When FBI director James Comey dropped a propaganda bomb that blew up the 2016 presidential election and probably changed how the U.S. will be governed for some time to come, he wasn’t acting for the Russians. Comey wasn’t acting as an individual rogue actor either. He was acting in the tried and true tradition of the FBI as a political police agency that uses its authority--legally, illegally and effectively-- to intrude into the political processes of our country.
One hallmark of what we like to think of as our great democracy is the separation of the police and military from our political processes. These agencies are supposed to be obedient servants who exercise their policing power at the behest of duly elected leaders. But from its 1935 origin and the appointment of J. Edgar Hoover as director, the FBI has often operated differently, forcing its own agenda into politics and governance to intimidate, disrupt and even destroy common citizens, congresspersons, civil rights or political leaders, activists and organizations that it declares subversive. The FBI decides how to define subversive activity and then works to destroy people and their activities based upon that definition.
By 1955 when I was an early teen, The FBI in Peace and War, had become a popular radio drama and one I enjoyed. Originated in 1944 toward the end of World War II, the show bolstered the FBI’s reputation at a time when the Bureau was spurring the rise of Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts that destroyed the lives of thousands of citizens and eliminated the militant and democratically elected leadership of many unions all over the US. Later, while my young sister was watching Howdy Doody on early black-and-white TV, I remember the rampant paranoia of McCarthyism and then television newsman Edward R. Murrow’s exposes and Senator Estes Kefauver’s hearings that put an end to those shameful witch hunts.
But the repudiation and take down of McCarthy did not hamper the FBI’s political activity. When Congress limited the FBI’s extensive autonomous powers to intrude and destroy civil rights and anti-war activism, the FBI, unsanctioned, went under the radar developing political projects that were illegal and more intrusive into the political life of the country. It had become the semi-official arbiter of what would be defined as un-American.
A 1976 book, The Lawless State, by Halpern, Berman, Borosage and Marusch detailed FBI COMINFIL activities to document “communist subversive infiltration” of many types of organizations. COINTELPRO, the operational element that aimed to disrupt and destroy civil rights and anti-war organizing was part of COMINFIL. Both initiatives derived from the FBI role in creating paranoia and supporting McCarthyism in the 1950s.
By the 1960s the idea that simply believing or espousing ideas like socialism, equal rights, social justice, anti-imperialism, or communism were “subversive” had little cache. That didn’t faze Hoover or subsequent FBI leaders. They were dedicated to continuing the mantra of the red menace. To do so they decided to create some havoc or threat to justify acting against that perceived threat. So the FBI set out to themselves infiltrate, manipulate, control and disrupt political activities that they disagreed with.
FBI reports on prominent figures like Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King, Seymour Hersh, Sammy Davis Jr., Cesar Chavez and the movements they led or supported or wrote about were transmitted in thousands of dispatches sent to the Justice Department, CIA, Secret Service and even military intelligence. At the 1964 Democratic Party National Convention in Atlantic City, the FBI sent out informant reports on the plans and negotiations of delegates. In 1965 when farm workers marched on Sacramento to gain the right to unionize, FBI collaborated with informants connected to agribusiness who were trying to have farmworker leader Cesar Chavez labeled a communist. By 1972 the FBI and other intelligence agencies had a large part of the Democratic Party under surveillance. In 1973 the FBI conducted at least 5 fire bombings to make it appear that one (left group) was attacking another. An FBI plant forged letters to instigate a war within the Black Panther Party. Years later FBI would be implicated as collaborators in the car bombing of environmental activist leaders Judy Bari and Darryl Cherney when they had the severely wounded Bari arrested and charged with carrying bombs, though they had known the bombs were planted in her car.
During the Vietnam War the FBI instructed field agents to:
· Prepare leaflets designed to discredit students demonstrating against the Vietnam War. Instigate “personal conflicts or animosities.”
· Create the impression that leaders are “informants for the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.”
· Send articles from alternative and student press which show depravity to University officials, donors, legislators and parents.
· Send anonymous letters to parents, neighbors and parents’ employers.
· Send anonymous letters signed “a concerned alumni” or “a concerned tax payer” on the activities of “new left” faculty and graduate students to University officials, legislators, Boards of Regents and the press.
· Exploit hostility among various political factions. Use misinformation to disrupt activities.
Worse Than Watergate
Agents roughed up anti-war activists and used other actions to frighten them, collaborated with local police in entrapment set-ups against war opponents and carried out joint operations with CIA to disrupt anti-war demonstrations. All these activities were later documented in Freedom of Information responses from the Bureau. At one point in the 1970s the FBI had 7,402 informants in U.S. urban ghettos alone. While the Watergate burglary caused President Nixon’s downfall, the FBI’s political police carried out hundreds of illegal burglaries, none of which ever lead to discoveries of plots against the US, but no FBI agents were caught, arrested or prosecuted and their illegal activities continued. Comey is no aberration.
Undemocratic features of our current two-party electoral system include voter suppression, unlimited and anonymous contributions, ads full of lies, faked news and an Electoral College that can select the 2.9 million vote loser of the popular vote as president. But the FBI’s known intrusions into politics dwarf these other problems. Concerning Comey’s role in the 2016 outcome, even the Wall Street Journal editorialized on January 13, 2017 that James Comey should be fired. Indeed he should. However, it’s highly unlikely that Donald Trump would go after someone who helped him become president. In any case, efforts to rescue our democracy ought to include depoliticizing the FBI and prosecuting them when they engage in illegal and provocative activities. Achieving that will require a whole lot of public outrage and pressure. Strong and ethical journalism exposing the magnitude of the danger could help.