FBI's Unsavory History Casts Shadow Over Debate About Political Meddling

The FBI has a long history of playing at politics, and many of the officials complaining the loudest keep handing the feds more tools to do just that.


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," documents released 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 Church Committee revelations did seem to slow the FBI down a bit. Still, reports over the years revealed fairly widespread domestic spying on federally designated subversives during the 1980s, and then again in the 2000s when it went after members of PETA and Greenpeace, among others.

So, is the FBI of today a different, more trustworthy creature than in its domestic-spying, blackmailing, politically meddling past would suggest?

The Washington Post, which once reported on the FBI's "long-lasting campaign of disruption and dirty tricks against those deemed subversive" seems to think so. The paper's editorial board now insists the nation "is being protected by a thin line of principled public servants who refuse to bend to the Trump administration and congressional Republicans' campaign to attack and cajole the FBI into serving political, rather than public, interests."

But elected officials from both major political parties are conflicted.

Where Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi sees "dedicated public servants committed to defending the American people and upholding the law," fellow Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) sees an agency headed by a duplicitous snoop.

"Your stated position parrots the same debunked arguments espoused by your predecessors, all of whom ignored the widespread and vocal consensus of cryptographers. For years, these experts have repeatedly stated that what you are asking for is not, in fact, possible," Wyden wrote to current FBI Director Christopher Wray last week in response to Wray's demand for legal limits on Americans' ability to encrypt their communications. He added that the FBI director's proposal "is a flawed policy that would harm American security, liberty, and our economy."

Many Republican lawmakers would seem to agree with this sentiment, calling for the release of a memo prepared by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, supposedly detailing partisan abuse by the FBI of its surveillance powers under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). (On January 29, Republicans voted to release that memo to the public, but to deny Democratic lawmakers permission to release their dissent.)

But the Republican-led-Congress reauthorized FISA with expanded surveillance powers earlier this month even while GOP legislators tore into the FBI. Are we sure these folks know what they're voting for?

What about the president?

"The Act preserves the FBI's ability to 'connect the dots' and look for national security-related threats," President Trump insisted as he signed the bill enhancing the powers of an agency he hammers on a regular basis.

As they're looking for those "national security-related threats" are FBI officials still using what they discover to meddle in domestic politics as they did in the past?

Let's hope we'll find out a little more easily than we did in the 1970s. Decades of abuses came to light then only because anti-war activists broke into an FBI office, stole secret documents, and distributed them to the media, much as Edward Snowden did more recently with regard to domestic electronic surveillance. In both cases, government misconduct might have remained secret if concerned individuals hadn't broken the law to force the issue.

To judge by the current controversy, we certainly can't rely on elected officials to fix the FBI. Despite the hot air and pointed fingers, they seem more interested in battling each other than in reining-in an agency with a long history of abusing its powers and playing at politics.

NEXT: All the President's Human Props: Welders, Cops, Vets Will Be Trotted Out During SOTU

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  1. I am constantly surprised that the NYT isn’t documenting the constant links to extreme right-wing racists in the Trump administration.

    We have literally Hitler leading the KKK in collusion with the Russian menace to destroy our democracy, and the NYT pretends that’s not happening.

    And you’re worried about the FBI? God, you must live in some cuck echo chamber.

    1. Wow, talk about living in an echo chamber.

      Or maybe a troll or possibly a weak parody…. hard to tell.

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    2. My word, a Godwin in the very first comment.

      “literally Hitler”.

      I don’t see any trains to death camps happening.

      Have to get pretty close to that to claim someone is “literally Hitler”.

      You are not incomprehensible, you are deranged.

      If there was any collusion going on it was the Dems/FBI with the Russians.

      The Russians had a lot more incentive to want to see the “re-set” that Hillary and Obozo did continue than elect Trump.

      And yes, when the DOJ/FBI are putting their thumbs directly on the scales of a Presidential election – by exonerating the obviously criminal Hillary then that puts us into banana Republic territory.

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  2. McCabe got out as soon as he could retire. He even saved up his vacation to take terminal leave to get out as soon as possible.

    The jig is up at the FBI. There are clearly political factions that operate there and some of the FBI agents have gone too far. Comey was a political hack and when he got a taxpayer flight home that Trump questioned, McCabe backed up Comey. That makes McCabe one of those cops that toes the thin blue line.

    These corrupt FBI agents arrest and push to indict all sorts of Americans, sometimes even before there is clear evidence of guilt. Then when Americans demand them to be held accountable, the roaches scatter and seek retirement.

