The Great Republican Revolution took a brief trip to the benches last summer when committees in both House and Senate paused in their deliberations to burrow into the federal atrocities at Waco and Ruby Ridge. The resulting hearings were by no means as much fun as the wind-down of the O. J. Simpson trial, and the House investigation of the Waco massacre in particular was fatally marred by the transparent partisanism that the Republicans who ran it seem incapable of disguising.
Yet the Stupid Party was not unique in its zeal to score political points in the scrutiny of the mass murder of the Branch Davidians in 1993 and the slightly more selective slaughter visited upon the family of Randy Weaver a few months before. Perhaps the lowest point in the Weaver hearings was plumbed when one of California’s Democratic senators, Diane Feinstein, quizzed Mr. Weaver as to whether he had any swastikas or Nazi armbands in his possession. The inescapable intent of her question was to suggest that if one does possess such paraphernalia, then it’s all right for the FBI to shoot one’s wife and son. Mr. Weaver responded by asking if he could go to the bathroom, and who can blame him? The crudity of the question and its purpose ought to overcome all citizens with an uncontrollable sensation of nausea.
The hearings on Waco were remarkable chiefly because of their conspicuous failure even to ask, let alone try to answer, some of the central questions that the ATF’s original “dynamic entry” raised, while in the investigation of the Ruby Ridge matter, chairman Arlen Specter ruled out from the first any inquiry into the apparent internal cover-up with which the FBI and the Justice Department tried to hide the decisions that led to the bloodletting. Yet, for all their flaws, blunders, and perhaps even complicity in suppressing the truth about these two infamies, the hearings did exert at least one salutary effect. If nothing else, they seem to have halted the efforts of the Clinton administration, abetted by the Republican leadership, to convert the FBI into a full-fledged American Gestapo.
Not long before the hearings on Waco and Ruby Ridge, the administration’s “counter-terrorism” legislation, drafted quickly and conveniently in the wake of the April 19th Oklahoma City bombing, slipped easily through the full Senate and the House Judiciary Committee with little opposition. The measures vastly enhanced the power of the FBI to wiretap telephone conversations, enlarged the role of the military forces in law enforcement, increased the “counter-terrorist” personnel of the Bureau, and (in the House version) defined as “terrorism” virtually any crime committed with a firearm. Since the Bureau has automatic jurisdiction in all terrorism cases and since every street mugging from Miami to Milwaukee would suddenly have graduated into a “terrorist incident,” the latter provision alone, which merrily passed the Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee by a vote of 23 to 12, would have effectively created the FBI as a national police force overriding local and state law enforcement.
Yet, despite the progress of the legislation in Congress, by autumn most lawmakers were beginning to feel as queasy as Mr. Weaver had during his interrogation by La Feinstein. In September, House Republican aides were telling The New York Times they could not bring the counter-terrorism legislation to the floor because they just didn’t have the votes, and the reason they didn’t, as an official of the ACLU remarked, was that “there is a suspicion about granting the FBI broader powers in light of Waco and Ruby Ridge.” The ACLU, in rare conjunction with gun owners rights groups like the National Rifle Association and the Gun Owners of America, played an important role in stopping the joint march of Republicans and Democrats alike toward even greater federal power.
But the use of the FBI for swelling the power of the federal leviathan is hardly new, and throughout this century — indeed, ever since the Bureau’s establishment under Theodore Roosevelt — that is exactly what the purpose of the Bureau has been. In the age of global war that has preoccupied this country for most of this century, that purpose was effectively hidden, and the good old ground of “national security” served to justify to (or conceal from) many Americans the gradual enlargement of federal police power. Now that the era of international conflict is concluded, however, the close relationship between the FBI and the imperial appetites of the leviathan become much more clear. But at the same time, just as national security elites are inventing new foreign enemies to justify further global adventures and the perpetuation of their power, so national law enforcement elites are looking for new rationales to justify the perpetuation and further enlargement of their own.
For all the legend of the “Right-wing” and “anti-Communist” character of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, the truth is that the Bureau and its functions are almost entirely the offspring of the Progressivist and New Deal ideologies of centralized governmental power and social reconstruction that have served to justify the leviathan state since the early twentieth century. Moreover, in the Progressive era under Roosevelt I as well as in the New Deal and Great Society eras of his successors, the Bureau played a major role in the political regimentation of American society and the outright repression of political resistance to the growth of the managerial state.
Roosevelt I created the Bureau of Investigation in 1908 explicitly for the purpose of disciplining political opponents of his federal land laws. In 1905, one such opponent, Senator Charles Fulton of Oregon, complained on the floor of the Senate that enforcement of the laws in his state had led to the incarceration of a good part of Oregon’s Republican Party, including his own colleague in the Senate. At that time, federal departments made use of the Secret Service to enforce laws within their jurisdiction, but Congress, alarmed at the repression with which TR visited his Western political rivals, passed a law forbidding the use of Secret Service agents outside the Treasury Department. In an effort to circumvent that law, Roosevelt then ordered his Attorney General, Charles Buonaparte (significantly, perhaps, the nephew of the Emperor Napoleon III), to establish a Bureau of Investigation within the Justice Department to allow him to pursue the enemies of federal restrictions on land use without congressional meddling.
Yet the FBI remained a minor federal agency until the New Deal era, when it began to acquire the legendary status it retained until the 1970s, and the modern FBI is very much a creature of the New Deal. While Coolidge’s Attorney General, Harlan Fisk Stone, had withdrawn the Bureau from the red-hunting that was always J. Edgar Hoover’s first love, the president who put the FBI back into the domestic security business was Franklin Roosevelt, and for decades a series of memoranda FDR wrote to Hoover remained one of the main bases of FBI authority in its massive domestic security operations.
