American Gestapo

My favorite radio news show is called Background Briefing. I usually listen on the drive home from work. Yesterday’s episode (August 19, 2019) included host Ian Masters interviewing Mike German, a former agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program. According to his bio on the Brennan Center website, German’s “work focuses on law enforcement and intelligence oversight and reform.”

Masters discussed German’s book Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide: How the New FBI Damages Democracy along with his recent opinion piece for the Guardian The FBI could fight far-right violence if they wanted to – but they don’t. To get things started, I have transcribed some of the opening minutes of the conversation between Masters and German:

Masters: … you’re making the case here, that there’s a transformation that took place in the FBI after the 9/11 attacks, when it sort of segued from being a law enforcement agency into, arguably, the most secretive domestic intelligence agency America has ever seen. So, I know when Harry, when the CIA was formed, Harry Truman was concerned, you know, he said I don’t want an American gestapo. How far are we from that kind of a nightmare?

German: Ah, well, we’re closer than we should be.

The pair go on to discuss what German labels as the excesses of the J. Edgar Hoover administration, including COINTELPRO and the concept of radicalization, which German defines as the focus by the FBI not on criminal acts of violence but on the spread of bad ideas and extremist thought. The conversation was notable for a number of things; I will single out the discussion about the difference between labeling a criminal act a hate crime rather than an act of domestic terrorism.

However, I want to focus on the idea of the American gestapo. COINTELPRO began as a countermeasure against Communism but was later expanded, in the 1960s, to include civil rights and anti-war activists. German states that “J. Edgar Hoover and his agents, ah, targeted groups for political purposes based on their own biases rather than because of any threat that they posed.” As a consequence of this the COINTELPRO can be seen to have acted as a form of thought police.

Regarding the activities of COINTELPRO it is important to note that FBI chose its targets unilaterally, without any external oversight. Seemingly, these activities included the infiltration and disruption of completely legal and law-abiding civil rights and political organizations. Pedro Cabral writes “COINTELPRO employed illegal and legal covert measures to ‘neutralize’ and destroy organizations that the FBI identified as a threat to national security.” Dr. Huey P. Newton, in his doctoral dissertation War against the panthers: A study of repression in Americasuggests that the FBI orchestrated the deaths of Black Panther Party figures like Fred Hampton and Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter.

I am not convinced the FBI ever stopped using the tactics and practices developed by COINTELPRO. As a member of political and social minority groups within the United States, and as a student of structural violence, I will state that the FBI has de facto acted, through its COINTELPRO activities, as a counterpart, or perhaps a descendant, of Nazi Germany’s gestapo. As a white male, and therefore a member of the generalized moral community within the United States, I can understand why German would want to hedge his bets and say we are closer than we should be to having a gestapo. He likely lacks the perspective that people of color have regarding the FBI.

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