Its constant abuses, of which Michael Flynn is only the latest, show what a failed Progressive Era institution it really is.Former FBI Director James Comey speaks at Harvard Kennedy School on February 24, 2020 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)
Fittingly, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was founded by a grandnephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, Attorney General Charles J. Bonaparte, during the Progressive Era. Bonaparte was a Harvard-educated crusader. As the FBI’s official history states, “Many progressives, including (Teddy) Roosevelt, believed that the federal government’s guiding hand was necessary to foster justice in an industrial society.”
Progressives viewed the Constitution as a malleable document, a take-it-or-leave-it kind of thing. The FBI inherited that mindset of civil liberties being optional. In their early years, with the passage of the Espionage and Sedition Acts during World War I, the FBI came into its own by launching a massive domestic surveillance campaign and prosecuting war dissenters. Thousands of Americans were arrested, prosecuted, and jailed simply for voicing opposition.
One could write a long history of FBI abuses and failures, from Latin America to Martin Luther King to Japanese internment. But just consider a handful of their more recent cases. The FBI needlessly killed women and children at Waco and Ruby Ridge. Anyone who has lived anywhere near Boston knows of the Bureau’s staggering corruption during gangster Whitey Bulger’s reign of terror. The abuses in Boston were so terrific that radio host Howie Carr declared that the FBI initials really stood for “Famous But Incompetent.” And then there’s Richard Jewell, the hero security guard who was almost railroaded by zealous FBI agents looking for a scalp after they failed to solve the Atlanta terrorist bombing.
But it was 9/11 that really sealed the FBI’s ignominious track record. The lavishly funded agency charged with preventing terrorism somehow missed the attacks, despite their awareness of numerous Saudi nationals taking flying lessons around the country. Immediately after 9/11, the nation was gripped by the anthrax scare, and once again the FBI’s inability to solve the case caused them to try to railroad an innocent man, Stephen Hatfill.
With 9/11, the FBI also began targeting troubled Americans by handing them bomb materials, arresting them, and then holding a press conference to tell the country that they had prevented a major terrorist attack—a fake attack that they themselves had planned.
9/11 also opened the floodgates to domestic surveillance and all the FISA abuses that most recently led to the prosecution of Michael Flynn. I am no fan of Flynn and his hawkish anti-Islamic views, but the way he was framed and then prosecuted really does shock the conscience. After Jewell, Hatfill, Flynn, and so many others, it’s time to ask whether the culture of the FBI has become similar to that of Stalin’s secret police, i.e. “show me the man and I’ll show you the crime.”
I am no anti-law enforcement libertarian. In a previous career, I had the privilege to work with agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and they were some of the bravest people I have ever met. And while the DEA can be overly aggressive (just ask anyone who has been subjected to federal asset forfeiture), it is inconceivable that its agents would plot a coup d’état against the president of the United States. The DEA sees their job as catching drug criminals; they stay in their lane.
For the FBI, merely catching bad guys is too mundane. As one can tell from the sanctimonious James Comey, the culture at the Bureau holds grander aspirations. Comey’s book is titled A Higher Loyalty, as if the FBI reports only to the Almighty. They see themselves as progressive guardians of the American Way, intervening whenever and wherever they see democracy in danger. No healthy republic should have a national police force with this kind of culture. There are no doubt many brave and patriotic FBI agents, but there is also no doubt they have been very badly led.
This savior complex led them to aggressively pursue the Russiagate hoax. Their chasing of ghosts should make it clear that the FBI does not stay in their lane. While the nation’s elite colleges and tech companies are crawling with Chinese spies who are literally stealing our best ideas, the chief of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Section, Peter Strzok, spent his days trying to frame junior aides in the Trump campaign.
Some conservatives have called for FBI Director Christopher Wray to be fired. This would accomplish nothing, as the problem is not one man but an entire culture. One possible solution is to break up the FBI into four or five agencies, with one responsible for counterintelligence, one for counterterrorism, one for complex white-collar crime, one for cybercrimes, and so on. Smaller agencies with more distinctive missions would not see themselves as national saviors and could be held accountable for their effectiveness at very specific jobs. It would also allow federal agents to develop genuine expertise rather than, as the FBI regularly does, shifting agents constantly from terrorism cases to the war on drugs to cybercrime to whatever the political class’s latest crime du jour might be.
Such a reform would not end every abuse of federal law enforcement, and all these agencies would need to be kept on a short leash for the sake of civil liberties. It would, however, diminish the ostentatious pretension of the current FBI that they are the existential guardians of the republic. In a republic, the people and their elected leaders are the protectors of their liberties. No one else.
William S. Smith is senior research fellow and managing director at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America. His new book is Democracy and Imperialism: Irving Babbitt and Warlike Democracies (2019).