Echoes of COINTELPRO: Why It’s Time to Abolish the FBI
Throughout the 1960s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) waged a campaign of repression against civil rights activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This shameful campaign was recently thrust back into the public eye, as Yale historian Beverly Gage published the unredacted textof a letter from the FBI urging Dr. King to commit suicide. The letter threatened to expose King’s extramarital affairs, concluding with the menacing lines “There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”
It’s tempting to see this shameful blackmail, intimidation, and political repression as a relic of a bygone era. J. Edgar Hoover is gone and COINTELPRO is over, after all. But the FBI still engages in scandalous acts, including unconstitutional surveillance, political repression, attacks on journalists, and detention without charges.
In September 2010, the FBI raided the homes of antiwar activists throughout the midwest. FBI agents seized property from these activists, including “documents, computers, cell phones, passports, family photos and children’s artwork.” The activists were not charged with any crimes, and were instead subpoenaed to a grand jury investigating “material support for terrorism.” The June 2010 Supreme Court decision in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project permitted the government to define an extraordinarily broad range of activity as “material support for terrorism,” including speech supportive of groups the State Department deems terrorist organizations and any association with such groups, including talks to encourage such groups to be more peaceful. The FBI used this extraordinarily broad power in order to harass, threaten, and steal from antiwar activists.
The FBI’s attacks on dissent extend beyond activists. The FBI has also recently targeted journalists. They used extraordinarily broad subpeonas to seize phone records of journalists with the Associated Press. The FBI also spied on Fox News reporter James Rosen and attempted to construe his news gathering activities as criminal. And back in 2004, the FBI misused “exigent letters” to obtain the phone records of journalists with The New York Times and The Washington Post.
In addition to suppressing dissent, the FBI continues to perpetuate racism. The ACLU has documented a racial and ethnic “mapping” program, in which the FBI maps where people of particular races live. The ACLU describes the program as follows:
The 2008 Attorney General’s Guidelines also authorized “domain management assessments” which allow the FBI to map American communities by race and ethnicity based on crass stereotypes about the crimes they are likely to commit. FBI documents obtained by the ACLU show the FBI mapped entire Chinese and Russian communities in San Francisco on the theory that they might commit organized crime, all Latino communities in New Jersey and Alabama because a street gang has Latino members, African Americans in Georgia to find “Black separatists,” and Middle-Eastern communities in Detroit for terrorism investigations. The FBI’s racial and ethnic mapping program is simply racial and religious profiling of entire communities.
It’s no surprise that a federal agency that told Martin Luther King Jr. to kill himself is engaging in this type of industrial scale racial profiling.
As these and other abuses become evident, there’s a natural question we should ask: Does the FBI stop criminals, or are they a criminal organization? Given the FBI’s criminality, I say it’s time to abolish the FBI. Rather than being left to secretive and unaccountable federal behemoths, law and security should be handled by institutions that are accountable and have incentives to protect our rights rather than trample upon them.