defending Rights & Dissent report argues. “In the 100 years since the Palmer Raids,” asks Chip Gibbons, the report’s author, “how much has changed?”
People who had been arrested in the federal drive against radicals arrive at Ellis Island in New York City, on April 7, 1920.
From the Palmer Raids to 9/11
The Palmer Raids were launched on November 7, 1919, on the heels of U.S. government panic about the spread of Bolshevism and anarchism in the country’s nascent labor movement, and following a series of bombings, including one targeting Palmer’s own house. In response, police officers carrying clubs and blackjacks but no arrest warrants stormed apartments and meeting rooms, and rounded up scores of mostly Eastern European and Italian immigrants they accused of being “leftists” and “subversives.” Over several months, 10,000 people were arrested in a dozen cities, with thousands held in detention and ordered deported. While most deportation orders were ultimately invalidated, more than 500 people were forcibly removed, according to the report.
The raids swept up hundreds of people with no connection to political movements and failed to yield anyone responsible for the bombings that had justified them. The abuse resulted in the first official efforts to put a check on the powers of the Bureau of Investigation, which had been established in 1908 over Congress’s opposition. At the time, legislators had feared the bureau would become a “secret police force” used to spy on Americans and infringe on civil liberties, but when Congress adjourned, President Theodore Roosevelt proceeded to set up the bureau anyway. The raids confirmed legislators’ fears.
“It was the first real awakening of a civil liberties consciousness in the country,” said Christopher Finan, author of a book on the Palmer Raids. “Because even though we had had the First Amendment for more than 100 years at that point, and we were philosophically committed to free speech, it hadn’t actually been protected. There really were no protections that could be thrown up to protect people when the Red Scare began.”
While groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, founded months after the raids began, have won important First Amendment battles, repeated legislative efforts to limit the powers of the FBI have been short-lived. Decades after the raids, the man who masterminded them — a 24-year-old J. Edgar Hoover — went on to lead COINTELPRO, perhaps the FBI’s most infamous political policing operation. The revelation that the FBI had engaged in covert efforts to infiltrate, discredit, and sabotage the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s led to a Senate investigation, a moment of national reckoning, and reforms aimed at protecting First Amendment rights from government overreach.
“Unfortunately, after 9/11 those protections were removed and so the abuse that we had was not only predictable, but predicted,” said Mike German, a former FBI agent and outspoken critic of the agency. “It’s easy for a government that is focused on addressing national security threats to quickly begin to view any threat to that government’s hold of power as a security threat, rather than a political threat.”
Occupy Wall Street demonstrators stage a protest in Manhattan, New York, on Oct. 3, 2011.
From Black Lives Matter to Abolish ICE
In the years after 9/11, civil rights organizations have repeatedly raised the alarm about intrusive and illegal FBI targeting of Muslim Americans. The public outcry eventually led to a review by the DOJ’s inspector general, which confirmed that FBI investigations had violated guidelines, though it fell short of finding that the bureau had been acting out of political bias.
As the Defending Rights & Dissent report notes, just days after the inspector general published its 2010 report on FBI abuses in the Bush era, agents raided the Minneapolis-based Anti-War Committee and the homes of peace activists across the Midwest. The raids followed a yearslong infiltration by an undercover agent who failed to find any plans by the activists to carry out violence and so proceeded to come up with one herself. A year later, the FBI began surveilling Occupy activists before the first protester even arrived at Zuccotti Park, using its counterterrorism authorities to investigate an economic justice movement it claimed might become “an outlet for a lone offender.” The FBI also worked with Walmart when the company learned Occupy members might join activists pushing for better working conditions through the OUR Walmart campaign, and it surveilled Occupy Chicago and infiltrated Occupy Cleveland. More recently, the FBI has monitored the Occupy/Abolish ICE movement, including by pressuring an activist and DACA recipient to inform on fellow protesters in exchange for help with his immigration case. The activist refused, and he eventually chose to leave the country voluntarily to avoid deportation.
FBI agents and informants were a regular presence at the 2016 Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access pipeline, and the activist facing the longest prison sentence in connection to the protests, Red Fawn Fallis, was convicted of firing a gun that was registered to a confidential FBI informant with whom she had been romantically involved. Beyond Standing Rock, the FBI also continued its decadeslong effort to surveil environmental groups, tracking individuals associated with the Tar Sands Brigade, the Break Free from Fossil Fuel campaign, the anti-Keystone protest groups, and the group Rising Tide.
Over the last decade, the FBI also continued targeting Muslim Americans by attempting to coerce individuals who had been placed on the no-fly list into becoming informants and by monitoring the email accounts of prominent Muslim American leaders. In 2011, the FBI led the establishment of the deeply controversial Countering Violent Extremism Task Force, which civil rights advocates denounced as a thinly veiled attempt to enlist social workers, teachers, and community leaders into spying on their own communities. In other instances, FBI agents approached activists with Palestinian solidarity groups and questioned university students about their support for Palestine.
