The FBI's Past and Obama's Present War on Terror

A new history of the FBI undermines today's ubiquitous surveillance state.


This story appeared at The Daily Beast on Thursday, January 9, 2013. Read it there.

"History repeats itself," Marx famously wrote, "first as tragedy, second as farce."

Such a formulation gives history way too much credit. Sure, the past is constantly generating its own sequels and spinoffs, but the progression is less often from Napoleon Bonaparte to Napoleon III or even from Danton to Caussidière (as Marx would have it). 

No, it's more like going from M*A*S*H to After-MASH  or Josie and the Pussycats to Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space. The original instance is rarely worthy of the label tragedy not because it isn't disturbing, disastrous, and utterly devoid of laughs, but because it is so idiotic, bathetic, and morally demeaned to begin with.

Which brings us to a major new book about the history of the FBI and its attempts not simply to keep tabs on various activist groups in the 1960s and '70s but to pit those same groups against themselves. No one should be dreading the release of Betty Medsger's The Burglary more than Barack Obama. It underscores what the paranoids and cranks among us have always known to be true: The national-security state is never operated for the benefit of citizens, but instead proceeds directly from the weird obsessions and pathologies of the people who run it.

The Burglary details the events and people surrounding the 1971 break-in of an FBI office in Media, Pa. The thieves, happy to link themselves to National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden in The New York Times, made off with tens of thousands of documents that led to the exposure of the bureau's foul Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO). 

Designed to disrupt all manner of real and imagined threats to the United States, COINTELPRO was where J. Edgar Hoover's late-career paranoia found its fullest expression. My Reason colleague Jesse Walker, whose The United States of Paranoia is a must-read for those interested in the abuse of power and ideologically driven derangement, reports on a "relatively mild example" of COINTELPRO'S activities:

In 1971, Walker writes, The Young Socialist Alliance, an outfit with virtually no following and less influence, ended its prohibition on gay members. FBI agents sprung into action, papering the campus of San Diego State with flyers announcing, "Attn: Gay Set: YSA is now accepting gay membership" and listing the names and phone numbers of "love-brothers" who would presumably welcome new recruits with open arms. COINTELPRO operatives also ginned up a second flier aimed at the ladies and promising that YSA was "now accepting 'les' membership." "It is hopeful this action will have desired effect of dissuading would-be new recruits from membership in YSA," explains an FBI memo on the matter. (COINTELPRO files made available under the Freedom of Information Act can be perused here.)

Then there's the role that the FBI and COINTELPRO indirectly played in creating Kwanzaa, something that dismays even conservative law-and-order enthusiasts such as Ann Coulter. Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Ron Karenga (now known as Maulana Karenga), who at the time was a leader in a radical group called US Organization. 

As much as US stressed racial separation as the path to empowerment for African Americans, the group focused its anger on the Black Panthers, a rival within the black community. In 1969, an on-campus gunfight over the direction of UCLA's new Center of Afro-American Studies left two Panthers dead and three US members convicted of murder. Karenga was not implicated in those deaths, but was later convicted in the brutal assault of two female followers and served four years in prison for the attacks. "Evidence does suggest that Karenga and his organization were a priority for the FBI, successfully fomenting bad relations between the Panthers and US," writes Keith A. Mayes in his history of Kwanzaa.

Such tactics appall even Coulter, whose scorn for the "dupe" Karenga is nothing compared to her scorn for the FBI: "In what was ultimately a foolish gamble, during the madness of the '60s, the FBI encouraged the most extreme black nationalist organizations in order to discredit and split the left…. [L]eftists… have forgotten the FBI's tacit encouragement of this murderous black-nationalist cult founded by the father of Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa emerged not from Africa, but from the FBI's COINTELPRO."

The exposure of COINTELPRO, along with the publication of the Pentagon Papers, the Watergate scandal, and the Church Committee hearings  (which exposed flagrant and widespread violations of the law by the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA) forced even the most forgiving national-security stalwarts to admit things needed to change.

