Have you seen the news?
James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is facing heaps of criticism for sending a vaguely worded letter to members of Congress about new potential evidence in the closed investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. Given the letter’s notable lack of details and the letter’s proximity to the election, Comey has faced a torrent of criticism–and not just from supporters of Clinton– about the effects such a letter could have on the US presidential election. Among criticisms, was the charge that Comey had soiled the FBI’s good reputation for being “apolitical.”
As an organization whose founder, Frank Wilkinson had a 1320,000 page FBI file, solely because of his political activity, this was the first we learned about the FBI’s good reputation or that they were apolitical.
Of course, many would qualify such a remarks by stating that they were only referring to the post-Hoover FBI. However, as I noted in an article on encryption earlier this year, the narrative that either attributes the FBI’s political spying solely to J. Edgar Hoover or at the very least confines it to the Hoover error is not only false, but obscures the true nature of the FBI. Just a handful of years after the Church Committee’s exposure of FBI misdeeds, the FBI was already up to its old tricks, engaging in an extensive investigation of opponents of US foreign policy in Central America.
In the last few years alone, we know through documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, that the FBI has spied on the Black Lives Matter movement, the Occupy movement, environmentalist, and School of the Americas Watch. We know from first hand reports that the FBI paid home visits to anti-keystone pipeline activists in several states and that before the Cleaveland Republican Nation Convention made similar house calls to Black Lives Matter and Occupy Cleveland activists. According to one activists, the FBI told him he shouldn’t go to Cleveland to protest the Republican National Convention.
The FBI’s precursor was the Department of Justice’s “Radical Division,” where Hoover cut his teeth helping to round up, arrest, and deport socialists, anarchists, pacifists, and those opposed to World War I. The FBI was founded for the purpose of policing political activity and it continues to do so to this very day. It’s worth noting, that Hoover, while certainly a foe of the Bill of Rights, was not out of step with the thinking of the powerful of his era. Many police departments had radical divisions–or “red squads”–well before the federal government decided to adopt the practice.
Regardless of what one thinks of Comey’s letter to Congress, or his earlier decision not to pursue charges against Clinton, he cannot be said to have soiled the FBI’s reputation for being above politics. The FBI has no such reputation, at least not amongst anyone who has remotely studied its history.
BORDC/DDF and its predecessor organization has been criticizing the political nature of the FBI for over fifty years. And since March of this year, we have been leading a coalition of 133 civil society groups calling on Congress to investigate the FBI’s political spying. It doesn’t matter if you think Comey made the right or wrong decision to not pursue charges against Clinton to begin with or if his letter to Congress was proper or improper. Congress needs to provide greater oversight to the FBI, which has never been apolitical. If the impetus for such an investigation stems from a political soap opera involving Anthony Weiner, so be it. We wish that people had listened to us earlier, but any steps towards greater oversight of the FBI are desperately welcomed at this point.