The FBI's record of lawlessness

Enemies, the latest from Pulitzer Prize winner Tim Weiner, recounts the FBI’s history as an intelligence agency. It begins with the Bureau’s origins rounding up communists, anarchists, and socialists in the 1919 Palmer Raids, and ends with the 2011 Attorney General guidelines insisting that the Bureau respect the constitutional rights of US citizens. Weiner rather hopefully presents the new policies as a decisive break with the past, but his conclusion balances uneasily atop the history he has assembled.

A major theme of that history is the FBI’s record of lawlessness. J. Edgar Hoover , as well as his minions and his heirs, deliberately misled, disobeyed, or evaded Congress, the courts, attorneys general, presidents, the public, the CIA, other law enforcement agencies, and sometimes even their colleagues within the Bureau. That is the story Weiner recounts in great detail, often citing the Bureau’s own recently declassified files. Why would new guidelines make any difference? 

There have been previous efforts to bring the organization in line with basic principles of the rule of law. That was a complete impossibility for the decades when Hoover ran the Bureau almost as a private dictatorship, and success has been spotty since that time.  Those few occasions when the FBI has distinguished itself by its adherence to constitutional principles—the refusal to participate in torture at Guantánamo Bay, for example—seem to have been engendered by memories of Watergate and its aftermath.  During the 1970s, the Bureau, which had built up so much power by learning other people’s secrets, suddenly discovered what it meant have its own secrets exposed. Some of the highest officials in the organization were indicted and, though later pardoned by Reagan, the experience certainly shifted the institution’s calculation of risk.

If I had to bet, though, I’d say that the bigger factor in the Guantánamo case was the seemingly permanent inter-agency rivalry: the G-men were annoyed to have their productive interrogations interrupted, insulted when responsibility was transferred to the CIA, and then especially peeved to see the job botched, with tortured prisoners giving bad information to clueless interrogators. They surely weren’t going to stick their collective neck out to cover that up.

One thing that really stands out in the story Weiner tells is how greatly those petty, vicious, inter- and intra-agency office politics really matter. Time and again, decisions crucial to the government’s efforts to stifle dissent, catch spies, or prevent terrorism turned on questions of bureaucratic turf wars, departmental infighting, or even individual careerism. Perhaps the most dramatic example was FBI Deputy Associate Director Mark Felt’s decision to leak details of the Bureau’s investigation into Watergate. Felt was driven to become “Deep Throat” not out of a sense of duty to the public good, but from a creeping bitterness at being passed over as Hoover’s successor.

That’s just one of many fascinating stories Weiner offers in Enemies. Some, like the history of the Cointelpro, will likely be familiar to readers of this publication. Others, such as the Bureau’s blacklisting of homosexuals during the McCarthy period, are less familiar. Personally, I was frankly astonished to learn of the FBI’s role in overthrowing the government of the Dominican Republic. (Isn’t that the CIA’s job?)

But there are also some odd gaps in the story. There’s only one mention of Japanese internment, despite the FBI’s role in that particularly shameful endeavor. What Weiner does say about it is intriguing: Hoover opposed internment, not out of respect for human rights, but because he was confident in the FBI’s ability to find and capture spies and saboteurs. That’s plenty interesting, but surely there is something more to say, not only about the FBI’s monitoring of the Japanese American community and the arrest of some of its most prominent members, but also about why Roosevelt decided to ignore Hoover’s advice.

More surprising is the fact that the left largely vanishes from the last third of the book. The chapters dealing with the 1980s and later focus, perhaps understandably, on the FBI’s hunt—at home and overseas—for al-Qaeda and similar groups, with passing attention to its campaigns against white supremacists and right-wing militias. Aside from a single reference to the Unabomber, there is no sign of the Bureau’s interest in the environmental movement—no mention of the infiltration of Earth First, the arrest of Judy Bari, Operation Backfire, or the myriad smaller strikes that have been grouped under the title of the Green Scare. Likewise, there is nothing in the book about the FBI’s interest in the anti-globalization or more recent anti-war movements. And, while Weiner does describe the FBI’s murder of the FALN’s Filberto Ojeda Ríos in 2005, he makes no note of the 2010 raids against Freedom Road Socialist Organization, which seems to have been targeted for its anti-imperialist politics.

These silences may leave the reader with a false impression, believing that the FBI has given up on political witch hunts so that they can focus more specifically on “real terrorism.”  But hunting reds has been the Bureau’s raison d’être since the beginning, and it has always held the central place in its operations.  Even during World War II, when the U.S. was allied with the Soviet Union and fighting Germany, the FBI invested far more resources in spying on communist groups than in monitoring Nazis.  And though President Johnson did convince Hoover to launch a Cointelpro attack against the Klan, no one had to persuade him to spy on Martin Luther King. While the Klan was blowing up churches, the feds were preoccupied with the questions of what King was doing in bed, and whether he could be driven to suicide.  It is unsettling how well the Bureau’s biases tracked Hoover’s personal prejudices, but part of why Hoover excelled at his job is  that his native conservatism was perfectly suited to the Bureau’s mission: Preserve the American way of life, injustices and all.

That mission has remained remarkably stable.  As I was working on this review, the FBI raided three houses in Portland, Oregon, the city where I live.  They broke down the doors, threw in concussion grenades, and entered with their assault rifles ready.  They made no arrests, but served grand jury subpoenas and seized computers, phones, protest materials, and anarchist literature.

Perhaps new guidelines aren’t enough.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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