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.