The former head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), James Comey, is on a tour promoting his new book, which attacks Trump. He is being given the kid gloves treatment.

The Democrats, their supporters in the mass media and most self-styled “progressives” are on a drive to whitewash the FBI in its squabble with Trump over alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.

All wings of the Democratic Party have fallen in line behind this campaign, with even senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren going along with it, if quietly.

To the Democrats and their followers, former FBI director Robert Mueller, who is heading up the collusion investigation, and James Comey are above any criticism – straight arrows endowed with sterling characters.

The FBI itself is the “greatest law enforcement agency in the world”, according to one commentator.

The reality is that the FBI is one of the most important of the array of political police agencies in the US government, and has been from its beginning.

Dirty business

The FBI’s origins are in early 20th century agencies formed to investigate federal crimes under the Department of Justice. In 1909, it was named the Bureau of Investigation. 

With the entry of the US into World War One, the bureau investigated draft resisters, violators of the Espionage Act of 1917 and immigrants suspected of socialist or anarchist views. Organisations such as the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, the Socialist Party and the Socialist Labor Party were also included.

During the war, the radical press was largely suppressed, and there were arrests of radical leaders.

The Socialist Party did not support the war. This was especially true of its left wing, whose best known spokesperson was Eugene Debs.
In June 1918, Debs gave a fiery speech in Canton, Ohio, in which he blasted the war and supported the Russian Revolution. He was arrested under the Espionage Act, convicted and, after appeals were denied, imprisoned. The Espionage Act is still used as a tool against radical dissent.

While in jail, Debs was nominated as the SP presidential candidate in 1920, despite his sharp criticisms of the right wing of the party, including its attacks on Communists. He received 1 million votes – 3.4 percent.

After the war, the man who moulded it for the next half a century, J. Edgar Hoover, joined the FBI.

Deeply opposed to socialism, Hoover set up a card index system listing every radical leader, organisation and publication in the United States. By 1921, he had amassed 450,000 files. More than 10,000 suspected Communists were arrested, and many immigrant radicals were deported.

Hoover became bureau director in 1924, a post he held until his death in 1972. In that period, the bureau (renamed the FBI in the 1930s) was the main anti-communist, anti-Black, anti-union witch-hunting tool of the government. 

In the 1930s, Hoover was instructed by president Franklin Roosevelt to keep tabs on Communist organisations and “suspect” individuals. He was zealous in carrying out this directive, listing even Roosevelt’s own wife, Eleanor, and other liberals.

Also under surveillance were militant leaders of the great labour upsurge of the 1930s that created the Congress of Industrial Organizations. 

The FBI was instrumental in the Roosevelt administration using the 1940 Smith Act to indict and convict leaders of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party for “conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the US government”. Among the defendants were leaders of the Teamsters’ union. This was part of taming the union movement to prepare for US entrance into World War Two. 

During the war, the FBI expanded its arsenal of wiretaps and other electronic surveillance of “subversives”. After the war, it helped to carry out the anti-communist witch-hunt begun by the Democratic Truman administration in 1947.

The FBI worked closely with the witch-hunting committees in Congress, the House Un-American Activities Committee and in the Senate under the chairmanship of Joseph McCarthy. Thousands in the union movement, the government, churches and Hollywood were purged, prosecuted and persecuted. The right wing of the labour bureaucracy was only too pleased to join in and remove militants in the unions.

As part of the witch-hunt, Hoover established a special anti-gay unit. McCarthy charged that gays and Communists had taken over parts of the government and the Democratic Party.

McCarthyism, as the campaign became known, grew to include grassroots committees across the country. It represented an incipient fascist movement, but was eventually shut down by alarmed sections of the ruling class.

When a new stage in the Black rights movement began with the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott challenging racist apartheid in the south, Hoover established a secret program called COINTEL (counter-intelligence) to combat Black activists, Communists, socialists and believers in democracy who supported Black rights.

As the radicalisation of the 1960s and early 1970s developed, spearheaded by the civil rights and Black liberation movements and the youth radicalisation centred on the anti-Vietnam-war movement, COINTEL expanded. All Black and anti-war (and later women’s and gay and lesbian liberation) groups were targeted in addition to the socialist organisations already in the FBI’s sights.

One result of the radicalisation was the exposure of the secret COINTEL program in the 1970s, when activists broke into an FBI office and found the documents. 

A lawsuit brought by the Socialist Workers Party, supported by the entire left except the Stalinist groups, against government spying, break-ins and other illegal activities directed against the SWP, exposed the same dirty tricks against many other groups. Others also brought actions that revealed FBI crimes.

In the reaction against “the ’60s” that has developed since, the FBI and other political police agencies have regained their former role. The FBI spearheaded the anti-Muslim witch-hunt, including frame-ups and entrapments, after the 11 September 2001 attacks. This campaign was headed by then FBI director Robert Mueller – now the Democrats’ darling.

Democrats aid authoritarianism

The “intelligence community” – all the political police agencies – is extolled by the Democrats, who hope Mueller can get rid of Trump. This “community” has released statements that it has proof of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections (all countries meddle in the affairs of others if they can, with the US being meddler in chief).

They hope to prove collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. But the “intelligence community” says it can’t give its “proof” because to do so would betray “national security”. They all swear their present secret facts are much better than the secret facts they asserted in the lead-up to the disastrous invasion of Iraq about Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, facts that turned out not to exist.

The Democrats also extol the virtues of “national security”, which means the security of US imperialism. A case in point was the conviction of Chelsea Manning under the Espionage Act for releasing “classified” information about US war crimes in Iraq.

The act was used infrequently before 2008, but Obama used it nine times, convicting whistleblowers of revealing government crimes, not of conveying any information to a foreign government or organisation. It now hangs over the head of Snowden and Julian Assange of WikiLeaks. Who were these people spying for? I guess the people of the US and the world.

A high-ranking aide in Trump’s White House, Robert Porter, has recently been exposed as a wife beater, and was forced to resign. The Democrats correctly brought Trump to task for defending Porter. But they are more and more focusing on Porter’s having access to “classified” material, and are demanding better background checks before people can see such government secrets.

Hundreds of millions of documents are hidden by the US government under the “classified” label. They are secret for a good reason. Most would reveal information about US crimes or other embarrassing material that would harm US capitalist and imperialist interests if the US people and the rest of the world knew about them.

The Democrats and their apologists, by whitewashing the sordid record of the FBI, by defending the Espionage Act and by hiding US crimes under “national security” and “classified” labels, do not further the struggle against Trump’s real crimes of war, racism, misogyny, homophobia, massive attacks on workers’ living standards etc. 

They do the opposite. They further the increasing consolidation of the national security state, which furthers the development of authoritarian government.