In his statement on firing FBI Director James Comey, Trump wrote that “the FBI is one of our nation’s most cherished and respected institutions and today will mark a new beginning for our crown jewel of law enforcement.” But what is the actual history and role of this “cherished and respected” institution that Trump is now seeking to wrest under his control?
The FBI—the Federal Bureau of Investigation—is the U.S. government’s main nationwide police force and domestic spying agency. It employs nearly 35,000 people and has a proposed budget of $9.5 billion for Fiscal Year 2017.
Established in 1908, the FBI has been a key tool of violent suppression and control for the U.S. rulers to maintain their capitalist-imperialist system. The FBI has played a part—often the central part—in many of the most notorious and bloody attacks on people fighting against different forms of exploitation, oppression, and injustice under this system. Here are just a few examples.
* Starting in 1939 and continuing through World War 2, the FBI played a central role in compiling dossiers on and then rounding up 120,000 people of Japanese descent, who were sent to concentration (“internment”) camps.
Japanese American community leader Sadiji Shiogi is led away by FBI the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Credit: Lacy Sato, The Oregonian and the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center
* During the late 1940s and into the ’50s, the FBI played a key role in the anti-communist witch hunts and blacklists led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). They targeted members and supporters of the Communist Party USA, as well as other radicals and intellectuals. Many of those targeted by McCarthy, HUAC, and the FBI lost their jobs and were socially ostracized; some were imprisoned and, in the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed. Before, during, and after this period, the FBI spied on and kept extensive dossiers on prominent artists, writers, and intellectuals including Albert Einstein, Andy Warhol, Leonard Bernstein, Charlie Chaplin, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, James Baldwin, and many others.
* During the 1950s and into the ’60s, the FBI worked to weaken and suppress the gathering struggle of Black people for civil rights. When 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally lynched in Mississippi in 1955, FBI head J. Edgar Hoover called it an “alleged murder” and spent more energy investigating communists protesting this lynching than the lynching itself.
Later, the FBI attempted to discredit Martin Luther King Jr. by spying on and harassing him, spreading malicious rumors, and taking other “countermeasures.” They even sent him an “anonymous” letter threatening to reveal details about his private life and suggesting that he kill himself in order to avoid scandal. In fact, given the FBI’s vast spying apparatus and conscious policy of fomenting splits and violent conflicts between groups, it is very likely that, at a minimum, the FBI was well aware of the plans to assassinate MLK (and Malcolm X before him in 1965). When MLK was assassinated in 1968, 12 or 14 government agents were packed into a firehouse less than 150 feet away, among other suspicious circumstances.
* In the course of the 1960s and early ’70s, the FBI—working closely with the “red squads” of local police departments—conducted a massive secret campaign against political opposition through its COINTELPRO (short for Counterintelligence Program) operations. The program targeted groups and individuals who were resisting the U.S. government’s many crimes in this country and around the world. It especially targeted those who opposed the oppression of Black people. A major focus of COINTELPRO was harassing, railroading, and outright murdering leaders in the Black Liberation movement, and one of its main targets was the Black Panther Party. This included collaborating with the Chicago police in the 1969 assassination of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. The FBI planted informants in the Chicago Black Panther chapter, including one who became Hampton’s bodyguard. The FBI even wrote a fake “anonymous” letter to the leader of the Black P. Stone Nation street organization to lie that the Panthers were trying to kill him, hoping to incite them to attack Hampton.
The FBI collaborated with the Chicago police in the murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. The cops stood over Fred Hampton as he lay sleeping and put two bullets in his brain at close range. Above, Fred Hampton’s bed after his murder. Photo: Paul Sequeira
* In 1973, hundreds of Native Americans and supporters occupied the village of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to demand an end to the violent U.S. government suppression against the American Indian Movement (AIM) and others on the reservation. The FBI was among the heavily armed federal forces that surrounded Wounded Knee, and the courageous fighters held off the government forces for 73 days. After the siege, the FBI and the U.S. government unleashed a barrage of vicious attacks against the people of Pine Ridge. After two FBI agents were killed during a raid on an AIM camp in 1975, the FBI was deeply involved in the framing, persecution, and imprisonment of Native American leader Leonard Peltier, who remains a political prisoner to this day.
Leonard Peltier FBI Wanted Poster
* FBI surveillance files from 1975 included minute-by-minute surveillance of Bob Avakian (BA) and others in the Revolutionary Union, the forerunner of the Revolutionary Communist Party, and a photo of his house. In a 1971 note to his subordinates, the FBI director at the time said about BA, “This is the kind of extremists I want to go after HARD and with innovation.” One particular FBI agent drew up a diagram of BA’s house—a diagram similar to the type supplied by an FBI informant to the Chicago police to enable them to carry out the 1969 murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. Much of this is documented in BA’s memoir, From Ike to Mao and Beyond.
* The FBI’s role in suppressing opposition continues on many fronts right up to today. The FBI and the National Security Agency (NSA) have secretly collected massive amounts of phone and internet data on millions of people in the U.S. and are seeking to expand their spying. In 2016, then-FBI head James Comey condemned the videotaping of police murders by citizen journalists, claiming it prevented the police from doing their jobs.
The point here isn’t, “Who cares, let Trump have the FBI.” The point is that, with all that the FBI has been and is about, Trump’s firing of Comey must be opposed as part of demanding that the whole regime be driven out because his attempt to bring the FBI fully under his thumb represents a leap toward consolidating the fascist regime’s hold on power. If they succeed, that would greatly escalate this system’s horrors and crimes against people, even beyond these past outrages.