2016 Election, FBI, Montana

Round Up the Usual Suspects…


       “Amusing thing about Comey debacle is that there were still Ds (and now Rs) who are delusional enough to imagine the FBI might be apolitical.”

John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation


Many Democrats are shocked and many Republicans gleeful at the news that Hillary Clinton’s emails, thanks to a letter sent by the director of the FBI to several members of Congress, have again surfaced as a big issue at the 11th hour of the presidential campaign.

The Clinton campaign termed the public disclosure of the new information, which apparently had not yet been seen by the FBI and may or may not be relevant to Clinton’s ongoing email problems, was “inappropriate and unprecedented.

Inappropriate perhaps, unprecedented hardly.

FBI Director Comey
FBI Director Comey

At the time FBI director James Comey wrote his letter to Congress exposing the need to investigate emails found on the laptop of a Clinton aide who is married to a creepy former Congressman under investigation in an unrelated matter (involving sex, of course) the Bureau had not received a search warrant to even look at the laptop in question.

Cries of foul have dominated the news cycle, interspersed with shouts of “lock her up” and official hand wringing that the FBI has violated its own standards stipulating the avoidance of injecting itself into the last stages of a political campaign.

American Myth: The FBI is Above Politics 

Whatever your views of Clinton’s email habits or the propriety of the FBI director going public with scant information about what might or might not be involved in the emails on aide Huma Abedin’s creepy husband’s laptop you should disabuse yourself of the notion that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has ever been “above” politics.

Politics is baked into the DNA of “the Bureau” and has been since a young J. Edgar Hoover tried to smear a United States senator who was investigating the Department of Justice in the 1920s.

Young J. Edgar Hoover
Young J. Edgar Hoover

“Hoover stands at the center of the American century like a statue encrusted in grime,” Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Tim Weiner wrote in his meticulously researched book Enemies – A History of the FBI.

“Hoover was not a monster,” Weiner said. “He was an American Machiavelli…a masterful manipulator of public opinion. He practiced political warfare and secret statecraft in pursuit of national security, often at the expense of morality.” Hoover ran the Bureau for 48 years, intimidated six presidents and used and abused power in the name of national security. Hoover’s name is on the side of the building in Washington, D.C. that houses the organization he built. His DNA is the FBI.

As we approach the end of the worst presidential campaign in my lifetime – I don’t say that lightly – Americans cling, at least some of us do, to a belief that the professed standards of American life and American institutions is really the norm, but occasionally we are forced to confront that the “standards” often don’t meet the reality of what is actually happening.

The Art of the Political Smear…

The American image of the FBI is the upright Eliot Ness (who was actually a prohibition agent) rounding up the bad guys, gunning down Dillinger and more recently battling terrorism. That’s the standard. The historical reality is something altogether different. And before you conclude that I’m issuing a blanket indictment of the FBI and everything its ever done, I’m not.

The history, however, does point to a law enforcement agency that from its earliest days has been deeply enmeshed in the country’s politics, often in extremely unsavory ways. The current director is a product of that culture and his violation of the “norms” associated with law enforcement investigations is of a piece with the history of the agency he leads. Some examples.

FBI critic Max Lowenthal
FBI critic Max Lowenthal

In the early 1950s a long-time critic of the FBI, Max Lowenthal, a brilliant attorney who conducted Congressional investigations and advised Harry Truman, published a book entitled simply The Federal Bureau of Investigation. As scathing indictments go Lowenthal’s book, carefully researched and largely based on written records, was pretty tame stuff even as it asked serious and important questions that amazingly remain pertinent today.

Lowenthal asked, for example, to what extent “a federal police agency is needed for the curbing of crime,” what the proper functions of such an agency might be, and what in an open society are “the possibilities and methods of controlling the police agency.”

Perhaps Lowenthal’s most telling question – remember he was writing nearly 70 years ago – hangs unanswered and ominous over the last days of this awful campaign: what is the “impact of a central police force on American society?”

Here’s what the FBI did to Max Lowenthal.

Knowing that his book on the Bureau was about to be published, Hoover, working with the leadership of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), saw to it that Lowenthal was denounced on the House floor. His publisher was pressured to abandon or at least not promote the book.

Then, just as the book finally went on sale, Lowenthal was subpoenaed by HUAC to answer question about his alleged associations with various leftist or Communist individuals or groups.  Lowenthal testified, under oath, in a private session that under committee rules was to remain confidential. Of course it didn’t remain out of public view, but was leaked to newspaper reporters almost certainly by the FBI.