Agents also surveilled activists against police violence following protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, tracking their interstate movements and at some point warning that Islamic State group supporters were “urging” Ferguson protesters to join them. In 2017, documents leaked to Foreign Policy revealed the FBI had invented a nonexistent ideology, “Black Identity Extremism,” which it claimed was born “in response to perceived racism and injustice in American society.”
As The Intercept has reported, the only successful prosecution of individuals the FBI retroactively described as “Black Identity Extremists” — a category the bureau now claims to have dropped — came on the heels of the Ferguson protests. On that occasion, FBI informants recruited two young protesters into a plot to bomb multiple targets, providing them with both the plot and the fake bombs. As the Defending Rights & Dissent report notes, sting operations and the use of informants and agents provocateurs have become a staple of FBI operations in part because the courts have been “unwilling to find that their actions meet the legal definition of entrapment.”
“The FBI has embraced this flawed theory of radicalization, that it’s the ideas that are a problem, not the violence,” noted German, who recently published a book about the FBI’s post-9/11 years. “But also they have embraced a very aggressive sting operation protocol, no longer targeting people who are engaged in violence or illegal acts, but rather finding people who have ideas they don’t like, and then encouraging them to commit violent acts, and provide weapons to them to accomplish those acts, only to then arrest them.”
Demonstrators raise their arms and chant, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” as police clear them from the street during a protest of the shooting death of Michael Brown on Aug. 17, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo.
No Charter, No Oversight, No Transparency
To this day, the FBI lacks a statutory charter clearly outlining the bureau’s authority and its limits. Instead, the FBI’s powers and jurisdiction are set by the executive branch in the form of guidelines issued by the attorney general. These guidelines, technically subject to change under each DOJ administration, have been repeatedly relaxed through the bureau’s history. The current guidelines, set under former Attorney General Michael Mukasey in 2008, give the FBI authority to conduct both “predicated investigations,” based on factual evidence of crimes or threats to national security, and “assessments,” which require no such factual basis.
The standards for opening an assessment are extraordinarily low, the Defending Rights & Dissent report notes. Yet the FBI is allowed extremely intrusive investigative techniques in performing them, including physical surveillance, the use of informants, and pretextual interviews during which agents can misstate the purpose of the interview in order to elicit incriminating statements and even conceal their status as federal officials.
Also leading to abuse is the FBI’s reliance on a network of more than 175 “Joint Terrorism Task Forces” that bring together agents with members from hundreds of state, local, and federal law enforcement agencies. Because JTTFs, as they are called in national security lingo, are run by the FBI, they operate under FBI guidelines, which provide fewer protections for speech, privacy, and civil liberties than the rules governing local police and other law enforcement. While local pushback has so far led two cities — San Francisco and Portland, Oregon — to leave their task forces, JTTFs remain a key tool for the policing of dissent. “The FBI’s ability to do harm is somewhat held in check just by its small size,” said German. “But when it engages in partnerships with state and local law enforcement, that exponentially increases the size of the FBI.”
Across the country, activists have taken note. “I think a lot of us have just become used to being surveilled by the government,” said Mustafa Jumale, policy manager with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration based in Minneapolis, where the FBI has targeted Muslims and African immigrants. “The FBI has been harassing Somalis since I was in college. As a student, they used to just come to our student association, pull people out of class, all these things.”
Jumale added that some fellow activists, and particularly those who are not citizens, have scaled back their engagement in response to the surveillance, working “behind the scenes” but avoiding protests and public statements. But others noted that surveillance won’t succeed to intimidate a social justice movement that feels as urgent as ever.
“Activists today are knowledgeable and informed about COINTELRPO and previous iterations of surveillance of activists, and people are pretty hip to it. They understand the government may be watching them,” said Myaisha Hayes, an organizer with the racial justice group MediaJustice whose grandfather spent 45 years in prison over his involvement with the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army. “When people are oppressed and they’re fighting for greater justice and liberation, there are very few things that are going to stop them.”
mises.org, “A Politically Weaponized FBI Is Nothing New, but Plenty Dangerous.” By James Bovard; foxnews.com, “FBI weaponized by Biden Justice Department in campaign against Trump: Trump raid unprecedented assault by FBI on all Americans, not just former president.” ByMichael R. Pompeo; npr.org, “The Massive Case Of Collective Amnesia: The FBI Has Been Political From The Start.” By Ron Elving; pbs.org, “Hoover and thee FBI.”; nytimes.com, “To Understand the F.B.I., You Have to Understand J. Edgar Hoover.” By Beverly Gage; theintercept.com, “THE FBI HAS A LONG HISTORY OF TREATING POLITICAL DISSENT AS TERRORISM:A new report documents the FBI’s history of violating the civil rights of political dissidents.” By Alice Speri;
Law Enforcement Postings