Dear Liberal America: The FBI Is Not Your Friend -- And It Never Has Been

The love and kisses tour of J. Edgar Comey has put a smiling face on an agency known for hardball and duplicity

Have you been watching the roundelay of appearances former FBI Director James Comey has made this week on his tour to promote his book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership”? On Tuesday, he was on the "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" on CBS, the same day his book was released. Colbert did everything but ruffle his hair, sharing a paper cup of red wine with him, seeming to commemorate the beverage Comey poured for himself aboard a private government jet returning to Washington on the day he was fired on May 9, 2017. Colbert teased him. Comey demurred. Hilarity ensued.

Thursday night he was on the "The Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC, an appearance that was promoted in advance like she had scored a visit from Beyonce. Maddow’s interview with Comey was subdued and actually appeared to reveal a few nuggets of news, but Comey spent a lot of time answering questions with a frown and a painfully reluctant, “That’s another one I can’t answer.” 

Maddow got down in the weeds with him about the Russia investigation and Rudolph Giuliani’s recent appearance on the Trump legal team, and pressed him on his relationship with Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

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But what she didn’t do was question Comey closely on why he had taken the time to trash Clinton as “extremely careless” in handling her emails, and why he had announced, less than two weeks before Election Day, that the FBI was looking into new Clinton emails found on Huma Abedin’s and Anthony Weiner’s laptop. (Comey waited until Nov. 6, just two days before the election, to announce that the new email investigation was as big a bust as the last one.)

 

  I get it that Democrats seem to be caught in a bind with Comey. On the one hand, he trashed their candidate for president in 2016 and probably contributed to her defeat. On the other hand, Trump has turned him into a martyr to the Russia investigation Democrats are hoping will bring him down. Besides, at least he’s not a lying orange lunatic with a tequila sunrise on his head.

What I don’t get is the love affair that seems to have bloomed between Democrats and the FBI. Every other time Comey opens his mouth, he spews meretricious nonsense about the unimpeachable nobility of his former place of employment, and I’m open-mouthed watching liberals lap it up.

Doesn’t anyone have an FBI file anymore?

I do.

I have a very strong memory of the bad old days of the FBI, which were memorialized recently in Harper’s magazine in a quote attributed to John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy adviser. The Nixon White House “had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people," Ehrlichman told Harper’s reporter Dan Baum. “We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.”

You want to know who they used to do this? The FBI. I was one of those they disrupted and vilified during the time they used the COINTELPRO program against people they considered to be hippies or radicals or in some way threatening to the established order. Some years ago, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for my FBI files and received a package of about 200 pages of heavily redacted pages. A fairly large number of them described a time during 1970 and 1971 when the FBI had me under so-called mail cover, which gave them the authority to open and inspect my mail, as well as wiretaps and, for a time, physical surveillance.

  

What had I done to deserve this full-on FBI scrutiny? I’d gotten in a big passel of trouble at West Point, that’s what. What was the nature of the trouble? Well, along with three other cadets, I filed formal complaints with the Department of the Army seeking to end the regulation at West Point that required all cadets to attend church every Sunday morning, that’s what I did. I was singled out as the “ringleader,” labeled a radical, and no less a figure than Alexander M. Haig, then the deputy commandant of cadets at West Point, accused me of being “beyond communism.”

Haig, who went into the Nixon White House in 1969 as the top aide to Henry Kissinger on the National Security Council, attached a letter to my Army 201 personnel file warning any future commander I might be assigned to that I was a “known communist” and not to be trusted. That did it. I was unceremoniously run out of the Army in 1970, chiefly because of my past at West Point. The key thing to pay attention to here is what it took to put me under FBI surveillance. I had the temerity to take the position that having the federal government force cadets and midshipmen to attend church was unconstitutional. Whoa! That and a box of leaflets and about three hippies was obviously enough to bring down the government, huh?

I took up residence in New York City and went to work for the Village Voice in 1970. By that time, I was already on the FBI radar, having been wiretapped and surveilled during my time in the Army. It wasn’t readily apparent at first that I was under surveillance. There weren’t any mysterious clicks on my phone, and the mail I received didn’t appear to be tampered with. But by early 1971, one of the other guys who filed a complaint against compulsory chapel attendance was also in trouble in the Army because he had testified in federal court in a case seeking to overturn compulsory church at the academies. He was later called in for questioning by military intelligence, and the nature of the questions he was asked indicated that the subject of phone calls and mail between us were known to the officer who was questioning him. He drove from his Army base to New York that weekend and told me what was going on.