Roosevelt II was principally interested in what he regarded as pro-Nazi activities in the 1930s as challenges to his interventionist foreign policy, but also in Communist activities, and he demanded from Hoover what a 1936 memorandum called systematic intelligence on “subversive activities in the United States, particularly Fascism and Communism . . . a broad picture of the general movement and its activities as may affect the economic and political life of the country.”
The memorandum was in fact a mandate for the permeation of all of American society by federal intelligence authorities, but especially for the politically motivated surveillance and intimidation of the critics of Roosevelt’s foreign policy. It was one thing for the FBI to investigate actual German government-sponsored political activities in the United States, but, using that as a cover, Roosevelt was able to extend FBI surveillance to non-Nazi and entirely domestic dissenters. That Roosevelt had no serious interest in resisting clandestine foreign interference in American politics in general is shown by his notorious collaboration, in violation of law and the Constitution, with secret British intelligence activities in the United States designed to promote pro-British sentiment and support Roosevelt’s foreign policy.
The New Deal, then, was a Great Leap Forward for the federal police power as well as for federally mandated investigations of political adversaries. The second such leap took place in the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson conscripted the Bureau for the blatant political intimidation of Southern resistance to the civil rights movement. Just as the New Deal Justice Department exploited John Dillinger and the other small-time regional bandits of the 1930s to justify increases in federal law enforcement power, so Lyndon Johnson exploited the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s.
It was Johnson’s goal to use Klan violence against civil rights workers as a justification of civil rights legislation, and he personally ordered FBI investigation of the kidnapping and murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964 and also of the Viola Liuzzo murder in 1965. Both investigations seem to have been dress rehearsals for the later shenanigans of the Bureau at Waco and Ruby Ridge. In the Liuzzo killing, one of the government’s main showcase horror stories about Southern resistance to integration, an FBI informant, Gary Rowe, actually took part in the murder and may actually have pulled the trigger of the gun that killed her, and Rowe may also have planted a bomb that killed four black children in a Birmingham church bombing in 1963. In the Mississippi kidnapping and murder case, the basis of the contemptible film Mississippi Burning, the FBI may have used a New York gangster, Gregory Scarpa, to threaten the life of one of the suspects to discover where the bodies were buried. But aside from these illegalities, the FBI crackdown on the Klan is significant for another reason as well.
FBI operations against the Klan grew out of the Bureau’s COINTELPRO operations, originally aimed at the Communist Party for the purpose of disrupting it as an organ of the hostile foreign power that controlled and funded it. Covert action aimed at the CP, and to some extent the New Left, could be justified on legitimate national security grounds, but no such rationale existed in the case of the Klan, a purely indigenous organization, most of the members of which were never involved in illegalities or violence. Moreover, the Klan was a political organization of no small importance that impeded the expansion of federal power and presented a political threat to Johnson and his Southern allies.
By 1965, the FBI had thoroughly infiltrated the Klan with some 2,000 informants, no less than 20 percent of the group’s total membership. The purpose of the infiltration was not to gain intelligence on illegal activities but rather explicitly to disrupt and destroy it as an effective organization. A memo from Hoover to FBI field agents of Sept. 2, 1964 made this clear: “The purpose of the program is to expose, disrupt and otherwise neutralize the activities of the various Klans and hate organizations, their leadership and adherents.” As Hoover’s biographer, Richard Gid Powers, writes, “For the first time . . . the Bureau’s counterintelligence techniques of harassment and disruption were being directed against groups that did not have, even tangentially or theoretically, contact with foreign intelligence or an international revolutionary movement.”
It was a simple matter for state-building demagogues like FDR and Lyndon Johnson to brand their political opponents as “Nazis” and “hate groups,” link mainstream critics to such “extremists,” and then enlist (and enlarge) federal power to spy on and disrupt any and all organized resistance to their own plans for centralization of power. The FBI was essential to their goals, since it effectively served as a means of disciplining and intimidating, if not actually repressing, resistance from the Right.
And exactly the same pattern emerges in the recent witch hunt for “terrorists.” The FBI’s own statistics show that between 1990 and 1994 there was a whopping total of 28 terrorist incidents in the United States, that only two of these can be ascribed to “Right-wing” groups, and that in 1994 there were no recorded domestic terrorist incidents at all. Yet the Bureau and the Clinton administration invoke the non-existent “terrorist threat” as a rationale for granting even broader powers to the FBI at the same time that they smear political opponents on the Right — from the militias to talk show hosts — as somehow vaguely complicit in the Oklahoma City bombing. The Republicans, meanwhile, are easily seduced into supporting the plan, which is ultimately aimed at their own supporters. Once again, the object is to intimidate legitimate political resistance by “linking” it to “extremism” and using the FBI to crush both.
If we have learned anything from Waco and Ruby Ridge, it ought to be that Americans can no longer assume that the gargantuan federal law enforcement apparatus obeys the law. In point of fact, the militias, for all the rhetorical fury unleashed upon them in the past year, have a far better record of adherence to the law than the FBI itself. Even the Republicans at last came to understand that creating a new Gestapo with which the party of the leviathan can intimidate its enemies still further would be a foolish and dangerous measure, but neither they nor most other citizens have yet come to grasp that what the administration and the FBI sought last year is part of a century-old strategy for the consolidation of power and the muzzling of those who resist it. Until they begin to understand that and reverse it, we have every reason to expect only more Wacos, more Ruby Ridges, and more use of federal law enforcement to control the enemies of the state.
This article was originally published in Chronicles Magazine in February 1996.