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The Feds Are Not Our Friends: The Troubled History of Our ‘Nonpartisan’ FBI

Ann Schneider May 22

Much ado has been made on both sides of the political aisle over the nonpartisan role the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) is meant to play within America’s judicial system.

When James Comey sent a letter to members of Congress 11 days before November’s presidential election informing them he had reopened the probe into Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information, overjoyed Republican lawmakers praised the maneuver as an act of transparency while Democrats chided Comey for influencing the vote. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced he had “lost confidence” in the FBI Director.

When President Trump fired Comey this May amid the ongoing investigation into Russian collusion with his campaign, Schumer criticized Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (who up until now has had a reputation as a nonpartisan) for drafting a memo at the White House’s behest that gave Trump cover for axing Comey.

“If Mr. Rosenstein is true to his word,” Schumer told reporters on May 10, “that he believes this investigation must be, quote, ‘fair, free, thorough and politically independent,’ if he believes as I do that the American people must be able to have faith in the impartiality of this investigation, he must appoint a special prosecutor and get his investigation out of the hands of the FBI and far away from the heavy hand of this administration.”

Trump’s political opponents got what they wished for two days later when the Justice Department announced former FBI Director Robert Mueller would be stepping in as special counsel to investigate Trump. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers who soured on Comey during the Russian probe have defended his firing. The president complained on May 19 that he is the victim of “the greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.”

Whenever either political party has been wounded by the FBI of late its members have called for a return to impartiality, to nonpartisanship. But the bureau is undeserving of such sentimental longing. Its history of using extrajudicial means to achieve political aims goes back to its founding.

The FBI particularly does not take well to critics, as Marcus Garvey found out. In 1919, the founder of the 4-million strong, multinational United Negro Improvement Association, wrote an article in the Negro World criticizing underhanded investigators. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover directed his agents to find cause to deport Garvey as an undesirable alien (hiring their first Black agents to do the job). Finding no grounds for prosecution, the FBI manufactured a mail fraud case against Garvey. He served five years in prison and was deported. This was one of the FBI’s first big political acts, along with rounding up and deporting roughly 6,000 foreign-born radicals, including the Russian anarchist Emma Goldman, during the Red Scare of 1919.

Emma Goldman’s mug shot. The Russian anarchist was among roughly 6,000 foreign-born radicals rounded up and deported during the Red Scare of 1919.

The National Lawyers Guild incurred Hoover’s wrath in 1950 when it issued a “Report on the Alleged Practices of the FBI,” among which were warrantless searches and breaches if attorney-client privilege. The report — based on documents released in McCarthy-victim Judith Coplon’s trial — concluded:  “On a strictly numerical basis, the FBI may commit more federal crimes than it ever detects.”  

Documents subsequently released revealed that, over the course of four decades, the bureau used more than 1,000 informants, tapped phones and broke into Guild offices to steal membership lists. The FBI compiled biographies on 125 Guild officers and members, justifying its scrutiny because the Guild “consistently favored measures beneficial to labor,” advocated progressive taxation and supported anti-lynching legislation.

In 1961, Hoover directed his agents to gather information on twelve leaders of the Puerto Rican independence movement “concerning their weaknesses, morals, criminal records, spouses, children, family life, education and personal activities,” as part of the Counterintelligence Program known as COINTELPRO. During the 60’s and 70’s, when the movement for independence was strongest, an estimated 75,000 Puerto Ricans were under surveillance.

In the 1980’s, participants in a hodgepodge of left-wing political causes — the sanctuary movement, the nuclear freeze movement, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) —  were all spied upon by the FBI, as shown by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Ross Gelbspan. His 1991 book,  Break-ins, Death Threats and the FBI detailed how the FBI used a Salvadoran ex-Baptist Minister named Frank Varelli to turn CISPES from a peaceful opponent of U.S. intervention in Central America into “an agent of domestic terrorism.”

