The punditocracy breathlessly focuses on the appearance of fired FBI Director James Comey before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, declaring that not since Watergate has there been such must-watch testimony. The expectation, never explicitly declared but always hinted at, is that Comey will start a long, hot summer of damaging revelations that will lead to President Donald Trump’s resignation or impeachment. Most elite media personalities, many of whom have been personally maligned by Trump at some point since he launched his campaign for president on June 16, 2015, will be satisfied if their work contributes to Trump’s departure from office, whether voluntarily or by removal. Comey has become a bit of a white knight, riding in to save the republic with his copious memoranda and polished rhetorical skills.
By association, the FBI itself has become the darling of Trump’s opponents. But this powerful, secretive federal police force, this domestic spy agency, has a long, dark and often violent history of suppressing dissent in the United States. It would be a shame to have Comey testify under oath and leave unasked important questions about FBI misconduct—both historical and up to this very day.
Four questions that the senators might consider asking Mr. Comey include:
1. How far-reaching is the FBI’s surveillance of journalists?
Donald Trump’s bombastic assaults on the press are, at least, conducted in the open, usually from one of his campaign-style rallies or on Twitter. His attacks are vile and need to be challenged, and stopped. But the FBI wields enormous power to surveil and effectively censor journalists by issuing National Security Letters (NSLs). The Electronic Frontier Foundation calls NSLs “one of the most frightening and invasive” powers of the USA Patriot Act. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James Risen wrote in The New York Times, “Under Mr. Obama, the Justice Department and the F.B.I. have spied on reporters.” Risen should know—he was one of those pursued. He is now concerned that Trump has the same powers. Trump allegedly suggested to Comey that reporters who publish leaks should be imprisoned.
2. Why did the FBI label nonviolent water protectors at Standing Rock, North Dakota, possible domestic terrorists? What about the FBI’s similar infiltration of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter?
One of the most significant public protests in decades happened along a lonely stretch of highway on Standing Rock Sioux tribal land that was confiscated by the U.S. government, in violation of signed treaties. In February, The Guardian reported that “multiple officers within the FBI’s joint terrorism taskforce [JTTF] have attempted to contact at least three people tied to the Standing Rock ‘water protector’ movement.” The report added that “all three contacts were made in recent weeks after Trump’s inauguration,” while Comey was in charge. Subsequent leaks reported by The Intercept revealed that private paramilitary firm TigerSwan was hired to infiltrate and disrupt the anti-pipeline movement, labeling the nonviolent activists as “insurgents.” Comey and the FBI need to answer for this violation of First Amendment activity, and similar intrusions into the Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street movements.
3. Regarding the FBI’s illegal COINTELPRO suppression of dissent in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, how many of those targeted who are still incarcerated, such as American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier, and the many imprisoned former Black Panthers, were imprisoned based on FBI misconduct?
The FBI conducted a sophisticated, campaign against dissent in the U.S., under the corrupt leadership of J. Edgar Hoover. Peace activists, labor organizers and radical groups like the Black Panthers, the Young Lords and the American Indian Movement were targeted for arrest, imprisonment on false pretenses, infiltration and disruption by paid informants, and, in cases like Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in Chicago, assassination. Many victims of COINTELPRO still languish in prison. The FBI has spent decades denying criminality in the cases, while obstructing Freedom of Information Act requests for documents and actively opposing parole or clemency requests. James Comey should answer for ongoing injustices wrought by the FBI’s criminal past.
4. Finally, where do you think we would be, as a country, if the FBI hadn’t targeted Martin Luther King Jr., with its unrelenting campaign of surveillance, intimidation and harassment, which very likely contributed to the climate of hate that led to his assassination?
Perhaps the darkest chapter in FBI history was its campaign to deter and damage the work of Martin Luther King Jr. Hoover called King “the most notorious liar in the country,” and actually tried to convince King to commit suicide. Comey knows more than most about the FBI’s active disruption of dissent in the U.S., and should reveal all he knows.
The Senate’s hearing with James Comey, and, no doubt, the many hearings to come in Congress and under former FBI Director Robert Mueller’s special investigation, will focus on Trump and his associates. But the FBI has a long history of secrecy and oppression, which those fighting for justice and democracy should never forget.