A politically weaponized FBI is nothing new, but plenty dangerous

A politically weaponized FBI is nothing new, but plenty dangerous
© Getty

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 ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPompeo: 'We've not been successful' in changing US-Russia relations Michael Moore ties Obama to Trump's win in Michigan in 2016 The Memo: Could Kavanaugh furor spark another ‘year of the woman’? MORE. 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 MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE) as the best hope to save the nation.

ADVERTISEMENT
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.

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.

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.”

James Bovard is the author of "Public Policy Hooligan" (Kindle version 2012), "Attention Deficit Democracy" (St. Martin's/Palgrave, 2006), and eight other books. He is a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Playboy, Washington Post, and many other publications.