How the Left Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the FBI

At the close of World War I, the federal government created the General Intelligence Division, an agency that eventually morphed into the modern FBI. One of GID’s main tasks was to compile a list of hundreds of thousands of radicals—socialists, anarchists, labor activists and antiwar agitators. Thousands were arrested for being suspected Communists. Hundreds of anarchists were deported to Bolshevik Russia, the silver lining being that left-anarchists like Emma Goldman discovered and wrote about the pure horror of Leninism and the fact that “proletarian dictatorship” was not any sort of improvement upon the wartime corporatism of the U.S. under Woodrow Wilson.

In the late 1920s, the renamed Bureau of Investigation spied on such “socialist” threats as Albert Einstein. Under Franklin Roosevelt, although the FBI continued to keep track of left radicals, it found a new enemy in the form of opponents of the New Deal. FDR used the FBI to spy on multitudes of peaceful rightwingers, unleashing a Brown Scare that was later turned against the left during the McCarthy-era Red Scare. Roosevelt even spied on his Republican presidential opponent, Wendell Willkie.

But during the Cold War, Republican and Democratic administrations again focused the FBI, for the most part, on disrupting the left. Its COINTELPRO operation—a program to “track, expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities” of political radicals—was a great success. FBI’S COINTELPRO forged letters to bring about violence between the Black Panthers and United Slaves. In 1976, a Senate report showed that the FBI had boasted that “Although no specific counterintelligence action can be credited with contributing to this overall situation, it is felt that a substantial amount of the unrest [among left radical groups] is directly attributable to this program.”

While the FBI was used to infiltrate rightwing anti-Civil Rights and anti-integrationist activists, it was also targeted against stalwarts of the Civil Rights movement. The FBI monitored everyone from Martin Luther King in the 1960s to John Lennon in the 1970s. In the late 70s, the Church Committee reports in the Senate culminated in some effort to rein in this horribly abusive federal agency.

In the 1990s, the FBI was at the center of the militia scare, with its snipers and strongmen turned against peaceful separatist Randy Weaver and his family, and later at the Waco, Texas, standoff with Branch Davidians, at the end of which FBI agents gassed, shot and killed dozens of David Koresh’s followers at their home at Mt. Carmel. They used incendiary devices, which might have brought on the fire, and then lied about it.

It was in this period that the modern left became enamored of the federal police state and especially the FBI. Almost none of them stood up for the Branch Davidians. They came to think of FBI agents as a professional, national and enlightened force populated by such figures as the Jodie Foster character in Silence of the Lambs, an agency that enforced civil rights, protected the country from “rightwing extremists,” and overturned the injustices of local, prejudiced law enforcement.

But during the Bush II era, when the administration was reported to be reviving COINTELPRO, the left’s distrust of national police forces also became revived. In October 2003, the FBI extensively spied on peaceful Iraq war protesters, focusing especially on “anarchists. . . capable of violence.” Bush’s FBI activities were a throwback to the post-World War I General Intelligence Division’s obsession with anarchists. In 2005, the ACLU sued to reveal in court that it had been monitored by the FBI, which had over a thousand pages of documentation on the organization, as had Greenpeace and other politically leftist organizations. Religious pacifist groups were also spied on and infiltrated. And one “terror plot” after another allegedly discovered and broken up by the administration just in the nick of time turned out to be a group of poor saps of below-average intelligence who had been duped by federal informants into saying something threatening or “planning” a terror attack on American infrastructure with no chance at all of being successful, and probably no chance of having even come up with the idea without federal prodding and agitation. The concern about the return of Cold War-era FBI infiltration of fringe groups was once again seen on the left.

Now we are back to the Brown Scare, to militia hysteria, to fears that the out-of-power anti-government right, Christian groups, separatists, gunowners, opponents of national social programs, census and tax resisters and so forth are a great threat to American security. With all the Bush-era anti-Muslim hysteria and war on terror authoritarianism still in place, we have under Obama a revitalization of 1990s-style paranoia about “hate groups,” survivalists and indeed the entire populist right. Just as Bush conservatives could not differentiate Saddam Hussein from Osama bin Laden, or an innocent Muslim doing charity work in Pakistan from an engineer of 9/11, or an antiwar American activist from an anti-American enemy within giving comfort to the enemy abroad, so too do the Obama leftists conflate peaceful separatists with violent racists, peaceful survivalist militia men with Timothy McVeigh.