By focusing attention on the FBI's institutional insanity—check out the 119-page file on the agency's failed 1964 investigation into the lyrics of "Louie, Louie" if you dare—Medsger's The Burglary is simply the latest piece of evidence that something has long been rotten in the broadly defined intelligence community. Indeed, a major takeaway from the critically acclaimed hit move American Hustle is that the post-Hoover FBI spent more time inducing criminal activity  than it did preventing it. Tim Weiner's widely praised 2012 history of the FBI, Enemies, didn't skimp on criticism of J. Edgar Hoover but painted his successors, especially Louis Freeh, as arguably more incompetent and misdirected. (Weiner's praise for former director Robert Mueller, who stepped down last September, for holding firm against George W. Bush's request for essentially unlimited domestic surveillance is less comforting in the wake of Edward Snowden.)

The Burglary makes its appearance at a time when trust in government is near a record low, with just 19 percent of Americans surveyed telling Gallup that they trust government "to do what's right" just about always or most of time.

Who can blame us? Barack Obama pledged to create the most transparent administration ever but has broken his own vows about appointing lobbyists and mega-donors and lied about the basics of his health-care reform law. His "secret kill list,", a highly controversial if not plainly unconstitutional measure by which he claimed the right to unilaterally dispatch individuals he concluded were threats to the U.S., shook the faith of even his most gah-gah supporters.

In the wake of revelations made possible by NSA leaker Edward Snowden, Obama's director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, has acknowledged dissembling to the U.S. Senate about the extent and nature of government collection of information on Americans at home. These and other revelations—inevitably made public despite administration efforts to clamp down on information—have led to a point where Obama has next to no credibility when he or anyone connected to him speaks on matters of national security or civil liberties.

Even largely uncritical admirers of the president have had enough. The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson, for instance, has defended Sen. Rand Paul against attacks that the Kentucky Republican (whom Robinson routinely criticizes) is stoking paranoia. In fact, writes Robinson, it's the NSA, the CIA, the FBI, and the president who are causing problems by refusing to acknowledge what they are doing and its general ineffectiveness. "In the thwarted attacks cited by NSA apologists," writes Robinson, "analysts searched the data for previously identified individuals or phone numbers. So why on earth does the agency need to store my phone records, and yours, when it can quickly obtain a court order instructing the phone companies to turn over information about communications involving known or suspected terrorists?"

When you've lost Eugene Robinson, President Obama, you've got real problems. And it seems that Marx may have been on to something after all when he talked about history repeating itself. Almost from the start of the Obama years, libertarians were quick to talk about the continuity between George W. Bush's policies and Obama's. Both were fans of stimulus spending and TARP, both were fans of overseas engagements (Obama tripled the number of troops in Afghanistan), both had few problems with raiding medical-marijuana dispensaries in California (though Obama was far more active). 

The idea that Obama represented a third and fourth term for Bush was understandably difficult for either Republicans or Democrats, or conservatives and liberals, to swallow. But when it comes to the national-security state, that conclusion is becoming more and more inescapable with every new lie and every godawful new revelation. To the extent that The Burglary helps to push that along and spurs calls for real reform, it should be required reading.

This story appeared at The Daily Beast on Thursday, January 9, 2013. Read it there.

NEXT: Obamacare en Español Es Muy Mal

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  1. Like I need to be reminded not to trust the government.

    1. Kind of like being reminded to breath air.

  2. Every time I see COINTELPRO I think coin operated teleprompter. Make of that what you will.

    1. I’m supremely disturbed–or possibly titillated, as they tend to be the same for me–that I thought the same thing.

      He’s a sorcerer, that FoE! He reads the thoughts in my brain!

  3. But this time, it will be different! OUR TEAM is in charge! That makes everything better when it’s MY TEAM doing the drone-murdering/spying/taxing/dog-shooting!

    1. You have to give the right wing credit. The ATF doesn’t turn in to angels when the right people are in charge. Ditto the EPA and a slew of other departments/agencies.