    1. The jig isn’t up. That’s the problem. Trump, the Republicans, and the Democracts just all signed off on the 702 authorization giving more authorization to spy on Americans and use the info domestically. They can whine and cry till the sun comes out but if they don’t actually take the power away it will just be some new asshole in charge disregarding the rule of law for their political benefit.

    2. Trump is the King Cockroach. There is no scattering. It’s an infestation unlike anything we’ve seen in the modern era.

    3. Trump complained about the plane ride home. This from a scum motherfucker who’s been shitting on every ethical practice since he assumed office. It’s unfuckingbelivable watching these Trump fucks complain while ignoring their Emperor who wears no clothes. Do you realize that every strike against the FBI by these conservatives is thrown for the specific purpose of underminung the criminal investigation of Trump and his associates. The minute that investigation concludes should it conclude favorablt for Trump you will never hear another word from a Trump partisan about corruption at the FBI because this whole narrative is about protecting one person and undermining one investigation.

      1. This from a scum motherfucker who’s been shitting on every ethical practice since he assumed office.

        And that makes him different from his predecessors how, exactly?

        1. Can’t this be said about 90% of the criticism out there? I just don’t understand what stating this is for or what you are contributing to the conversation. Because Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and Obama did it, we should let it slide from the current administration?

          MSM is biased, Reason is biased, people are biased. We all know this already.

          1. “we should let it slide from the current administration?”

            I don’t see where that was said, or even implied.

            1. That’s cause you don’t have the secret decoder ring.

      2. Trump complained about the plane ride home.

        Being clear: You mean Comey’s plane ride or Tom Price’s plane ride?

    4. I realize it’s a crime to be a Democrat while working for the FBI for some reason, but Comey and Meuller are Republicans.

      Do you, simple as you are, not get that this is all about POTUS trying to weasel out of consequences for serious crimes? Do you really think this Trump thing is going to turn out well? I mean how fucking retarded can you be?

      1. Hillary didn’t have to weasel her way out of her crimes.

        The FBI did it for her.

        Until Hillary is in jail I don’t want to hear a darned thing about Trump.

        At this point I don’t give a sh*t about what he does because obviously the Dems think that their side is above the law.

        The Dems obviously think the law is only to be a applied to the Reps.

        Well the heck with that.

        If the Republic is to be killed then let it die equally on both sides.

        1. Until Hillary is in jail I don’t want to hear a darned thing about Trump.

          Spoken like a true banana Republican. She’s guilty of what? Cankles?

          1. If you haven’t figured it out by now, you never will.

      2. retarded

        Tony, I’m aspecial ed teacher, you need to behave better, please. This is pretty detestable, and you do it frequently.

        1. And everyone here treats me so well with such PC language.

          Are your students reading this blog? No? Then whose feelings are getting hurt?

          1. Retards, mainly.

      3. What crimes are those again?

        It’s not a crime to be a Democrat and in the FBI, but it’s amazing to watch you defend Republicans because of Trump.

        You’ll note that it appears to be a bipartisan consensus on both sides of the aisle that Trump shouldn’t have been President. That’s fine, they are entitled to their opinions, but when it swerves into partisan deep state maneuvering it starts to become a problem.

        The general idea in Washington seems to be ‘screw the rubes that voted for this guy, we’re going to get rid of him even if it requires us to break the law’.

      4. Nixon got impeached for 18 minutes of missing tape.

        30,000 “missing” emails AFTER being subpoenad. 50,000 “missing” texts. But sure, they’re all on the up and up and Herself should have easily won the presidency.

        Jesus christ, at least have SOME standards Tony.

        1. So the FBI, filled with Republicans, conspired to let massive gangster Hillary with her emails off the hook, and nobody is blowing the whistle on this.

          Trump must be really fucking bad for them to be so united in this coverup.

          1. He probably is.

            Of course it’s also possible that Hillary was a major establishment player, and as we often like to point out, Democrats and Republicans are two sides of the same coin.

            1. Of the two she’s the only one to have a completed FBI investigation into her horrible misdeeds, whatever those were. The nothingburger that was that investigation cost her the election and saddled us with this putrescent orange apocalypse in a combover, so you’d think you’d be able to finally lay the fuck off. If Hillary derangement lasts more than a year past the election she lost, maybe you should consult your doctor.

              1. “”The nothingburger that was that investigation cost her the election “‘

                Was it that, Or the Russian?

                This is why I can’t believe liberals or dems. They keep changing their minds about the cause. Reminds me of W Bush, changing the reason to invade Iraq. Just keep changing it until something sticks with the public.

                Also, being the number one at the state department and not caring about proper procedures with classified information is not really a nothing burger. If Trump started do it, people would cry treason.

                I think Trump should create an Email server at Key Largo and pass classified info through it. Would that be a nothing burger?

                1. So you contend that the FBI, even though it cost her the election, undermined its mission and let Hillary off the hook and is meanwhile engaged in a partisan coup against Trump, even though every single fucking person doing it is a Republican?

                  It genuinely amazes me that after all Trump has done and is alleged to have done, “But her emails!” is still being uttered here. This is too far down the bullshit hole to even begin to grasp.

                  1. I can’t believe* that you bought, and continue to conflate, an actual fucking server purposefully set up to avoid FOIA requests with “but her emails”.

                    Nevermind that it directly relates to the conversation of a politicized FBI and DOJ who, if any of the growing evidence turns out to be true, had already determined that Hillary wouldn’t be held accountable. And before you try spinning anything into “she was found innocent” bullshit, I’ll just copy some of the transcript of Comey’s press conference:

                    “From the group of 30,000 e-mails returned to the State Department, 110 e-mails in 52 e-mail chains have been determined by the owning agency to contain classified information at the time they were sent or received.”

                    “None of these e-mails should have been on any kind of unclassified system,”

                    “To be clear, this is not to suggest that in similar circumstances, a person who engaged in this activity would face no consequences. To the contrary, those individuals are often subject to security or administrative sanctions.”


                    So even though intent is not necessary, and in fact isn’t used to prosecute other people who have transmitted classified materials, Hillary gets a pass in order to continue her candidacy and you think the FBI cost her the fucking election?

                    *I knew you were a shill, but I never realized the breadth of your ridiculousness.

                2. That’s different!!!!1!!!11!

          2. It’s not really that confusing when you figure that EVERYONE (including me) figured that Hillary was going to win, all the career FBI/DOJ people were going to adjust their behavior such that once Hillary was President, their heads wouldn’t be on a pike.

            Comey was playing the long game. He needed to look like he was taking the investigation into her misuse of classified information sufficiently seriously so he could look at himself in the mirror, but let her go, with hopes that she’d kindly remember him after she won. Besides, establishment Dems and Repubs throw nice cocktail parties, and he still wanted an invite in 2017.

            Still not sure I can fully square why he again re-opened the investigation in October after finding all the email on Weiner’s computer, except that there must have been career FBI guys a couple levels down that were threatening a mutiny and he’d look worse. Not sure about that….

  3. One of the interesting ironies of law enforcement is that it always trends toward corruption and criminal behavior.

    1. With great power comes great corruption and criminal behavior.

      If you surrender power to anyone they will use it. Church, state, business – it really doesn’t matter.

      1. Correctomundo. The only real cure is same as in the free market — competition and the possibility of bankruptcy. As long as government has neither, it will always breed corruption and incompetency.

  4. You ask for miracles Theo, I give you the FBI.

    1. We’re gonna need some more FBI guys, I guess.

    2. I give you the FBI

      Foiled By Intelligence?

      Fucked By Idiots?

      Frolicking Blind Incompetents?

  5. Julian Sanchez and Radley Balko (among other reason alumni) are now very concerned about unfair and unwarrranted criticism of the FBI and DoJ.

  6. I wonder how many of the politicians publicly supporting the FBI and continued use of expanded surveillance have had a little visit and maybe an envelope of damaging information about themselves?

    1. I’ve always wondered about Justice Robert’s bizarre interpretation of the Obamacare mandate that neither proponents or opponents agreed with….. along with a slew of constitutional lawyers.

  7. “FBI’s conduct in 2016’s hotly contested presidential election was spurred by legitimate concerns over foreign meddling,”

    since when does a false dossier created by the FBI with the DNC amount to legitimate.
    Just last week Reason had an article about how the FBI will plant false information in order to create a situation that needs to be looked into. and this is clearly one of those cases

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  9. None of this even matters. All this is WWE tier shenanigans are made to make you think that Drumpf is actually a threat to the deep state when in reality he is their greatest enabler. If Drumpfy really was against the DOJ and the FBI then why did he sign the new FISA act? Smoke and mirrors.

    1. Trump the moron, Trump the master manipulator…. it’s hard to keep track.

      1. Trump the moron, Trump the master manipulator…. it’s hard to keep track.

        ‘Enabler’ doesn’t imply that he’s one enabled or even necessarily aware of his enabling.

  10. Because what the world needs from a libertarian magazine right now is a supine defense of a criminal presidential administration.

    Trump was such a gimme for you guys. “See! We told you government was terrible!” But damn if that (R) doesn’t make you all into giggling schoolgirls for government.

    1. Projection is a serious issue Tony and if left untreated one becomes delusional. Seek professional assistance before it is too late.

      1. It’s been too late for years.

    2. It’s pretty amusing that, in Tony’s world, Reason is a bunch of spineless enablers defending Trump. Meanwhile, to all the Trumpkins here in H&R, Reason is a bunch of spineless cosmotarians writing baseless attacks against Trump in order to look cool at their cocktail parties.

      Just because Trump is a shitbag doesn’t mean that the individuals in the FBI aren’t playing politics and trying to undermine him. And, I haven’t noticed anyone at Reason slowing down on the “See! We told you government was terrible!” articles. More idiot Trump supporters commenting in H&R? Sure.

      1. individuals in the FBI [are] playing politics and trying to undermine him.

        Citation needed. Ooh ooh is it Hannity?

        1. Well, I’m clearly not making the same assertion that you suggest with the edit that you made. It’s written as a variation on the “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you” concept.

          So, if I included a citation, it would be a citation to an article that talks about FBI people playing politics and trying to undermine people (particularly presidents and other political leaders). I’d have to do some research to find a citation like that. But, I think I remember an article on Reason where Tucille covered those themes.

          FWIW, I doubt that I’ve watched Hannity in the last ten years.

          1. Talk like this only serves to muddy the waters, which is the one and only strategy of the Trump defense crowd. Undermine the credibility of US federal law enforcement. That’s the whole shebang–to protect the worst president in past or future history.

            If I weren’t so favorable to western democracy and justice I’d say the bureaucracy might have a duty to do whatever they can to get that man away from the nuclear button. He is insane, you know.

            1. Yeah, talk like that only serves to muddy the waters. There is no shortage of actual arguments against against Trump and his actions. Instead, you say garbage like “He is insane, you know.” People could take you half-seriously if you stuck to reasoned criticism. Instead, you post stuff like that and confirm the arguments of the Trump defense crowd; that his opponents are just spouting incessant hyperbolic bullshit. You prove their moronic cries of TDS!, TDS!

              Meanwhile, US federal law enforcement rightly deserves that criticism… as Tucille points out. All good progressives remember that the same federal law enforcement has been used to fuck progressives in the past. Tolerating politically motivated attacks from law enforcement agencies (as long as they’re attacking your opponent) is destructive hypocrisy.

              1. I see no evidence that the Mueller investigation is remotely politically motivated.

                I see plenty of evidence that the desperate selective memo-writing and leaking from Congressional Republicans is politically motivated, because it is.

                Also, he is insane, at least by my definition.

                1. Nice conflation between Mueller and the FBI prior, during, and after the election.

                  Masterfully done.

                  1. Nice lack of any fucking evidence for your ridiculous Trump-humping conspiracy theories.

                    1. The evidence for the politicization of the FBI is in the article you’re commenting on.

                      And thanks for the ad-hom (you know I don’t like Trump, I just don’t like Hillary more) it lets everyone know what a standup guy you are.

        2. Give it up, Tony. We all know you have Hannity porn at home.

      2. “Just because Trump is a shitbag doesn’t mean that the individuals in the FBI aren’t playing politics and trying to undermine him.”

        Well said.

        And using opposition research to obtain FISA warrants to allow you to spy on your political opponent is serious business. You don’t shut that down, and you continue the loss of confidence in institutions. That’s not good for anybody, whether conservative or progressive or libertarian.

  11. As they say here a hundred times a day, “Principals, not principles”. Nobody objects to the FBI abusing their authority as long as it’s their enemies on the receiving end of the abuse. And nobody can imagine that wheels turn.

    1. This is pretty accurate, I must say. I’m no fan of Trump, but it seems that there’s some seriously disturbing stuff going on behind the scene’s that’s been going on since before he was even in office.

      That’s not necessarily a ‘Trump’ issue, it’s more of a ‘what the hell have our intelligence and law enforcement officials been up to since GWB was President, exactly?’

      1. ^^ This.

  12. “But the Republican-led-Congress reauthorized FISA with expanded surveillance powers earlier this month even while GOP legislators tore into the FBI. Are we sure these folks know what they’re voting for?”

    I’m sure that they have no clue what they are voting for. And that goes for the members on both sides.

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