Every act of violence or alleged plan to commit violence or even adamant anti-government activism that can be pinned on the “extremist right”—the shooter who murdered a guard at the Holocaust museum, the man who murdered an abortion doctor in church, the man who flew a plane through an IRS building, some “militia” members allegedly planning anti-government violence—all of this is seen as part of a general trend, even a rightwing conspiracy, one about as coherent as the neoconservatives’ lumping together all anti-US Muslims under the banner of “Islamofascism.” Indeed, I am surprised that not many have yet warned of the “Christofascist” threat to America, although there has been plenty of talk comparing the tea party movement to the Nazi brownshirts and talk that this kind of militia activity is often associated with “race war,” even when the particular subjects at hand are not even accused of being racially motivated.

And so when a progressive like Rachel Maddow cheers that the Michigan militia members can be indicted and imprisoned without having done anything violent, when she reports that the FBI has infiltrated this group for months and stepped in to arrest them just in the nick of time, we should not be too surprised when she fails to make the obvious connection, and fails to be the least bit skeptical of the federal government’s police agents infiltrating a group for months only to discover that that group’s members are saying things about government that amount to “seditious conspiracy.” What kind of Orwellian world is it when the government can arrest people accused only of planning to commit violence against government agents and unleash a “civil war” that we all know is only a fantasy? What kind of world is it when the very media figure who denounced Bush’s “preemptive war” and Obama’s adoption of Bush’s “pre-crime” approach to imprisoning “enemy combatants” in “prolonged detention” before they commit violence is happy to see a group indicted on federal charges of talking about committing violence—talk that we can safely guess was likely incited by the very FBI that had been infiltrating this group for months? What kind of absurdist dystopia has the left crying foul when a private citizen infiltrates ACORN, but has no similar apprehensions about the FBI infiltrating “extremist” groups and arresting them for “seditious conspiracy”? How can anyone who saw through the Bush lies of war and crackdowns in the name of “national security” and stopping madmen from getting “weapons of mass destruction” really believe that fewer than a dozen Americans with some rifles and some pipebombs were themselves planning to use “weapons of mass destruction” in any way that posed a threat to the U.S. government? And what about the charge of having weapons in connection to a crime—that crime being the intention of one day committing a crime?

Of course, preempting people from committing acts of criminal violence is just and sometimes necessary, but the list of questionable charges levied at these people, on the tail end of months of FBI infiltration, would seem to be in a different category, and at least warrants more critical examination before passing judgment. One can abhor and condemn the idea of violence and oppose vehemently the types of acts that these men and women are accused of planning—and certainly, I do—while still smelling a rat in the way such sting operations are conducted, or at least demonstrating some journalistic skepticism that the government’s side of the story is 100% accurate and justifies the imprisonment of these people and the hysteria on which this kind of government activity thrives.

But once again, with their people at the helm of state, the left has decided to embrace the FBI, take it at its word, assume that people are guilty until proven innocent once accused of guilt by the police state that they now see as the guardian of order against rightwing extremism. Especially strange is the tendency of leftists to fear rightists out of power even more than in power. The same dynamic can be seen on the other side. The left and the right love power, and although that power is often directed against their own when the other side is at the reins, they cannot abandon the idea that a police state can be pinpointed only against those they hate, and not those with whom they sympathize. The responsible, non-partisan and indeed American thing to do is to harbor extreme skepticism toward the state when it spies, infiltrates, arrests and imprisons anyone, and most especially those whose alleged crime is “sedition” or “conspiracy” or in any way being the enemy of the state.

A note on sources: Much of this history is discussed in Geoffrey Stone’s Perilous Times. A lot of the stuff on the FBI’s history I read years back in Ronald Kessler’s Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI. A good treatment of COINTELPRO can be found in James Bovard’s Terrorism and Tyranny. On Waco see Carol Moore’s the Davidian Massacre and my Waco archives. And see the ACLU on some of the surveillance abuses under the Bush administration.

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