      1. True, TEAM RED can at least fake principles when it suits them. TEAM Blue on the other hand…I remember when Independent Counsels were the best thing in the world, when they were chasing after Edwin Meese, Michael Deaver, and Samuel Pierce (you know, people who worked for Reagan), but when Kenneth Starr gets Bill Clinton impeached, suddenly TEAM Blue is concerned about the Independent Counsel’s broad, unchecked powers.

        1. but when Kenneth Starr gets Bill Clinton impeached, suddenly TEAM Blue is concerned about the Independent Counsel’s broad, unchecked powers

          ’twas just sex.

          1. If twas just sex, why commit perjury?

  4. The same tactics that were used against communist groups in the 50s and 60s are still being used against White nationalist groups today. But to libertarians, only some people’s “rights” matter.

      1. Those were almost all White man/Black woman couples. You need more of the reverse to troll a white nationalist.

        1. Good point. Let’s try this again

        2. You need Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles saying “where all de white women at?”


      2. Where the asian wimmen at?

    1. Fuck off, American.

    2. It is wrong for the FBI to harass white power groups merely for what they say.

      That doesn’t change the fact that members of such groups are rightly mocked and shunned.

      WPIAGROTJB, you will not make any converts here. Be gone.

    3. Ameeeeeeeeerican!
      God bust a cap in theeeeeeee!
      You trollllllllllll so good!
      For naaaaaaaaaaaaaationahood!
      For whites like you and meeeeeeeeeee!

      Fuck you, ‘murcan.

  5. Be very very qwiet, I’m hunting winos!

    The Dallas Safari Club auctioned off a black rhino hunting permit in Namibia for $350,000, according to the club’s public relations firm.
    Wealthy hunters gathered Saturday evening inside the Dallas Convention Center to bid on the rare chance to hunt one of the world’s most endangered animals.

    The Safari Club says the auction was done in the name of conservation, to save the threatened black rhinoceros. All proceeds will be donated to the Namibian government and will be earmarked for conservation efforts, club officials say.

    Animal conservationists estimate there are only about 5,000 black rhinos in the world, 1,700 of which are in the southern Africa nation. They are considered a “critically endangered species” by wildlife organizations around the world.

    “This is the best way to have the biggest impact on increasing the black rhino population,” said Ben Carter, executive director of the Dallas Safari Club.

    Sacrificing one animal for the greater good of the endangered species is a move that critics and animal conservation groups call “perverse” and a “sad joke.”

    Once again, private organizations and market principles provide a good solution to a problem.

    1. It is a great irony that the best way to save some of these endangered animals is to give people the opportunity to pay money to kill them.

    2. “I’m hunting winos…”

      “Oh, I’m very sorry, but it’s hunting potheads in here. Try down the hall.”

      “Ah, beg pardon.”

      “Stupid git.”

  6. OT: Sam Seder says liberals care about results, but libertarians espouse utopian fantasies. It’s projection all the way down.


    1. I know Statists care only about results. Results are all they care about. Principles be damned. Collateral damage be damned. Outcomes are all that matter. How ever many people get ground under the wheels on the way to the statist “Utopia” then they are sacrificed for a good cause.

    2. The more their world falls apart around them, the more their bullshit is shown to be bullshit, the more their bullshit fails miserably, the more their “leaders” fuck them over, the more they engage in projection. It’s clearly a psychological defense mechanism for them.

      1. See Leon Festinger et al. When Prophecy Fails.

  7. My cursory research indicates the FBI original purpose was to combat prostitution- which I suppose was the War on Drugs of the early 20th century.

    “I regret to say that we of the FBI are powerless to act in cases of oral-genital intimacy, unless it has in some way obstructed interstate commerce.”

    -J Edgar Hoover

    1. (Without doing any research) I seem to recall that the FBI’s original purpose was to get around the problem of people committing crimes like bank robbery in one state, then that state being powerless to prosecute once the robber went to another state. Hence someone being wanted in several states, but still free as long as those states were avoided.

