Chip Gibbons is a journalist and policy and legislative counsel for the advocacy group Defending Rights & Dissent.
Terry Albury was a decorated FBI agent with a spotless career and only a few years from being eligible for retirement benefits. Yet as the only African American agent in the Minneapolis field office, he was increasingly unable to overlook systemic racism in the bureau. He was especially disturbed by what he believed was a widespread animus within the bureau against Muslims, particularly the local Somali American community. More chillingly, after serving as an FBI interrogator in Iraq he said he had not only observed anti-Muslim attitudes by U.S. personnel there but also believed the FBI was complicit in torture.
So he did what many public employees who are unable to be complicit in injustice have done: leak information to the media. And for this act of conscience, he was sentenced last week to four years in federal prison for violating the Espionage Act.
One might think Albury would be a hero among progressives. Yet his sentencing comes at an odd time when some in the anti-Trump “resistance” have begun to embrace the security state. The FBI, once the bête noire of progressives who saw it as a threat to civil liberties, now boasts more support among Democrats than Republicans.
Albury’s case demonstrates that this newfound faith in the FBI on the left is entirely misplaced. The FBI has far more in common with President Trump than many would like to admit.
The FBI has always targeted dissent. This doesn’t just include historical acts, such as spying on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or rounding up socialists and anarchists during the Palmer Raids. In recent memory, the FBI has used its counterterrorism authorities to spy on Occupy Wall Street and the antiwar group School of the Americas Watch. FBI agents have reportedly shown up to interview students involved with pro-Palestine activism and Standing Rock “water protectors.” In the run-up to the 2016 Republican National Convention, FBI agents visited Black Lives Matter and Occupy Cleveland activists to ask whether they planned to protest the convention and reportedly suggested they stay home. After immigration agents detained an Occupy ICE activist in San Antonio, FBI agents allegedly began questioning him about his fellow protesters.
These should be viewed as part of a continuum, not isolated incidents. We know from congressional investigations, such as the one conducted by Sen. Frank Church in 1975, the type of domestic political policing the FBI engaged in before the 1970s. And we know from a late-1980s Senate Intelligence Committee investigation that just a few years after the reforms of the 1970s, the FBI was spying on opponents of U.S. policy on Central America. Thanks to a Justice Department inspector general report, public-records requests and reports from activists themselves, we know that throughout the George W. Bush and Obama years, the FBI monitored activists from environmentalists to peace campaigners, often under the guise of counterterrorism. Taken together, this amounts to a decades-long pattern of politically motivated surveillance that runs counter to democratic norms.
The FBI cannot be the antidote to Trump’s brand of politics. When Trump issued his second travel ban barring people from some majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States, he cited as justification two terrorism plots involving refugees. Yet both cases stemmed from controversial stings in which the FBI and its informants came up with and proposed the plots. A judge described one of the two cases as “imperfect entrapment.”
The FBI has also deployed confidential informants in Muslim communities across the country. Such monitoring is rooted in a belief that Muslim communities are inherently suspicious, a view shared by Trump, who campaigned on surveilling mosques.
The FBI also seems to share with Trump an animus toward black activists. Then-FBI Director James B. Comey used his bully pulpit to tout the “Ferguson effect,” the discredited theory that posits that Black Lives Matter protesters and increased attention to police human rights abuses cause a nonexistent uptick in crime. Sound familiar?
Even more disturbing, in 2017 the FBI issued an intelligence assessment on “black identity extremists.” According to the report, justifiable outrage at police racism or killings of unarmed African Americans could lead to violent attacks on police. Like much of the president’s war-on-police rhetoric, the assessment attempts to pin violence against police on those who protest police misconduct.
Much has been said about Comey’s role in electing Trump, particularly in his announcement that the FBI had reopened the Hillary Clinton email investigation. But what’s never asked is what role the FBI played in creating fertile ground for a Trump-like figure in the first place. By treating American Muslims as a fifth column, African American protests against racism as a threat to police and dissent as a potential precursor to terrorism, the FBI contributes to a political atmosphere that a demagogue such as Trump can take advantage of. Before warming up to the FBI, the left should remember the threat that the bureau has posed to our democracy.