  

A month or so later, I visited him at his apartment near the Army base where he was stationed. He introduced me to another officer he had become friendly with, a lawyer in the JAG Corps, the Army’s military law branch. The trouble was, I had known him about a year earlier when he had a different name and was a second lieutenant in the Infantry. He had been a military intelligence agent assigned to watch me, and now he was there to keep an eye on my friend.

A few months after that, I was on my way to cover a Democratic Party fundraiser for the McGovern campaign in the apartment of a wealthy campaign donor on Central Park South. I had some time to kill, so stopped off at the Lion’s Head, the writer’s bar next to the old Village Voice offices on Christopher Street. When I got on the 6th Avenue subway to go uptown, I saw a guy I had noticed down the bar from me at the Lion’s Head. I thought I’d seen him at the Head before, but he wasn’t a regular, and I didn’t think much of it. He got off at 57th Street when I did, but I still didn’t think much of it. Maybe he lived in midtown. Not everyone who drank at the Lion’s Head lived in the Village.

But when I saw the same guy standing across 59th Street as I came out of the apartment building later that night, I began to suspect something was up. So instead of heading straight for the subway, I went into the Plaza Hotel through a door on 59th Street and wandered through the lobby, pretending to look at glass cases displaying jewelry and handbags from shops on 5th Avenue. I exited through the inner doors of the 5th Avenue entrance and took a quick left and stood against a wall between the inner and outer doors to the hotel, out of sight of the lobby. The guy I had seen at the Lion’s Head and on the subway and standing across 59th Street rushed through the hotel’s inner doors. As he passed through the outer doors looking wildly left and right, I came up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. “Here I am,” I said, grinning at him. He tried his best not to look surprised and expressed confusion, as if he didn’t understand what I was saying. “I’m going back to the Lion’s Head, in case you lose track of me,” I said. Then I headed for the subway.

  

The incident at the Plaza Hotel doesn’t appear in my FBI files, but I suspected I was being followed several other times that year, and evidence of mail cover and heavily redacted summaries of wiretapped conversations were there. The FBI’s interest in me petered out in 1972. They had bigger fish to fry that year.

In June, the Gainesville Eight were indicted for conspiring to violently disrupt the Republican National Convention in August. Seven of those charged were members of the VVAW, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. All were acquitted a year later by a jury that took only four hours to reach a decision after a month-long trial. The only real evidence the government had been able to produce to prove the violent intentions of the group was a box of wrist-rocket slingshots that had been provided to the VVAW by one of the FBI agents assigned to infiltrate the group. It was a perfect end to yet another of the FBI’s attempts to disrupt, intimidate and disgrace groups on the left, from the Black Panthers to the Moratorium, to practically invisible communist party splinter groups like the Socialist Workers Party that met in dingy lofts along lower Broadway in New York and plotted to bring the happy ways of socialism to the masses.

The FBI has come a long way from its COINTELPRO days in the 1970s, and presumably, so have its directors, including James Comey. But it’s worth remembering that in 2005, when he was deputy attorney general, Comey signed off on a Justice Department memo justifying the use of 13 “enhanced interrogation” techniques, including waterboarding and up to 180 consecutive hours of sleep deprivation. By 2013, during his confirmation hearings, Comey had seen the light and declared that in his personal opinion, waterboarding was torture.

  

That’s always the problem with people who see the light, isn’t it? They open their eyes so selectively. At the height of the so-called war in Iraq, Comey thought waterboarding was just peachy. When he wants the FBI top job six years later, he discovers that it’s torture. In 2016, Comey is so worried about what people will think of the FBI’s investigation of Hillary’s emails that he finds it necessary to tell us how sloppy she was, even while he admits she didn’t do anything illegal. He’s a little more selective about the FBI’s criminal and counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia, however, declining to tell us about it until two months after Trump had taken office.

Think about that the next time you’re watching J. Edgar Comey spinning and grinning his way through another softball interview on some cable TV show. There were two people running for president in 2016. One of them he was really, really upset with because she had been so “careless” with her emails. The other one he was OK with, until suddenly he wasn’t. He might not have a tequila sunrise perched on his head, but he sure can act like he does.

 

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Lucian K. Truscott IV has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter, covering stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott.