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.