FBI’s Long History of Squelching Political Dissent Under the Guise of National Security
by Jayson Hawkins
For nearly a century, one of the most important duties of the FBI has been to act as the primary counterterrorism force on American soil. Unfortunately, throughout that time, the FBI has shown a troubling tendency to surveil dissidents and view challenges to the status quo as national security threats. This tendency began with the young Bureau’s first large-scale raids and has continued, according to a recently released report, up to today.
The FBI began as the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Investigation in 1908. Founded by Theodore Roosevelt despite congressional resistance, this early Bureau was intended to be the leading edge of a national response to anarchists and violent unionists. After successfully silencing opposition to World War I, the Bureau began raids in 1919 aimed at what it called “subversives and Communists” but which really targeted Eastern European immigrants, Italians, and labor organizers, according to Alice Speri in her article, “The FBI Has a Long History of Treating Political Dissent as Terrorism.”
The so-called Palmer Raids (after then-Attorney General Mitchell Palmer) lasted months and led to the arrests of over 10,000 people in a dozen cities, though none of those arrested were even tied to any of the violence that purportedly inspired them.
The raids did, however, have consequences. The first was the founding of the American Civil Liberties Union, organized just a few months after the raids began. The second was the dramatic career advancement of the young federal agent who orchestrated them—J. Edgar Hoover.
Hoover’s genius for policing dissent would come to the fore again in the 1960s. The FBI pursued an operation called COINTELPRO. Systematic efforts to infiltrate and sabotage civil-rights groups and anti-war protesters were carried out under the auspices of guarding national security.
The exposure of these efforts led to congressional investigations and the application of some oversight. While this oversight may have reined in some of the Bureau’s worst excesses, there is evidence that old tendencies remain firmly in place.
After 9/11, many civil-rights activists expressed concern about what they believed was an FBI campaign targeting Muslim Americans. Eventually, the inspector general of the Justice Department would release a report in 2010 that acknowledged the Bureau had exceeded agency guidelines, but the report declined to definitively conclude that any action had resulted from political or religious bias.
In October 2019, civil liberties group Defending Rights and Dissent published a report detailing a long list of political activists who have been the object of FBI surveillance and worse.
The Bureau has watched Occupy Wall Street, Abolish ICE, Palestinian solidarity groups, and organizations dedicated to normalizing relations with Cuba and Iran. The report, based largely on public-records requests, reveals a broad effort of surveillance and infiltration, even at times before a group had staged a single protest.
Recent efforts aimed at domestic political dissent have shown several disturbing trends. The first is what appears to be a near single-minded focus on progressives and the left, despite the fact that most politically motivated violence over the last 10 years had its ideological origin on the right. Social justice, anti-war, and environmental activism remain the primary targets of FBI interest, just as they were during the Palmer Raids.
Secondly, the targeting of progressive causes is paired with what appears to be disproportionate targeting of immigrants, Muslims, and people of color. Some Muslims and African immigrants in the Minneapolis area report being “used to being surveilled by the government,” according to Mustafa Jumale, an activist with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.
More troubling are instances of co-opting local law enforcement to pursue operations that could arguably be called entrapment. Creation of the Joint Terrorism Task Forces after 9/11 allowed the FBI to utilize manpower and resources from local law enforcement to pursue its policies while often escaping stricter federal rules. At the same time, as long as surveillance and infiltration failed to reveal criminal activity or violence, FBI agents or informants have reportedly resorted to acting as agent provocateurs. In one instance, after the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, FBI informants reportedly recruited and equipped two protestors with fake bombs and a list of targets. This type of activity is not legally entrapment, according to the courts.
Without a statutory charter outlining its authority or real oversight of its activity, the FBI seems committed to continue confusing dissent and terrorism.