What progressives should demand from the FBI

The institutions of government can help all of us pursue justice. But first, we need to demand it.

SOURCECampaign for America's Future

Many Americans are rightfully outraged at the firing of FBI Director James Comey, just as they were shocked at Comey’s ability to influence political events. But what can we do about it?

A political movement should do more than just react to the day’s events with outrage, although that’s important.  It should also offer the vision of a better world.

Donald Trump will nominate the next FBI director. Barring something unexpected, his nominee will almost certainly be approved.  But that doesn’t mean the rest of us are powerless.  We have the power to imagine a nation run on principles of economic and social justice. We can create a vision so compelling that it brings new people into politics, encourages more activism, and compels our political leaders to fight for it.

That vision can, and should, include the FBI.

Special agents force

The idea of a progressive FBI may seem strange, even preposterous, given that agency’s real-world history. But, as explained in part 1 of this two-part series, the Bureau was created along progressive principles in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt and Attorney General Charles Bonaparte.

Its initial work was progressive, too. The original agency, which was then called the “Special Agents Force,” concentrated on investigating banking crimes, violations of antitrust law, peonage, which included debt servitude and misuse of prison labor, and land fraud. It also investigated people seeking citizenship.

That changed – first, with the passage of the racist-inspired Mann Act, then with the political abuses and misdeeds of long-term director J. Edgar Hoover, and lastly with the political shifts of recent years.

Mission creep

Today, the Bureau sees its mission in very different terms.  The FBI’s website lists its priorities in the following order: protect the United States from terrorist attack, stop foreign intelligence operations and espionage, end cyber-based attacks and high-technology crimes, fight public corruption at all levels, protect civil rights, combat transnational and other criminal organizations, fight white-collar crime, and combat major violent crime.

While all these objectives are worthwhile, it’s a telling list. Protecting civil rights is more than halfway down the list. Fighting organized crime – the mission that made the FBI famous – is near the bottom. “White-collar crime,” a category that includes the massive bank fraud that cost the economy trillions of dollars and once put 41 million American mortgages underwater, is second to last.

Fighting discrimination

Imagine an FBI whose priorities more closely reflected its progressive roots.  An FBI that cared more about civil rights would make it a priority to end discriminatory law enforcement practices. According to a study by the Department of Justice, black motorists were three times likelier than whites to be searched during a traffic stop. During encounters with police, African Americans were twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force. Once in the court system, black defendants were six times as likely to be imprisoned.

Hanging over all these encounters is the risk of violent death.

In 1892, even before the Special Agents Force was created, police chiefs around the country created the Criminal Investigation Bureau as a central repository for information on criminals. It, too, was eventually folded into the FBI. Why isn’t the FBI using its data management function to track the fatal police shootings of black men, women, and children around the country?

White collars, white terror

If our law enforcement system made it a priority to fight organized crime, it would pay more attention to the Wall Street bankers at institutions who laundered money for the Mexican drug cartels. They went free, while kids on the corner went to jail.

And, speaking of white-collar crime:  why isn’t the FBI doing more to support the work of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which has uncovered many cases of banker fraud, referred cases for criminal investigation, and returned $12 billions to ripped-off bank customers?

With the FBI’s emphasis on terrorism, why hasn’t more been done to combat the white “sovereign citizens” groups, militia/”patriot” groups, racist skinheads and neo-Nazis law enforcement officers named as the greatest terror threats?  Why hasn’t it done more to protect the Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, and other minorities targeted by these terrorists?

Republicans applied political pressure to protect these groups from investigation, to their great discredit, but the FBI needs a leader who will resist that kind of pressure.

Looking for leadership

FBI agents have a tough job. They deserve respect and appreciation, as all hard-working people do. The problem isn’t with the rank-and-file. It’s a problem of leadership: political leadership – the kind that is so conspicuously absent among the Republicans who protect violent white groups – and leadership of the Bureau itself.

So, who should run the FBI?  Few of us are likely to be happy with Trump’s nominee. That would be ideal nominee look like? Given the number of violent crimes committed against women in this society, it would be especially helpful to have a woman lead the Bureau for the first time in history.  And since people of color are disproportionately targeted by Wall Street criminals, violent criminals, and civil rights offenders, it would also be important to choose a person of color.

Many FBI agents are attorneys, as well as highly-trained law enforcement professionals. It would be helpful to have a leader who is familiar with bank fraud, discriminatory banking and real estate practices, and domestic violence.

Most of all, the ideal FBI director will understand that she serves all the people – without fear or favor, unafraid of taking on special interests, and unwilling to repeat past abuses of power.

This is not a new vision for the FBI. It dates back to the goals laid out for it by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, expanded to include society as we understand it today. This isn’t utopian thinking. The institutions of government can help all of us pursue justice. But first, we need to demand it.


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