A book published by Pultizer Prize-winning author Tim Weiner titled Enemies: A History of the FBI and out for a month and a half now continues to attract attention, as it is one of the most definitive accounts of the history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) ever produced. The author and his book were recently featured on an FDL Book Salon.
Weiner masterfully tells the story of J. Edgar Hoover’s rise to prominence in the FBI and the trouble experienced after Hoover-era and Watergate scandals were exposed. Then he charts the evolution of the FBI under director Robert Mueller and expresses great confidence that Mueller will go down in history as the best director ever.
Multiple acts of misconduct and abuses of power are seemingly glossed over in order to promote a narrative that Mueller challenged President George W. Bush enough to earn him a place in US history as possibly the first director to get the balance between security and liberty right. Weiner has had multiple opportunities to address Mueller’s record in op-eds or during television appearances. But, rather than address the post-9/11 history that most civil libertarians know—the history of the FBI’s expansion into an even more massive domestic spying agency since the September 11th attacks, he has vigorously defended Mueller. For example, in a recent POLITICO op-ed he writes, “When Mueller steps down, it will be with a well-deserved measure of glory, celebrated as a man who worked in a time of constant danger to keep us both safe and free.”
Weiner has a lot of power to shape the public’s understanding of an agency that even he acknowledges has been “bending and breaking the law in the name of national security” since it began to operate in 1908. However, he is for some reason willing to look past abuses and law-breaking the FBI has committed in the past decade and hold Mueller in high esteem. He is also willing to overlook the possible implications posed by Mueller staying on after his ten-year term expired. And so, he deserves to be challenged on this notion that Mueller is the best ever.
First, the argument that Mueller was the best is made because Mueller had the FBI open a file titled “War Crimes” and began to report what was happening with CIA and military interrogations “at Abu Ghraib and the CIA’s black sites in 2003 and 2004.” He also had a problem with the constitutionality of Bush’s warrantless and unconstitutional surveillance program and drafted a resignation. According to Weiner’s POLITICO op-ed, Bush understood the implication if Mueller resigned, and, though it is not stated what Bush did to make the surveillance program legal, an adjustment was made so Mueller would continue his job as FBI director.
The issue here is the investigation into “War Crimes” didn’t really go anywhere. The prison interrogations, as Weiner notes, were outside of Mueller’s “jurisdiction.” He backed off. So, apparently it is Weiner’s belief that Mueller’s threat to resign over Bush’s surveillance program was what led the FBI to begin to strike a balance between security and liberty.
During the time that Mueller has been FBI director, he has gone before Congress and concealed information on the true extent of torture and abuse of detainees in Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan by the CIA and the military. The FBI has employed warrantless GPS tracking, and, in the aftermath of a Supreme Court decision declaring warrantless GPS tracking unconstitutional, suggested America would be at greater risk of terrorism now that the FBI couldn’t engage in this lawless practice.
Mueller has concealed abuses of the PATRIOT Act. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) noted in a secrecy report published in July of last year that, when Congress met to debate whether to extend provisions of the PATRIOT Act due to expire in 2005, Mueller told a key intelligence committee allegations of abuse of the PATRIOT Act could not be “substantiated.” Congress had no way to verify this statement and, absent evidence of abuse, reauthorized the PATRIOT Act in 2006. Simultaneously, an audit of the FBI’s use of National Security Letters (NSLs), which allow the FBI to force credit card companies, financial institutions, and internet service providers to give confidential records about customers’ subscriber information, phone number, email addresses and the websites they’ve visited, was ordered. The audit uncovered “thousands of violations of law and policy.”
In March 2009, provisions of the PATRIOT Act were once again set to expire. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) asked the FBI for recommendations on reauthorizing the provisions. Mueller testified on the “lone wolf” provision, which gives the FBI the power to investigate “lone terrorists” who have no connection to foreign nations or organizations suspected of terrorism. Mueller called the provision “tremendously helpful” and said it was “beneficial and should be reenacted.” But, the Department of Justice later admitted that this provision, which civil liberties groups have said could lead to protesters being subjected to investigations for domestic terrorism, had never been used so there was little reason for the provision to be extended.
Last year, the FISA court approved over 1,500 FBI requests to electronically monitor suspects. The FBI obtained permission to spy on at least 14,000 people. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) has warned the FBI is using secret interpretations of the PATRIOT Act to justify a greater authority to collect information. And, in June, the FBI further expanded its power by issuing new guidelines that grant the agency the authority to conduct undocumented database searches, lie detector tests, trash searches and expand the use of surveillance squads. It has claimed more power to investigate public officials, scholars and journalists and approved rules that would provide more freedom for agents and informants to not disclose participation in organizations that are targets of FBI surveillance.