There was nothing incriminating in Lowenthal’s testimony, but Hoover and Bureau had achieved their objective, linking the lawyer and civil libertarian with the on-going Communist witch-hunt that would eventually vault Joe McCarthy to national prominence. What better way to discredit a FBI critic that to suggest he was a Commie and, of course, Lowenthal was Jewish which made him doubly suspicious.

Lowenthal’s book never became the best seller it might or should have been, his impeccable reputation was sullied in a thousand newspapers and, of course, Hoover stayed on the job until Richard Nixon’s administration.

King, and the Klan and Mark Felt…

The FBI had a long-running fight with Dr. King
The FBI had a long-running fight with Dr. King

American history is replete with other examples: the FBI spied on Dr. Martin Luther King and threatened to expose his ex-marital affairs, the Church Committee in the 1970s exposed the Bureau’s domestic spying – a program called Cointelpro – on anti-war activists and civil rights advocates, FBI informants were implicated in Klu Klux Klan violence in Mississippi in the 1960s, including the murder of civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo.

And, of course, it was FBI deputy director Mark Felt who was Bob Woodward’s Watergate “deep throat,” a man whose leaks of information about Nixon’s embrace of corruption helped alter history. But its also worth remembering that Felt acted in part out of revenge, or something like revenge, after being passed over for the top job in the Bureau.

“Unprecedented?” Not at All…

One more example from the long history of the FBI proves that Director Comey’s letter to Congress which has roiled the last days of the campaign is not, as the Clinton camp has maintained, “unprecedented.”

In 1924, Montana Democratic Senator Burton K. Wheeler won Senate approval for a wide ranging investigation of alleged corruption at the U.S. Justice Department. Wheeler’s real target was Republican Attorney General Harry Daugherty, a close associate and political fixer for former President Warren Harding. Daugherty had stayed on as attorney general when Calvin Coolidge became president upon Harding’s death in 1923.

Montana Senator B.K. Wheeler. The FBI tried to frame him in 1924
Montana Senator B.K. Wheeler. The FBI tried to frame him in 1924

When Daugherty got wind of Wheeler’s investigation, coming on the heels as it did of an even more sensational probe of political corruption – the Teapot Dome oil leasing scandal – conducted by Montana’s other senator, Thomas J. Walsh, the attorney general dispatched Bureau agents to Montana to gather “dirt” on both senators. Hoover was an eager participant in the scheme even down to instructing agents on how they should file their field reports so as not to reveal that they were in Montana on a political fishing expedition.

With the help of a less-than-scrupulous U.S. Attorney in Montana, the Bureau’s agents concocted a story that Wheeler, an attorney, had improperly used his political office to enrich himself and a wealthy Montana client. A Montana grand jury – the foreman was a old political adversary of Wheeler’s – indicted the senator just as he was concluding his own investigation of the attorney general and just as he was about to join the third party Progressive ticket as the vice presidential candidate.

The Senate’s own investigation exonerated Wheeler, but the legal case went on for months, tarnishing Wheeler’s reputation, before a Montana jury returned a not guilty verdict. One juror joked that the jury would have returned its decision more quickly, but they were incensed enough with the government’s prosecution of the case that they took extra time in order to stick the feds with the cost of dinner.

Harry Daugherty was forced to resign and Wheeler’s investigation, while not producing a spectacular smoking gun did paint a stark picture of a fundamental unethical attorney general surrounded by a pack of unsavory cronies bent on enriching themselves in government service. Of course, Hoover escaped the blame and kept right on being Hoover.

New Yorker cartoon
New Yorker cartoon

Jim Comey, the FBI director, has gotten himself in a political pickle and if the Wall Street Journal’s reporting over the the weekend is to be believed he has also shredded his own credibility within the Bureau and ignited a vicious internal feud. Meanwhile, the FBI is leaking like a galvanized bucket hit by buckshot.

Maybe Comey was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t, but in one fell swoop he has, as J. Edgar Hoover did time and again, put another big, smudge mark on the Bureau.

Comey is learning an old lesson: it’s impossible to be above politics when  you act like everything is political. His job isn’t to avoid criticism, which he’s clearly failed to accomplish in any event, but rather to stay above the fray and maintain the credibility of a professional. Instead he’s taken the FBI – again – into a political swamp. It’s an old story.

You can, take your pick, be shocked or gleeful about Comey’s last minute letter, but you shouldn’t be surprised.