In the wake of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the FBI assumes an importance and influence it has not wielded since J. Edgar Hoover’s death in 1972. That is what makes today’s batch of stories from The Intercept, The FBI’s Secret Rules, based on a trove of long-sought confidential FBI documents, so critical: It shines a bright light on the vast powers of this law enforcement agency, particularly when it comes to its ability to monitor dissent and carry out a domestic war on terror, at the beginning of an era highly likely to be marked by vociferous protest and reactionary state repression.
When married to Trump’s clear disdain for domestic dissent — he venerates strongman authoritarians, called for a crackdown on free press protections, and suggested citizenship-stripping for flag-burning — the authorities vested in the FBI with regard to domestic political activism are among the most menacing threats Americans face. Trump is also poised to expand the powers of law enforcement to surveil populations deemed suspicious and deny their rights in the name of fighting terrorism, as he has already done with his odious restrictions on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. Understanding how the federal government’s law enforcement agency interprets the legal limits on its own powers is, in this context, more essential than ever. Until now, however, the rules governing the FBI have largely been kept secret.
After Congress’s 1976 Church Committee investigated the excesses of Hoover’s FBI, in particular the infamous COINTELPRO program — in which agents targeted and subverted any political groups the government deemed threatening, including anti-war protesters, black nationalists, and civil rights activists — a series of reforms were enacted to rein in the FBI’s domestic powers. As The Intercept and other news outlets have amply documented, in the guise of the war on terror the FBI has engaged in a variety of tactics that are redolent of the COINTELPRO abuses — including, for example, repeatedly enticing innocent Muslims into fake terror schemes concocted by the bureau’s own informants. What The Intercept’s reporting on this new trove of documents shows is how the FBI has quietly transformed the system of rules and restraints put in place after the scandals of the ’70s, opening the door for a new wave of civil liberties violations.
…the bureau’s agents can decide that a campus organization is not “legitimate” and therefore not entitled to robust protections for free speech; dig for derogatory information on potential informants without any basis for believing they are implicated in unlawful activity; use a person’s immigration status to pressure them to collaborate and then help deport them when they are no longer useful; conduct invasive “assessments” without any reason for suspecting the targets of wrongdoing; demand that companies provide the bureau with personal data about their users in broadly worded national security letters without actual legal authority to do so; fan out across the internet along with a vast army of informants, infiltrating countless online chat rooms; peer through the walls of private homes; and more. The FBI offered various justifications of these tactics to our reporters. But the documents and our reporting on them ultimately reveal a bureaucracy in dire need of greater transparency and accountability.
One of the documents contains an alarming observation about the nation’s police forces, even as perceived by the FBI. Officials of the bureau were so concerned that many of these police forces are linked to, at times even populated by, overt white nationalists and white supremacists, that they have deemed it necessary to take that into account in crafting policies for sharing information with them. This news arrives in an ominous context, as the nation’s law enforcement agencies are among the few institutional factions in the U.S. that supported Trump, and they did so with virtual unanimity. Trump ran on a platform of unleashing an already out-of-control police — “I will restore law and order to our country,” he thundered when accepting the Republican nomination — and now the groups most loyal to Trump are those that possess a state monopoly over the use of force, many of which are infused with racial animus.