In 2006, the ACLU exposed FBI spying on political activists, which included the “surveillance of a peaceful anti-war protest by the Thomas Merton Center for Peace and Justice in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.” The FBI under Mueller made up a story to escape criticism. Mueller claimed the surveillance had been “related to a separate, validly-approved terrorism investigation.” Sen. Leahy (who applauds Mueller’s commitment to ensuring that the FBI adheres to the values and freedoms that Americans hold dear), asked for documentation of this claim. The FBI was unable to produce any evidence so the story collapsed. Then, on the record, FBI officials made up a second story. The Inspector General tried to investigate who was making up these stories, but the FBI refused to turn over emails so a proper investigation could be conducted.
Despite a main part of the history in Weiner’s book being the FBI’s commitment to destroying America’s “enemies, foreign and domestic, real and imagined,” he glosses over the continued targeting of political activism. Moreover, there is no mention of the fact that in September 2010 twenty-three antiwar, labor and international solidarity activists were subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury in Chicago. The activists from Chicago, the Twin Cities in Minnesota and other areas in the Midwest, had their homes raided by the FBI. Agents seized documents, cell phones, storage disks, computers and children’s artwork. Search warrants and subpoenas showed the FBI was targeting the activists for evidence that they had provided “material support to terrorism.”
Months later, on January 12, 2011, targeted activists announced an agent named “Karen Sullivan” infiltrated the Twin Cities Antiwar Committee (AWC) to monitor the group’s organizing efforts for the Republican National Convention. And, later in May, a Los Angeles County Sheriff SWAT team, accompanied by FBI agents, raided long-time Chicano activist Carlos Montes. They essentially looted his home taking his computer, cell phone, computer disks, photos and forty-four years worth of political activist files. Montes was arrested and questioned about his support for antiwar activists raided in the Midwest in September of last year.
One activist who was targeted, Sarah Smith, was under investigation for taking an “educational trip” to Israel and Palestine. While no person has been indicted yet, they each remain subjects of a federal grand jury investigation, which the FBI has had a key role in perpetuating.
Mueller has presided over an FBI that has engaged in the profiling of Muslims. The FBI has used the guise of “mosque outreach programs” to collect information on Muslims without probable cause. They also have produced anti-Muslim training material for agents. And the FBI has used entrapment schemes or “sting operations” to target potential terrorists.
He has defended the use of entrapment schemes, which Weiner admits in his book have produced concocted cases. Mueller has had no problem with cases like the Newburgh 4, where the FBI helped four individuals, three of whom are now in jail for twenty-five years, plan and almost commit a terror attack. He has found the conning of poor and underprivileged Americans, including people that are usually mentally unstable or prone to fanaticism, legitimate, even though it is known to alienate Muslim communities.
This alienation extends to Mueller’s defense of the shooting of Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah in Detroit by FBI agents in October 2009. During a House Judiciary Committee hearing in March of this year, Representative John Conyers (D-MI) asked Mueller about the shooting saying the community he represents was still reeling from the extrajudicial killing. He told Mueller there was an “undercurrent of criticism about some of the undercover informants of the FBI stirring up trouble in the Arab American community.” Mueller responded by defending the FBI’s outreach to Muslim, Arab and Sikh Americans. And, he defended the FBI’s murder of Abdullah saying, “I think everyone who has looked at that incident believes that the response was appropriate under the circumstances.”
Despite Mueller’s record, Weiner concludes, “No matter who is elected in November, Mueller will endure. President Barack Obama requested, and Congress agreed, that he would extend his 10-year term until September 2013. He has said more than once he will not be the man who, upon retirement, accepts a medal of honor, with his head bowed, while a bitter rebuke runs through his mind: Congratulations, you won the war on terror, but we lost our civil liberties.” He has even suggested building a memorial in Mueller’s honor would be a “very good thing.”
The targeting of Muslims over the past decade is a clear and potent example of going after “imagined” enemies. Yet, the extent to which Mueller has had the FBI pursue imaginary terrorists, including by manufacturing of terrorists for arrests that can make headlines, does not seem to bother Weiner.
The praise for Mueller might lead one to conclude that Weiner is setting the bar very low for FBI directors. Certainly, in comparison, it seems the incredible antics and abuses of power Hoover committed have not been committed by Mueller on the same scale. But, if the last ten years are an example of the FBI getting the balance between security and liberty right, that means all the conduct and concealment by Mueller and the FBI listed above is legitimate.
Moreover, the Church Committee set a ten-year limit on FBI director terms after COINTELPRO abuses were exposed in the 1970s. This limit was designed to prevent directors from gaining too much power to bend and break the law. If Mueller was truly about protecting civil liberties and getting the balance between security and liberty right, he would have refused to extend his term and helped the Obama administration find a replacement.
The man, who Weiner thinks is the best FBI director in US history, may have done a solid job administratively. Though Mueller seems more concerned with how he is portrayed in history (like whether he is seen as being like past directors who violated laws), it may be true that he cares about civil liberties. Unfortunately, the record doesn’t quite reflect this passion. COINTELPRO-style operations have been approved while he has been in charge. And, warrantless surveillance still happens. It just, now more than ever in history, is legitimate to Congress and some forms have been legalized.