The FBI’s Assault on the Election Has Historical Roots

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FBI Director James Comey holds press conference announcing the end of the Hillary Clinton email investigation.

By Sara Warner and Charlotte Canning

The stunning results of the 2016 presidential election will be parsed for years to come. Who voted and why, where voting did and didn’t happen, and how voters made their choices are complex questions that deserve serious study, as does the depth of Russia’s involvement. Another aspect of the election that merits attention is the role governmental agencies and employees played in influencing the course of the election. No institution was more visible than the FBI, no individual more controversial than its director, James Comey.

The rancorous issue of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while Secretary of State haunted the entire election. In July 2016, during the primaries, the FBI announced that it was ending its nearly year-long investigation and recommended that no charges be filed. The issue seemed settled. On 28 October, just eleven days before the election, Comey sent a vaguely worded letter to eight congressional committee chairs saying emails that “appear to be pertinent” to the previous investigation were found on Anthony Weiner’s lap top, one he had shared with his now estranged wife Huma Abedin, the top aide to Clinton. The FBI had not analyzed the emails, and there was no evidence that any of the emails contained classified information or came from Clinton’s private server. In a complete reversal two days before the election, Comey sent another letter, this time saying there was nothing on Weiner’s laptop that warranted legal action against Clinton.

Members of both parties criticized Comey’s timing and intentions, even staunch Republicans accused him of partisan politics. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), chair of the hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus, told Fox News Radio, "I think this was probably not the right thing for Comey to do — the protocol here — to come out this close to an election, but this whole case has been mishandled, and now it is what it is." Clinton, while admitting that there “are lots of reasons why an election like this is not successful,” blamed the Director for her defeat. It seems unlikely that Comey, an Obama appointee, will be charged with violating federal law. But what of the FBI? Are the events of 2016 unprecedented?

The FBI (a civilian agency originally titled the U.S. Bureau of Investigations) was founded in 1908, but came to prominence in the late teens and early twenties by manufacturing and manipulating fears about a communist threat. In November of 1919 agents of the Bureau and local police in twelve American cities conducted violent raids to arrest and deport political radicals. These raids were carried out by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, who feared the overthrow of the government by "a mass formation of the criminals of the world,” which, for him included: “the most radical socialists, the misguided anarchists, the agitators who oppose the limitations of unionism, the moral perverts and the hysterical neurasthenic women who abound in communism.” Palmer very much wanted to be the Democratic nominee for president in the 1920 election and thought the raids would boost his chances. This would not be the last time the bureau flexed its muscles to influence national politics.

Palmer appointed his assistant, a 24-year old named J. Edgar Hoover, to a new FBI unit, the General Intelligence Division. Hoover’s job was to keep tabs on every radical leader and organization in the United States, which he did by creating an index containing upwards of 400,000 names, among them future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. He started amassing secret intelligence on "enemies of the United States," which included terrorists, communists, spies, homosexuals, and anyone Hoover or the FBI deemed subversive.

In defiance of a 1939 Supreme Court decision outlawing wiretapping, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave Hoover secret authorization to spy on Americans, which he rationalized as a matter of national security. The FBI amassed intelligence on the President’s political enemies, a practice that reached its paranoid peak during the administrations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

In the 1950s and 60s, Hoover added to his enemies of the states list anti-war protesters and civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, whom he tried to blackmail and prevent his birthday from becoming a national holiday. In 1952, Hoover circulated rumor that Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson had been arrested in NYC for homosexuality. This was untrue, but it stayed in the tabloids and resurfaced in the 1956 election as well. Hoover’s gay baiting of Stevenson is ironic given that the Director himself had sexual relations with men, including an alleged decades-long affair with his FBI associate Clyde Tolson. Mobster Meyer Lansky claimed the mafia had proof of Hoover’s homosexuality, which protected crime syndicates from prosecution during his tenure.

According to historian Ellen Schrecker, author of The Age of McCarthyism, had observers known in the 1950s what they have learned since the Freedom of Information Act opened the Bureau's files, “McCarthyism' would probably be called 'Hooverism.'" J. Edgar Hoover "was like a sewer that collected dirt,” remarked Acting Attorney General Laurence Silberman. “He was the worst public servant in our history." Under Hoover’s malignant influence, the FBI employed a panoply of dirty tricks in its counter intelligence programs (COINTELPRO), including surveillance, illegal break-ins, coerced testimony, planting forged documents, and bribery. These tactics did not become publicly known until the Watergate investigations of the 1970s, leading to Nixon’s resignation.

In response to the Watergate scandal, the Senate established congressional oversight of America's national security agencies and set limits on the FBI’s ability to police the political beliefs and private behavior of American citizens. But, as Tim Weiner notes in Enemies: A History of the FBI, much of what Hoover’s agents once did illegally is now, after the passage of the Patriot Act, simply legal. Robert Mueller, appointed by President George W. Bush as the FBI’s sixth director, just one week before the September 11 attacks, insisted that spy tactics could have prevented the terrorists. Congress passed a law legalizing warrantless surveillance. The Obama administration reaffirmed the Bush-era guidelines, which allow Bureau agents to initiate surveillance without suspicion of criminality and to gather intelligence in religious spaces, essentially monitoring entire communities. Mueller’s successor, James Comey, served as the deputy assistant attorney general in George W. Bush’s Justice Department. Comey, a Republican, earned the title “civil liberties superhero” for forcing the President and his White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales to modify their secret surveillance program, bringing it into compliance with the law.

Touting Comey’s independence and integrity, President Obama nominated him to replace the retiring Mueller. To be sure, Comey deserves credit for telling the American people, “be deeply skeptical of government power. You cannot trust people in power,” but he also endorsed some of the worst abuses of the Bush administration, including waterboarding, warrantless wiretapping, and the indefinite detention of American citizens arrested on American soil. As this brief history of the FBI shows, the Bureau is a domestic spy agency that has consistently undermined our constitution and sabotaged elections, including the most recent presidential race. Do we really need the FBI?

Sara Warner (@FieryOptimist) is Associate Professor of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University and the author of Acts of Gaiety: LGBT Performance and the Politics of Pleasure.

Charlotte Canning is the Frank C. Erwin, Jr. Centennial Professor in Drama in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas at Austin, USA. Her most recent book is On the Performance Front: US Theatre and Internationalism.