We can’t trust the FBI after its long history of political meddling
The FBI’s raid on former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home has Americans worried whether this untethered federal agency is suddenly a threat to democracy. Truth is, the FBI has played politics from its inception in the 1930s. It has a long, tarnished history of resorting to deception, violence, and lawless methods in pursuit of its partisan goals.
The FBI’s dirty tricks in service of political favorites go way back. When Senator Gerald Nye (R-ND), an isolationist unpopular with the FDR administration, criticized the role of the munitions industry in shaping US foreign policy, the FBI made Nye’s life miserable, opening his mail and looking (in vain) for evidence of criminal activity.
During the 1948 presidential election, as Vox notes, the FBI leaked to Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey information about President Harry Truman’s past associations with the Pendergast political machine back in Kansas City, Missouri. Republicans used the information to try to tarnish Truman, but he won anyway.
The FBI made Dr. Martin Luther King their No. 1 political target during the civil rights era. At one point the agency even threatened to expose what they said was evidence of King’s marital infidelities, and suggested the only way out was suicide.
The American Civil Liberties Union deplored the FBI’s surveillance and raids against civil rights leaders, feminists, and leftists in the 1950s and 1960s. But the ACLU is noticeably silent about the raid on Mar-a-Lago.
In 2015, then FBI Director James Comey invoked the persecution of King to claim that the agency is different now. Comey said he kept a letter on his desk from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to Hoover, approving the wiretap of King’s phone calls “to ensure that we remember our mistakes and that we learn from them.” Too bad it didn’t work.
Under Comey’s direction, FBI agents knowingly served as tools of the Hillary Clinton 2016 presidential campaign to label her adversary Donald Trump a Russian colluder. It was purely a political hit job.
Trump called the FBI “an embarrassment to our country.” That’s true today. But the Church Committee, formed in 1975 to investigate misconduct by US intelligence agencies, reached a similar conclusion. The Committee’s efforts led to the establishment of the permanent US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Unfortunately, congressional oversight has proved inadequate to prevent partisan abuse.
Just ask Chuck Grassley, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In July, Grassley announced that “numerous highly credible whistleblowers have come forward about a scheme in place among certain FBI officials” to stifle the Hunter Biden laptop inquiry. They knew if the information got out “it would kill Joe Biden’s chances of ousting Trump.” According to Grassley, “some of the FBI agents who interfered in the 2016 election did it again in 2020.”
After the raid, Grassley warned that if the FBI doesn’t start “rooting out” the “political bias that has infected their most sensitive investigations,” Americans will no longer trust them.
That has already happened. A staggering 47% of the public distrusted the FBI, according to a May poll, even before the raid on Mar-a-Lago. That means crime victims and witnesses hesitate to reach out to the agency, jurors doubt the testimony of FBI agents, and public safety suffers.
What is the remedy? The FBI’s powers and mission are too broad. Congress can fix that. Congress created the agency by statute, and increased its powers under the USA Patriot Act, after the attack on 9/11. The agency’s snooping powers — domestic surveillance to protect national security — should be removed from the FBI’s law enforcement duties, and located elsewhere in the executive branch. That will keep the FBI’s dirty tricks from destroying our fair elections.
Betsy McCaughey is a former lieutenant governor of New York.