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The FBI: Going Rogue PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Guest Commentaries
Written by John W. Whitehead   
Thursday, 17 February 2011 05:05

“The minute the FBI begins making recommendations on what should be done with its information, it becomes a Gestapo.” – J. Edgar Hoover

The history of the FBI is the history of how America – once a nation that abided by the rule of law and held the government accountable for its actions – has steadily devolved into a police state where laws are unidirectional, intended as a tool for government to control the people and rarely the other way around.

The FBI was established in 1908 (as the Bureau of Investigation) by President Theodore Roosevelt and Attorney General Charles Bonaparte as a small task force assigned to deal with specific domestic crimes, its first being to survey houses of prostitution in anticipation of enforcing the White Slave Traffic Act. Initially quite limited in its abilities to investigate so-called domestic crimes, the FBI slowly expanded in size, scope, and authority over the course of the 20th Century.

During World War I, the FBI was tasked with investigating “enemy aliens,” which included anarchists and communists. During World War II, the FBI investigated various radical elements in society, as well as draft evaders and foreign nationals from belligerent nations. The agency also helped enforce the government’s nefarious policy of Japanese internment following the Pearl Harbor attack. In both 1939 and 1943, the FBI received presidential directives to investigate threats to national security. To that end, during the infamous McCarthy era, the FBI became heavily involved in the government’s efforts to expose Americans with ties to communism – conducting surveillance, pressuring employers to hire or fire particular individuals, and feeding information to the media to influence public opinion. By the end of the Korean War, what had once been a small task force of a few dozen agents became an investigative force of 6,200 agents.

Yet it was during the social and political upheaval of the 1960s that the FBI’s transformation into a federal policing and surveillance agency really began, one aimed not so much at the criminal element but at those who challenged the status quo – namely, those expressing anti-government sentiments. According to J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s first and most infamous director, “the United States was confronted with ‘a new style in conspiracy – conspiracy that is extremely subtle and devious and hence difficult to understand ... a conspiracy reflected by questionable moods and attitudes, by unrestrained individualism, by nonconformism in dress and speech, even by obscene language, rather than by formal membership in specific organizations.’”

Among those most closely watched by the FBI during that time period was Martin Luther King Jr., a man labeled by the agency as the “most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.” With wiretaps and electronic bugs planted in his home and office, King was kept under constant surveillance by the FBI from 1958 until his death in 1968, all with the aim of “neutralizing King as an effective Negro leader.” King even received letters written by government agents suggesting that either he commit suicide or the details of his private life would be revealed to the public. The FBI file on King, whom the agency suspected of communism but failed to prove, is estimated to contain 17,000 pages of materials documenting his day-to-day activities. Incredibly, even 40 years later, the FBI maintains a stranglehold on information relating to this “covert” operation: Per a court order, information relating to the FBI wiretaps on King will not be released until 2027.

John Lennon was another activist targeted for surveillance by the FBI. Fearing Lennon might incite anti-war violence, the Nixon administration directed the FBI to keep close tabs on the ex-Beatle, resulting in close to 400 pages of files on his activities during the early ’70s. But the government’s actions didn’t stop with mere surveillance. The agency went so far as to attempt to have Lennon deported on drug charges. As professor Jon Wiener, a historian who sued the federal government to have the files on Lennon made public, observed, “This is really the story of FBI misconduct, of the president using the FBI to get his enemies, to use federal agencies to suppress dissent and to silence critics.”

Unfortunately, not even the creation of the Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB) by President Gerald Ford in 1976 could keep the FBI’s surveillance activities within the bounds of the law. Whether or not those boundaries were respected in the ensuing years, they all but disappeared in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks. This was true especially with the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, which gave the FBI and other intelligence agencies carte blanche authority in investigating Americans suspected of being anti-government. While the FBI’s powers were being strengthened, President George W. Bush dismantled the oversight capabilities of the IOB, which was entrusted with keeping the FBI in check.

Even the Obama administration, a vocal critic of the Bush policies, has failed to restore these checks and balances on the FBI. Indeed, the Obama administration has gone so far as to insist that the FBI can obtain telephone records of international calls made from the U.S. without any formal legal process or court oversight. This rationale obviously applies to e-mails, as well.