How conservatives learned to hate the FBI
The aggressive Republican attacks on the FBI are the latest sign – if one were needed – that President Donald Trump has upended the longstanding norms of Washington, as he and his allies in Congress seek to undermine the one institution of government that conservatives have typically seen as a bastion of integrity and law-and-order.
Since at least the dawn of the New Deal, Republicans have excoriated any number of government entities – the Tennessee Valley Authority, the State Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration – as woolly-headed, hyper-regulatory and riddled with liberals — or worse.
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But for decades — from J. Edgar Hoover’s 47-year reign, through the McCarthy era, the civil unrest of the 1960s and right down to the Clinton impeachment – the FBI and the GOP have almost always been in sympathy, and often in sync. Not even at the height of the Watergate scandal, when the bureau’s investigation was imperiling Richard Nixon’s presidency, did Republican loyalists mount any serious effort to sow doubt about its work.
Republicans have unleashed a furious firestorm of criticism against the bureau. Some have called the just released House GOP memo that alleges FBI improprieties in obtaining a surveillance warrant for the onetime Trump campaign adviser Carter Page "deeply troubling " "earth shaking," "worse than Watergate," "absolutely shocking," "jaw-dropping," and, as Trump himself pronounced it on Friday, "a disgrace."
Whatever the merits of those claims – and there is ample reason to doubt them — the Republican assault on the FBI amounts to an obvious and concerted effort to deflect attention from the ongoing special counsel’s investigation into Russian meddling and possible collusion with the Trump campaign in the 2016 election. But at a broader level, the GOP’s campaign to undermine public trust in the FBI – and even in the Justice Department itself – is so far beyond the historical norm as to merit special notice.
“What makes this a very dangerous moment for the FBI’s independence is that for the first time, they’re being attacked by both the legislative branch and the executive branch,” said the historian Timothy Naftali, a former director of the Nixon presidential library. “They’ve been targeted by presidents, but had the support of Congress. And they’ve been targeted by Congress, but were supported by the president. Now they’re being attacked by both branches at the same time, and that’s unprecedented.”
From Hoover’s anti-Communist collaboration with the young Nixon in the Alger Hiss spy case, to the documented skepticism of agents in the bureau’s New York field office about Hillary Clinton’s honesty, the FBI has been anything but a hotbed of liberalism. In 1978, when Jimmy Carter became the first Democratic president to appoint an FBI director under the new congressionally mandated limit of a 10-year term, he chose a respected Republican Federal judge, William Webster.
The GOP’s current attacks on the bureau are all the more remarkable, because while the FBI’s ranks are more diverse than in Hoover’s day – when the director famously insisted that arresting agents always wear hats and white shirts – its workforce is still disproportionately white, male and conservative in its basic values. The FBI may no longer recruit so many of its agents from Fordham and St. John’s and Holy Cross, but unlike the CIA, which has always been heavy with Ivy League types, the bureau retains the stolid, straight-arrow quality that endeared it not only to Republicans but to working class and ethnic Democrats, too.
“It seems strange on the face of it,” said Geoffrey Kabaservice, the author of “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party.” But it seems to me really more of a confirmation that the Republican Party is now the conservative party, completely taken over by the conservative movement. So there is no deep-seated loyalty to the FBI or any institution. The conservative movement has long trafficked in the notion that any branch of government is a threat, so the FBI could be seen as even more of a threat, because it is a kind of internal police force.”
For decades under Hoover’s iron hand, the bureau was all but untouchable, both because the director intimidated politicians from the president on down with his voluminous files of often scurrilous personal information, and because of the meticulous public image that he cultivated in close collaboration with Hollywood and the media. Whether in “The FBI Story,” a 1959 film starring James Stewart, or “The F.B.I,” the long-running 1960s television series starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (and based on real case files), the bureau was always on the side of the angels, and Hoover’s veto power over the smallest details was total.
The director Mervyn LeRoy would recall that every actor and technician on “The FBI Story” had to be approved by the bureau, down to the lowliest bit player. “They made me shoot a sequence over, a crowd shot, because one man in the crowd had to be removed,” he wrote in his memoirs. “They never did tell me what they had against the man, who was just an extra, but we had to do it all over again.”
Revelations in the 1970s about the bureau’s past abuses – from its wiretapping of Martin Luther King to other domestic spying efforts and disinformation campaigns against the anti-Vietnam war movement – badly tarnished the FBI’s image, but mostly with liberals. A bipartisan congressional coalition supported reforms in the agency’s governance, and the Republican establishment solidly supported Bill Webster and his successors. Bill Clinton privately loathed the director he appointed, Louis Freeh, and believed Freeh had a vendetta against him. But he trod carefully in his public criticism and didn’t dare to fire him.
Not until James Comey, who sparked outrage across the political spectrum by first clearing – and then re-investigating – Hillary Clinton’s handling of her private email server did a modern FBI director become such a figure of scorn. The seeds of the current campaign against the bureau – call it the Comey Corollary – were planted then, and are bearing their strange fruit.
“The attacks on the FBI are already working,” said the Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer. “Regardless of what happens next, the news has now been filled with sordid accusations and stories about corrupt FBI agents, that they will sink into the minds of many Republicans and even Democrats who are paying attention. These Republican attacks can possibly achieve the same kind of effect on law enforcement institutions, as Republican attacks on the social safety net or regulations like OSHA in the eras of Reagan and Bush. In other words, nobody or nothing in government can be trusted.”
But there are profound dangers for the Republicans, too. Unlike some other quarters of the government, intelligence and law enforcement agencies have power to strike back. After all, they know the secrets, and have been known to use them. At this moment, no one knows more about what really did or didn’t happen between the Russians and the Trump campaign than the FBI agents working on Robert Mueller’s investigation. That may make the bureau a tempting target for this White House, but it makes it a formidable adversary as well.
February 3, 2018 at 01:02PM