by Marc Sapir, MD, MPH
When FBI director James Comey dropped a propaganda bomb that blew up the 2016 presidential election and probably changed how the U.S. will be governed for some time to come, he wasn’t acting for the Russians. Comey wasn’t acting as an individual rogue actor either. He was acting in the tried and true tradition of the FBI as a political police agency that uses its authority – legally, illegally and effectively – to intrude into the political processes of our country.
One hallmark of what we like to think of as our great democracy is the separation of the police and military from our political processes. These agencies are supposed to be obedient servants exercising their policing power at the behest of duly elected leaders.
But from its 1935 origin and the appointment of J. Edgar Hoover as director, the FBI has frequently operated differently, forcing its own agenda into politics and governance to intimidate, disrupt and even destroy common citizens, congresspersons, civil rights or political leaders, activists and organizations who it declares subversive. The FBI decides how to define subversive activity and then works to destroy people and their activities based upon that definition.
By 1955, when I was an early teen, “The FBI in Peace and War,” a radio drama, had become the eighth most popular radio program and one I enjoyed. Originated in 1944 before the end of World War II, it bolstered the FBI’s reputation at a time when the Bureau was spurring the rise of Sen. Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch hunts against dissent that destroyed the lives of thousands of citizens and eliminated the militant and democratically elected leadership of many unions all over the U.S.
Later, while my young sister was watching “Howdy Doody” on early TV, I remember the rampant paranoia of McCarthyism and then Edward R. Murrow’s exposes and Sen. Kefauver’s hearings that put an end to those shameful witch hunts.
But the repudiation and takedown of McCarthy did not hamper the FBI’s political activity. When Congress pulled back FBI’s extensive autonomous powers to intrude and destroy civil rights, human rights and anti-war activism, the FBI, unsanctioned, went under the radar developing political projects that were illegal and more intrusive into the political life of the country. It had become the semi-official arbiter of what would be defined as un-American.
From its 1935 origin, the FBI has frequently operated differently, forcing its own agenda into politics and governance to intimidate, disrupt and even destroy common citizens, congresspersons, civil rights or political leaders, activists and organizations who it declares subversive.
A 1976 book, “The Lawless State,” by Halpern, Berman, Borosage and Marusch, detailed FBI COMINFIL activities to document “communist subversive infiltration” of many types of organizations. COINTELPRO, the operational element that aimed to disrupt and destroy civil and human rights and anti-war organizing was part of COMINFIL. Both derived from the FBI role in creating paranoia and supporting McCarthyism in the 1950s.
By the 1960s, the idea that simply believing or espousing ideas like socialism, equal rights, social justice, anti-imperialism or communism were “subversive” had little cache. That didn’t faze Hoover or subsequent FBI leaders. They were dedicated to continuing the mantra of the “red menace.”
To do so they decided to create some havoc or threat to justify acting against that perceived threat. So the FBI set out to themselves infiltrate, manipulate, control and disrupt political activities that they disagreed with.
FBI reports on civil rights leaders like Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King, Seymour Hersh, Sammy Davis Jr., Cesar Chavez and the movements they led or supported or wrote about were transmitted in thousands of dispatches sent to the Justice Department, CIA, Secret Service and even military intelligence.
At the 1964 Democratic Party National Convention, FBI sent out informant reports on the plans and negotiations of delegates. In 1965 when farm workers marched on Sacramento to gain the right to unionize, FBI collaborated with informants connected to agribusiness who were trying to get Chavez labeled a Communist.
By 1972, the FBI and other intelligence agencies had a large part of the Democratic Party under surveillance. In 1973, the FBI conducted at least five fire bombings to make it appear that one left group was attacking another. An FBI plant forged letters to instigate a war within the Black Panther Party.
Years later FBI would be implicated as collaborators in the car bombing of environmental activist leaders Judy Bari and Darryl Cherney when they had the severely wounded Bari arrested and charged with carrying bombs, though they had known the bombs were planted in her car.
During the Vietnam War, the FBI instructed field agents to:
- Prepare leaflets designed to discredit students demonstrating against the Vietnam War. Instigate “personal conflicts or animosities.”
- Create the impression that leaders are “informants for the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.”
- Send articles from alternative and student press which show depravity to university officials, donors, legislators and parents.
- Send anonymous letters to parents, neighbors and parents’ employers.
- Send anonymous letters signed “a concerned alumnus/a” or “a concerned taxpayer” on the activities of “new left” faculty and grad students to University officials, legislators, Boards of Regents and the press.
- Exploit hostility among various political factions. Use misinformation to disrupt activities.
Agents roughed up anti-war activists and used other actions to frighten them, collaborated with local police in entrapment set-ups against war opponents and carried out joint operations with CIA to disrupt anti-war demonstrations. All these activities were later documented in Freedom of Information responses from the Bureau.
At one point in the ‘70s, the FBI had 7,402 informants in U.S. urban ghettos alone. While the Watergate burglary caused President Nixon’s downfall, the FBI’s political police carried out hundreds of illegal burglaries, none of which ever led to discoveries of plots against the U.S., but no FBI agents were caught, arrested or prosecuted – and their illegal activities continued. Comey is no aberration.
By 1972, the FBI and other intelligence agencies had a large part of the Democratic Party under surveillance.
Undemocratic features of our current two-party electoral system include voter suppression, unlimited and anonymous contributions, ads full of lies, faked news and an Electoral College that can select the 2.9 million vote loser of the popular vote as president. But the FBI’s known intrusions into politics dwarf these other problems.
Concerning Comey’s role in the 2016 outcome, even the Wall Street Journal editorialized on Jan. 13, 2017, that James Comey should be fired. Indeed he should. However, it’s highly unlikely that Donald Trump would go after someone who helped him become president.
In any case, efforts to rescue our democracy ought to include depoliticizing the FBI and prosecuting them when they engage in illegal and provocative activities. Achieving that will require a whole lot of public outrage and pressure.
Efforts to rescue our democracy ought to include depoliticizing the FBI and prosecuting them when they engage in illegal and provocative activities.
Strong and ethical journalism exposing the magnitude of the danger could help.
Marc Sapir is a retired primary care community physician, playwright and media critic. He was the first medical director of the Center for Elders’ Independence, a PACE project, in Oakland and the originator of the Berkeley High School Health Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.