A decade earlier on the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, there had been 57 violent deaths of Native Americans, none of which were investigated by the FBI. In 1973, the American Indian Movement (AIM) began a 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee, site of George Custer’s infamous 1890 massacre. The FBI, Bureau of Indian Affairs and state police laid siege to the occupation, resulting in two deaths, 562 arrests and 185 federal indictments. Despite all the FBI’s efforts, few charges resulted in convictions. Rather, so much evidence of government misconduct and witness manipulation came to light that FBI Associate Director Mark Felt came to Rapid City to testify in court to defend his agency against the critics.

There is no evidence that the Feds circling the White House are doing anything other than what the FBI has always done — defending the political status quo.

Attorney William Kunstler, representing AIM activists Dennis Means and Russell Banks, noticed during the trial a door repeatedly opening and shutting. Kunstler quietly motioned to the judge, walked over to the door and yanked it open. Two FBI agents practically fell into the courtroom. They thoroughly denied they had been listening in.  

Unbeknownst to AIM at the time, Kerr McGee and Union Carbide had by then discovered uranium in the Black Hills. The 22.5 million acres recognized as Indian territory by the 1868 treaty were ultimately whittled down to less than half that size.  It did not serve corporate interests, nor the FBI’s,  to have AIM asserting their right to control their own resources.

Not content with witness-tampering, after 9-11 the FBI began aggressively recruiting informants to spy on Muslim communities, utilizing coercive tactics like putting them on a “no fly” list unless they agreed to spy. Shahed Hussein, facing criminal charges of his own, successfully entrapped four petty criminals in Newburgh with a fake plot to bomb a Bronx synagogue in 2009. Before that, using a slightly different identity, Hussein was able to convict a pizzeria owner in Albany of material support for terrorism.

FBI agent Robert Fuller ran both the Newburgh sting and one in Fort Dix in 2006 in which 5 Albanian brothers were tricked into buying weapons supposedly for an attack on military personnel. They were sentenced to life plus 30 years.  Each sting took 13 to 16 months to bear fruit, in the form of chargeable offenses.  When one of the five, early in the operation, tried to make a report of the weapons trading to the FBI, the FBI refused to accept the report.

James Comey deserves credit for racing to Alberto Gonzales to the bedside of Attorney General John Ashcroft in March 2004 to thwart an extension of the NSA’s warrantless domestic eavesdropping.  But it was also Comey (under then-FBI Director Robert Mueller) who asserted in May 2002 that the United States could pick up and detain American citizen Jose Padilla in a Navy brig, without access to counsel, hold him for years and interrogate him without articulable suspicion “to see what he knows” of alleged terrorist conspiracies. This was the trial created the designation “enemy combatant” and Padilla was the guinea pig.  
Asked in an interview if he intended to present the charges to a grand jury as required by the Fifth Amendment, Comey answered no. “I don’t believe that we could use this information in a criminal case,” he explained, “because we deprived him of access to his counsel and questioned him in the absence of counsel. . . We’ll figure out down the road what we do with José Padilla.”

Former FBI Director and now Special Counsel Robert Mueller chose as General Counsel to the FBI Valerie Caproni, in August 2003. A report made by the Office of Inspector General Glenn Fine found that between 2003 and 2006, Ms. Caprioni approved the use of so-called exigent letters containing false information to obtain personal phone records for more than 5,500 numbers in 722 locations. Rather than being fired as some in Congress urged, she was appointed a federal judge for the Southern District of New York in September 2013.

While Comey was fired for the Russian inquiry (Trump himself has basically admitted as much) and Mueller’s appointment as special counsel certainly puts the president in hot water, viewed through an historical lens these recent developments do not indicate the FBI has somehow become apolitical nor that it is on the side of activists opposing Trump. There is no evidence that the Feds circling the White House are doing anything other than what the FBI has always done — defending the political status quo, in this case from a man in the seat of power who so clearly reveals its flaws. Business could soon be back to usual.

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Photo (top): James Comey, the recently fired FBI Director. Credit: Brookings Institution.