Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Behind The Myths

     The memory of an aged man can be a valuable resource, if properly exploited. But there are memories a large number of persons are determined to suppress, if not destroy – and they’re serious about it.

     Now that the FBI has been tainted by its actions before and after the momentous November 2016 election, it’s time to inquire into just how that institution descended to such a low estate. Weren’t we told that the FBI is an indispensable instrument of justice? Weren’t we told that its administrators recruit only agents that are morally and ethically stainless? Weren’t we told that its “Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity” motto is a reliable guide to its actions? How did it get from there to here?

     Oh yes, we were told all that. By Efrem Zimbalist, Junior and a host of other entertainers. But that didn’t make it so. It clearly wasn’t so as early as Ruby Ridge and Waco. But those who noticed were largely either shouted down or ignored.

     The creation of an institution that requires public support is often accompanied by the labors of a cadre of mythmakers: persons charged with creating the popular perceptions and beliefs required to elicit that support. The FBI, America’s first national police force, was a case of that sort.

     The assassination of President William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz, who espoused anarchism, was the seminal act. President Theodore Roosevelt, a typical “strong” (i.e., dictatorial) leader, was personally offended by the idea that anyone should regard anarchism as preferable to him. He oversaw the creation of the FBI’s institutional predecessor, the Bureau of Investigation, in 1908. The need to monitor American anarchists and combat “white slave” traffickers was the rationale.

     Congress, responding to public fears of a secret police accountable only to the executive branch of the federal government, tried to stop it. Roosevelt and his Attorney-General Charles Bonaparte ignored the legislature, presenting the BOI to the nation as a fait accompli. The Bureau passed though several other names before being named the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935.

     Ironically, were it not for Prohibition, the FBI might have faded away. American anarchism was never the problem Roosevelt made it out to be, nor were violations of the Mann Act as commonplace as the public perception. However, the federal War on Booze provided the Bureau with plenty of work. That work would be taken from it with the ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment, but by then the Bureau had found other tasks with which to occupy its agents.

     The FBI was widely regarded as a Constitutionally dubious creation before World War II. With the rise of international espionage, it seized upon the counterintelligence mission as a rationale for expansion...including the expansion of its powers to pry into the private deeds and communications of Americans.

     Let there be no doubt that the FBI apprehended many spies during the war years. That was probably the best work its agents ever did. Indeed, several historians of the period rated it as the most formidable counterintelligence agency in the world. (Cf. Ladislas Farago, The Game of the Foxes.) But the Bureau itself didn’t find general favor with the public until after the war, with the rise of the Cold War, the arms race, and the mass media.

     To be accepted by the public as a positive force, an institution with police powers requires several things:

  1. Public belief that an evil exists that existing institutions cannot combat;
  2. A credible portrayal of the institution as an effective countermeasure to that evil;
  3. Assurances that the new institution will pose no danger to the rights of private citizens.

     While the origin of the FBI as a necessary countermeasure to anarchism and “white slavery” never gained popular credence, other evils, including the rise of international espionage, won Americans over, albeit slowly and grudgingly. The Bureau’s successes at apprehending spies, kidnappers, and other felons who would flee across state lines to evade state authorities were heavily promoted. Television shows such as The F.B.I. and The Untouchables portrayed the Bureau’s agents as persons of impeccable integrity, virtually gun-toting saints. Events that might not conduce to a reputation for incorruptibility were downplayed or hushed up.

     Whatever seedier doings might have been going on behind the veneer, the FBI was being transformed by an Iron Law of Institutions familiar to anyone with a knowledge of Public Choice theory: Over time, those within an institution whose highest priority is the well-being of the institution and the maintenance of its prerogatives will contrive to rise above and filter out persons not so inclined. Today, in the 110th year of the FBI’s existence, such persons completely dominate the Bureau. They cannot be expected to say or do anything that would rebound to the Bureau’s detriment.

     The evidence suggests that there is a need for a federal counterintelligence organ, though as with all questions of public policy persons can surely be found to argue in the negative. As for other “interstate” crimes such as kidnapping, there are several substantive arguments to be made both for and against a federal police force. Whatever the verdicts on those questions, that the FBI has been permitted too much latitude to invade the rights and prerogatives of Americans seems incontestable. Consider in this connection that should an FBI agent charge a private citizen with “lying to the FBI,” a felony crime of unique nature, the burden of proof lies on the accused. This is an egregious departure from American criminal justice principles.

     This institution needs to be gutted – torn all the way down to its foundation. If it is to be rebuilt, additional safeguards for the rights of private citizens must be erected as well. Yet even the strongest imaginable protections would only delay the process of deterioration. No canonization campaign for popular consumption can nullify that dynamic.

1 comment:

furball said...

I've become pretty pessimistic. The last paragraph's declaration that the FBI needs to be gutted may be reasonable, but it seems highly doubtful that it could be accomplished. After all, didn't Congress just vote to continue FISA vitually undiminished even as members must have been aware of recent abuses?

Tim Turner