Aren’t law enforcement agencies supposed to be above partisan squabbles? Not this year, as elected officials debate whether the FBI’s conduct in 2016’s hotly contested presidential election was spurred by legitimate concerns over foreign meddling, or by bureaucrats’ fears that the “wrong” candidate might win the contest.
But the feds brought this on themselves; they’ve never been above playing at politics. And many of the political players complaining the loudest about the FBI are all too happy to hand it the tools to continue the shenanigans.
The FBI “has placed more emphasis on domestic dissent than on organized crime and, according to some, let its efforts against foreign spies suffer because of the amount of time spent checking up on American protest groups,” documentsreleased by members of Congress reveal.
To the contrary, the FBI director protests, “FBI employees in these programs had acted in good faith and within the bounds of what was expected of them by the president, the attorney general, Congress, and, I believe, a majority of the American people.”
Oh wait. That exchange is over 40 years old. The revelation of FBI interference in domestic policy debates, spying on activists, and even trying to sabotage political parties comes from the Church Committee report, issued in 1976. The riposte comes from then-FBI Director Clarence M. Kelley.
“I think folks don’t understand that the FBI operates under a wide variety of constraints,” the director continued in his support for domestic surveillance practices. That’s unsurprising for a guy who also had kind words to say about torture, later tore into domestic surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden, and called for strict limits on the private use of encryption because it made snooping hard.
Oh wait. That was a different FBI director—James Comey, during his 2013 confirmation hearing, though his “enhanced interrogation technique” fandom dates to his tenure at the Justice Department under President George W. Bush.
Comey is supposed in certain circles to be a good guy these days, purged by the Trump administration for refusing to drop concerns over alleged Russian meddling in favor of the ultimate victor in the presidential race. And that may well have been the reason for his dismissal—Trump is famously prickly over personal loyalty and apparently questioned Comey’s temporary successor, Andrew McCabe (who resigned under pressure from the FBI just yesterday), about his political preferences.
Though, Trump may have had reason to be concerned about FBI politicking. Leaked text messages shared by two romantically involved FBI employees who were involved in the probe into Russian meddling revealed their belief that Trump is “loathsome” and an “idiot.” At the same time, they had a soft spot for his major opponent, Hillary Clinton, noting that they should take it easy in investigating her conduct because “She might be our next president. The last thing you need us going in there loaded for bear'”
This has Republicans waging what Vox‘s Jane Coaston calls a “war on the FBI,” claiming that partisan bias extends beyond those two FBI texting buddies to taint the whole bureau. Democrats beg to differ. “I can assure you that the men and women at the bureau are dedicated public servants committed to defending the American people and upholding the law,” protests Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.).
But those “dedicated public servants” who are “upholding the rule of law” are the institutional descendants of the folks the bipartisan Church Committee said “all too often disregarded the Constitutional rights of Americans.” In their domestic operations, the report revealed, “FBI intelligence reports on protest activity and domestic dissent accumulated massive information on lawful activity and law-abiding citizens.”
And yes, the FBI used the information it gathered to become an active player in politics. “The FBI developed new covert programs for disrupting and discrediting domestic political groups, using the techniques originally applied to Communists,” The Church Committee noted. “The most intensive domestic intelligence investigations, and frequently COINTELPRO operations, were targeted against persons identified not as criminals or criminal suspects, but as ‘rabble rousers,’ ‘agitators,’ ‘key activists,’ or ‘key black extremists’ because of their militant rhetoric and group leadership.”
The FBI targeted communists, anti-war groups, civil rights activists, the Ku Klux Klan, and others. Among its nastier crimes was to mine its surveillance records for embarrassing details about Martin Luther King, Jr. in an attempt to discredit him, fracture his marriage, and convince him to kill himself.
The rank and file, the people who take the risks and do the work, are not a part of the abuses and their morale is suffering as a result. Holding those who have turned the FBI into a Democrat muscle organization accountable will restore the morale and integrity of the organization and will be most welcome within the FBI.