The FBI: Another Worry in the National Security State

Photograph Source: J – CC BY 2.0

The Department of Justice’s Inspector General report of the FBI’s Russian investigation has fully exposed one more dangerous aspect of the steady abuses of national-security surveillance against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013 of the national security abuses of the National Security Agency exposed the massive surveillance of U.S. citizens in the expanded campaign against terrorism. Michael Horowitz, the inspector general of the DoJ, has highlighted the abuses of the FBI and the misuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court over an extended period.  It will require a comprehensive and bipartisan congressional reform program to gain control over national-security wiretapping.

There will always be tension and room for abuse in maintaining a balance between the openness and transparency required by a democratic society and the covert requirements of secret institutions within the society. The Bureau of Investigations, which was renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigations in 1935, has been a particular problem in this regard, dating back to the 1920s, when Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone selected J. Edgar Hoover to stop the excesses of the Justice Department’s activities against political radicals.

In selecting Hoover, however, the fox was clearly put in charge of the hen house in view of Hoover’s obsession with liberals and progressives whom he pursued for nearly five decades.  Attorney General Stone wanted the FBI to concern itself with law enforcement and not with political opinions and to ensure that “its agents be not above the law or beyond its reach.”

Hoover had a particular obsession with communism and even during World War II, and the threat from Nazi Germany, he was far more concerned with maintaining secret lists of American communists who were to be rounded up in any national emergency.  Just as the Department of Justice supported a Red Scare in the wake of World War I, another Red Scare was orchestrated by Senator Joseph McCarthy who used FBI intelligence files to smear innocent Americans.  At last count, the FBI’s “Security Index” of individuals “to be rounded up in the event of a national emergency” listed 26,000 people in the United States.

Little was known about FBI abuses until the Vietnam War, when a group of activists broke into an FBI office in Medina, Pennsylvania and found evidence of FBI agents spying on and harassing anti-war and civil rights protesters as part of the COINTELPRO abuses of the FBI, the CIA, and the Department of Defense.  In COINTELPRO,  the FBI secretly took the law into its own hands in order to disrupt and discredit legitimate groups and individuals.

The CIA violated its charter in the mid-1970s when it tried to block and discredit the work of the congressional Church and Pike Committees that were investigating the crimes and corruption of COINTELPRO.  In a particularly sordid act, when a CIA station chief in Athens, Greece, was assassinated by a terrorist organization, the agency charged that it was the recklessness of the committee’s investigations that were responsible for the outing and assassination of the station chief.  The Washington Post, which often serves as an apologist for the CIA, referred to the killing as an “entirely predictable result of the disclosure tactics chosen by certain American critics of the Agency.”

The Church Committee’s investigations led to the creation of congressional oversight committees for the FBI and the intelligence community as well as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor national security intelligence operations.  Attorney General Edward Levi also developed regulations to govern the authority of the FBI and, like Attorney General Stone in the 1920s, refocus the FBI on criminal law enforcement.  An FBI whistleblower, Mike German, has written an excellent book, “Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide: How the New FBI Damages Democracy,” that documents FBI efforts to circumvent these reforms and regulations.

More recently, the CIA tried to stop the legitimate work of the Senate intelligence committee’s investigation of the agency’s sadistic torture and abuse program by breaking into Senate computers and removing sensitive materials that documented not only the torture but the lies to the White House about the success of these actions.  CIA director John Brennan initially stated it would be “beyond the scope of reason” to believe the agency would violate the separation of powers by hacking into Senate computers, but it was Brennan who ordered the CIA lawyers and technicians to do so.  He should have been fired; President Obama called Brennan a “patriot.”

The FBI abuses and systemic failures in the Russian investigation include withholding important information from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in order to gain surveillance authority; cherry-picking evidence in its investigations; and ignoring exculpatory materials in providing information to the Department of Justice.  Former FBI director James Comey believes that the IG report “vindicated” the work of the FBI’s investigation but that is an egregious overstatement.  And IG Horowitz believes that the abuses amounted to “gross incompetence and negligence,” but that is an understatement.  Horowitz cleared the FBI investigation of any bias toward Donald Trump, but it is possible that traditional FBI bias against any former Soviet or Russian activities led to the bureau’s excesses.

One of the first orders of business after the impeachment process comes to a sudden end in January is the creation of a joint bipartisan committee to deal with the systemic failures and the lack of accountability at the FBI.  The uncertainly and disarray of the Trump administration and its ill-equipped national security team has made the importance of “telling truth to power” more essential than ever.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for