'Attacking' the FBI: An Unalienable American Right
Republicans, we are being told, should be ashamed of themselves for verbally trashing an iconic American institution, namely the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Historically speaking, this is a strange talking point for Democrats to espouse. It’s odder still to see it parroted by the mainstream media. Most discordant of all is when leftists act shocked, shocked that anybody would dare criticize the FBI.
Questioning the competence and honesty of the bureau, The Nation magazine asserted recently, is an attack “on the rule of law” by an administration “willing to collapse the very pillars of American democracy.” Really? Founded by abolitionists in 1865, The Nation was long considered the conscience of the American left, and not a publication that gave itself the vapors defending the establishment. It challenged Woodrow Wilson on race, took early issue with Joseph McCarthy, and battled openly with the FBI. When I.F. Stone, the magazine’s Washington editor, ridiculed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI spied on Stone for decades—looking ridiculous, not to mention petty and ugly, in the process.
Has the FBI changed its ways? That’s an open question. Operating out of its headquarters in downtown Washington, an ugly building aptly named after Hoover, the bureau managed to make itself the centerpiece of the 2016 presidential election. Hillary Clinton loyalists make a pretty strong case that its previous director cost her the presidency. President Trump and his loyalists have accused the bureau of spying on the GOP nominee’s campaign and trying to sabotage his first year in office.
Neither one is wrong, but the two sides aren’t inclined toward being philosophical these days. For liberals, the dynamic is clear: Anybody investigating Trump is good; anyone defending him is bad. So The New York Times runs an analysis headlined “Trump’s Unparalleled War on a Pillar of Society: Law Enforcement.” The Washington Post put together a video showing how “Republicans launch attack after attack on the FBI.” Yahoo News airs a podcast series called “FBI Under Siege.”
The FBI isn’t “under siege.” A siege is what the FBI did in 1993 in Waco, Texas to the Branch Davidian cult, a military assault that ended with the deaths of more than 70 men, women, and children. Let’s put this as plainly as possible: To say that the FBI shouldn’t be severely scrutinized is a crock. It’s every American’s birthright to criticize their government. And criticizing FBI excesses is practically a duty of citizenship.
At a time of diminishing faith in American institutions, does this criticism come at a cost? Perhaps. “Thanks to this rhetoric,” Christopher Hunter, a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor, told the Times, “there is a subset of the public that won’t believe what comes out of the Mueller investigation.”
But whose fault is that? After being named to head the investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia, Special Counsel Robert Mueller appointed a team of politically connected prosecutors to assist in the probe. One of them praised a Justice Department official who opposed Trump on immigration. Another defended the Clinton Foundation in court. Half a dozen contributed money to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. These are not neutral people, these are political activists. Mueller’s defenders say they can set aside their political partisanship and be fair to Trump, but what’s the evidence for that assertion? And what about the need to bolster public confidence by avoiding even the appearance of a conflict?
Why shouldn’t Republicans mention the partisan sentiments and personal contempt for Trump contained in the texts between star-crossed FBI officials Lisa Page and Peter Strzok? The latter was deeply involved in the 2016 campaign-related investigations. Ditto with the belated revelation that the wife of Justice Department official Bruce Ohr worked for Fusion GPS, the Democratic-sponsored private eye firm that produced the infamous anti-Trump dossier.
Can’t Republicans ask questions about what led to Mueller getting the appointment in the first place? A former FBI director himself, Mueller was tapped after fired FBI Director James Comey conspired—by his own admission—to get a special prosecutor named.
Christopher Hunter, the former FBI agent quoted by the Times, made another point: If Republicans go too far in undermining the reputation of the bureau, will it compromise federal prosecutors in cases having nothing to do with politics? “All it takes to sink a case is for one juror to disbelieve the FBI,” he said.
This is a legitimate fear, but again, whose fault is that?
Was it Donald Trump who gathered dirt on the personal life of Martin Luther King Jr., bugged King’s phones looking to link him to communism, and sent him anonymous letters suggesting that he commit suicide. Or was that J. Edgar Hoover and his henchmen?
Was it Trump who aided gangster James “Whitey” Bulger in his murderous exploits in South Boston? Or was that a slew of corrupt field agents in the Boston FBI office?
Was it Trump who shot a woman through her cabin door at Ruby Ridge in 1992 or invaded the Branch Davidians' compound a year later with tanks and helicopters and blamed the Davidians for killing themselves by lighting fires—and then assured Congress and Attorney General Janet Reno that no incendiary devices were in the field that day? No, the FBI did all that--and the FBI wasn’t telling the truth.
Lying to the FBI is a crime, as Trump’s erstwhile National Security Adviser Michael Flynn learned. Lying by the FBI is rarely punished. The Waco coverup was discovered by independent filmmaker Mike McNulty, who went through evidence lockers kept by the Texas Rangers. He found that incendiary explosives were in the FBI’s possession on that deadly April day in 1993, and had been deployed. Forced to retract its lies, the FBI stuck to its claim that it hadn’t started the fires. Maybe that’s right. But is it Trump’s fault that a majority of Americans disbelieved the denials? Or the FBI’s?
Last week, the bureau learned that White House official Rob Porter allegedly abused his wives. This is being used against Trump. Perhaps it should. But let’s talk about another case of a man who abused his wife -- FBI counterintelligence supervisor Robert Hanssen. He spied for the Russians intermittently from 1979 to 2001, without the bureau having a clue, despite numerous warning signs. Hanssen was caught hacking into a fellow agent’s computer, was denounced to supervisors as a possible spy by another agent, while a third agent -- his brother-in-law -- told his superiors that Hanssen had unaccountable stacks of cash around the house and should be investigated for espionage.
As early as 1994, the capture of CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames convinced the FBI there was a second KGB mole inside the U.S. intelligence community. Failing to consider the possibility it was one of their own, FBI counterintelligence agents nearly ruined the life of an innocent CIA agent. They only learned it was Hanssen after the Cold War ended and a Russian official gave them Hanssen’s name in 2001.
It’s not the only time the FBI fingered the wrong man in a high-profile case. It happened the same year in the anthrax letter attacks case. The hapless victim was a scientist named Steven Hatfill. He eventually got $5.8 million in taxpayers’ money when the Justice Department settled the case. The FBI official directly responsible for this monumental screw-up? None other than Robert Mueller, who took personal control of the investigation. But let’s not be too critical.