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Comey: a New Hero of the Left?

Photo by thierry ehrmann | CC BY 2.0

Behavioral science can determine with a measure of accuracy just how many exposures to a stimulus it takes to learn a lesson. Whether classical or operant conditioning, researchers learn pretty quickly just what it takes to change or modify the behavior of a subject. Both Pavlov and Skinner knew this.

Then why can’t the political left figure out this simple lesson? It only took a matter of a few hours for some on the left to begin not only condemning the firing of James Comey by Donald Trump, but what’s even worse, some on the left came running from every direction in his defense.

Where’s a sense of history on the left? The early history of the FBI saw the relentless pursuit and persecution of those on the left. Imprisonment, loss of jobs, harassment, executions, and deportations were some of the tricks that the national police had up its devious sleeve. Like a creation of science fiction, the FBI grew and grew on the flesh of its enemies. The net was cast in ever-widening circles as J. Edgar Hoover learned to not only target his and the Bureau’s enemies, but he began gathering information on those in power so that he could reference those dossiers if he ever needed to expand his powers or bring an opponent to his or her knees.

As the former Soviet Union grew in international power and influence as World War II approached, Hoover and his allies began searching for leftists in the U.S. Following World War II, and with the help of Senator Joseph McCarthy, domestic communists were found everywhere. Even idealism during a person’s college years was seen as suspect. Thousands lost their jobs and some lost their lives.

With the inception of the Cold War following the end of World War II, the FBI went into high gear. By the time of the Vietnam War, Hoover’s FBI had developed an invasive secret domestic intelligence program that ruined lives, and set the stage for outright murder. The Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) targeted black activists, Hispanic activists, and the entire antiwar movement during the Vietnam era. Break-ins and dirty tricks and the subversion of protest was the order of the day. The FBI under Hoover had cut its teeth during the early part of the civil rights movement standing by while white supremacists (among whom were some police), who were sometimes murderers, targeted that movement and particularly its leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr.

Now, some want the left to come to James Comey’s aid. After all, he’s under attack by the Trump administration and must be defended. Where’s the logic in that argument? There is no evidence that FBI surveillance ever ended following the official end of COINTELPRO. Indeed, even an innocuous group of counter-recruitment activists was targeted in South Florida during the first decade of this century. What was the impetus for this violation of the First Amendment? A tip from a disgruntled individual who did not like the work that the targeted group was doing.

Just prior to the attacks of September 2001, FBI agents in the field had credible evidence that radical religionists were active in the U.S. The information never saw the light of day, having been ignored by higher-ups in the agency and that critical information was never acted upon. No doubt that there are those who act out of patriotic motives who are members of the FBI, but its history is so checkered that James Comey suddenly becoming a hero of the left is a bit hard to swallow in this age of mass surveillance.

Here is an interchange between Democracy Now’s co-host Amy Goodman and award-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald (“Glenn Greenwald: Independent Probe Needed to Uncover Truth Behind Russia’s Role in 2016 Election,” May 10, 2017):

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden tweeted, “This FBI Director has sought for years to jail me on account of my political activities. If I can oppose his firing, so can you,” and “Set aside politics: every American should condemn such political interference in the Bureau’s work.” I mean, this is pretty stunning. This is Edward Snowden, who Comey, as he said, has been trying to jail for years. And he says, “If I can oppose this firing, so can you.”

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, I mean, Jim Comey has not only tried to do everything possible to put Edward Snowden into a prison cell for 40 years, he has denounced him as a traitor, he has called him a criminal and a felon, devoted huge amounts of resources to securing his apprehension.

For readers who were active during the Vietnam era in the protest movement, the presence of the FBI was a given.  It took 38 years to clear my name from FBI files from that period. I’m in no mood to extend well wishes to the FBI’s former director, and those on the political left ought to consider thinking carefully about the role of the federal government’s national police force before jumping on this bandwagon. Supporting Comey won’t change the fact that there’s a neofascist in the White House and the fact that Trump’s allies are doing awful things daily to ordinary people.

I’m more concerned about issues such as the very real damage that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is actually doing to immigrants living in the U.S., the very real threats to the environment, and the rights of women and minorities more than I am about the plight of the former director of the FBI.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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