Amid Comey chaos, lessons from the history of America’s secret police
Hundreds of people lined up in the marble hallways of a Senate office building hoping to get one of the 88 public seats in Room 216, where James Comey, the FBI director who President Donald Trump fired over the Russia investigation, was scheduled to testify at 10 am.
That was at 8:30 am. Then more came. Some of the people waiting in the winding line said they arrived at 4 am. Nearby bars opened early and, for once, it seemed like reporters and senators were the only people in Washington not day-drinking. But it was serious shit.
Comey said that Trump asked him for loyalty. It freaked the then-director out—because if the FBI is not independent of political factions, it becomes a secret police force abetting tyranny or totalitarian control.
At one point, Comey tried to explain why he had assured the president he wasn’t personally under an investigation on several occasions. The former director said he told the president about salacious material—the Russian sex workers pissing on the bed the Obamas slept in, I guess—in a dossier, gathered by a former intelligence official and later published by BuzzFeed, because he didn’t want Trump to think that the FBI would use the material against him.
“I was worried very much of being in kind of a—kind of a J. Edgar Hoover-type situation,” Comey said, referring to the legendary director—you might say dictator—of the FBI for half a century.
It was remarkable to hear Comey talk this way about the man more associated with the bureau than anyone else—but he had good reason: It helps us contextualize what is happening now, because things were even more fucked up a century ago, and that should make us feel a little better.
Hoover, a powerful, paranoid, and proud eccentric, crafted the modern FBI. But before that he started working for the Department of Justice in 1917; the country had finally entered World War I in April of that year, but two years earlier, as the war in Europe escalated, Germany feared US involvement and began a propaganda campaign (or “active measures,” as we’re calling it) that is relevant here. As Tim Weiner writes in his book, Enemies: A History of the FBI, a German official “began to build a propaganda machine in the United States; the Germans secretly gained control of a major New York newspaper, the Evening Mail; their front men negotiated to buy the Washington Post and the New York Sun. Political fixers, corrupt Germans and crooked detectives served the German cause.”
The US eventually entered the war, and our government—especially the bureau, which worked under the Department of Justice—began to arrest and surveil German immigrants, using some tricks right out of the Berlin playbook.
“The bureau launched its first nationwide domestic surveillance programs under the Espionage Act of 1917, rounding up radicals, wiretapping conversations, and opening mail,” Weiner writes, noting that more than a thousand people were convicted under the act.
In 1920, Hoover orchestrated the “biggest mass arrest in US history,” according to Weiner’s research into various unclassified documents. During this dark time, the bureau “broke into political meetings, private homes, social clubs, dance halls, and saloons across America,” arresting more than 6,000 people. There were no warrants for many of them.
Fast-forward to now. Two-hundred people, including a reporter, were charged with felony rioting charges for protests on Inauguration Day. They were arraigned the day after Comey’s testimony. Meanwhile, Reality Winner, the NSA contractor who leaked secrets about Russian attempts to hack voting machines in 2016, was arrested and charged under the Espionage Act a couple of days earlier.
If it’s still hard to imagine the scope of those 1920 raids, it shouldn’t be. Hoover later distanced himself from the controversial events and even denied involvement. But rather than backing off as outrage grew over the violations of civil liberties, the then-director started to collect secret files on his political enemies. That’s what Comey was referring to when he acknowledged a “Hoover-type situation.”
It’s also worth checking out David Grann’s stunning new book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. In detailing the early FBI’s role in solving at least some of the murders of the indigenous Osage people in Oklahoma in the early 20th century, the author shows just how valuable a centralized investigative force can be. The entire white power structure—from businesspeople, to police, to doctors—were in on the conspiracy to kill the Osage. But the FBI was outside of that local structure, and was able to solve and prosecute some of the crimes as a result.
Of course, much of the bureau’s history is also shameful, reactionary, and racist. Like COINTELPRO, or Counterintelligence Program, which targeted civil rights and peace activists in the 1960s. In a 2015 talk, Comey said he kept Hoover’s application for a warrant to wiretap Martin Luther King Jr., which cited “Communist influence in the racial situation,” on his desk. He said he required agents to study the Bureau’s MLK files and other instances of injustice, “to insure that we remember our mistakes and that we learn from them.”
The idea of remembering our mistakes and learning from them is about as far as you can get from the whitewashed view of history implicit in Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. Trump doesn’t seem like a person who is capable of admitting, much less learning from a mistake, so the Senate needs to be particularly vigilant in its confirmation of Christopher Wray, Chris Christie’s Bridgegate lawyer, whose appointment as Comey’s replacement was announced over Twitter the day before Comey testified.
Things may seem bad now, but the bureau’s previous political persecution of the left, immigrants, and minorities should remind us that they can always get worse.