      1. ^^this exactly

        See “John Dillinger”, “Bonnie and Clyde” et al

      2. The FBI as it is today was reorganized for that purpose in 1933. But it’s origins go back to 1908 when the Bureau of Investigation was created for the purpose of enforcing the Mann Act, or “White Slave Traffic Act”.

        It also investigated subversives during the World War I and the first Red Scare.

        1. Did Congress even know they created it? Seems to me it is another one of those Teddy Roosevelt conjurings that he did not feel the need to get any permission for.

          1. Apparently not. It was organized by Attorney General Charles Bonaparte when Congress was on summer recess.

        2. There was also that business of the FBI trying to get MLK to kill himself.


      3. That one seems a little overblown by the FBI. States had agreements between each other, and still do, with regard to people crossing State lines to escape apprehension.

        1. USC Art. IV, Sec. 2:

          “A person charged in any State with Treason, Felony, or other Crime, who shall flee from Justice, and be found in another State, shall on demand of the executive Authority of the State from which he fled, be delivered up, to be removed to the State having Jurisdiction of the Crime.”

          If officials in one State knew who they were looking for and requested assistance from another State in apprehending the criminal, the Constitution required co-operation. But if they DIDN’T have a named suspect, and simply asked another State for assistance in determining who the criminal was and apprehending that person, nothing forced the other State to co-operate fully, competently, or at all. The concept of an “interstate” and/or “Federal” crime was developed, and the (F)BI established, to handle the work needed to identify suspects who might be operating or fleeing across State lines, and to direct and co-ordinate agencies from the several States involved, in capturing such suspects. The need for a centralized authority for coordination and communication of State efforts to deal with interstate threats is a very convincing justification. It worked for the FBI, and most recently worked in the establishment of DHS. The fact that the agencies thus justified are then used for purposes other than the ones employed to sell those agencies to our lawmakers and the fearful public, doesn’t negate the “reasonableness” or attractiveness of the justification.

  8. Oh, and Smilin’ Joe- I think you were talking about getting a lever gun, right?

    I suggest a Rossi R92 Ranch Hand. I bought one yesterday and it’s crazy fun to shoot. Still trying to figure out how to rack it one-handed with snap caps.

      1. I think it’s actually based on the one from Wanted: Dead Alive.

      2. The Rifleman: The Complete Rifleman Massacre

        This guy watched all episodes and counted the kills. But at least one was by throwing guy on a pitchfork.

        The Rifleman: The Complete Rifleman Massacre


        1. What a lovingly made clip.

  9. Obama tripled the number of troops in Afghanistan

    Isn’t Gates ‘shrooming a new story on this? “As I sat there, I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his”. AFGHANISTAN: IT NEVER WAS OBAMA’S WAR.

  10. my best friend’s mother makes $82 hourly on the internet. She has been fired for 10 months but last month her paycheck was $14496 just working on the internet for a few hours. find out this here

  11. my best friend’s mother makes $82 hourly on the internet. She has been fired for 10 months but last month her paycheck was $14496 just working on the internet for a few hours. find out this here

    1. We still don’t care about the cam whores. Fuck off.


  12. Just 19 percent of Americans surveyed telling Gallup that they trust government “to do what’s right” just about always or most of time.

    This is why a more comprehensive and expansive government is more important than ever.

  13. Governments will always claim “security” justifications for gathering information and abridging civil liberties. Given their record, how can anyone trust that they won’t use that information to control and subjugate the people? Power corrupts, and the almost absolute power complete information will give the government will corrupt it absolutely. I have written about this extensively on my website, straightlinelogic.com. If we don’t stop and reverse this now, in another year or two it will be too late.

  14. Make of that what you will.

  15. The war on terror is the same as the war on drugs or any other war.
    They are all an invention designed to distract people from the governments incompetence and corruption.

  16. my neighbor’s aunt makes 68 dollars/hour on the laptop. She has been out of a job for nine months but last month her pay check was 15377 dollars just working on the laptop for a few hours. read the full info here


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