President Trump's firing of FBI chief James Comey provides a welcome chance to dethrone the FBI from its pinnacle in American politics and life. Last September, Comey denounced Twitter "demagoguery" for the widespread belief that the FBI was not "honest" or "competent."
But the FBI has a long record of both deceit and incompetence. Five years ago, Americans learned that the FBI was teaching its agents that the bureau "has the ability to bend or suspend the law to impinge on the freedom of others." This has practically been the FBI's motif since its creation.
J. Edgar Hoover, who ran the FBI from 1924 until his death in 1972, built a revered agency that utterly intimidated official Washington. In 1945, President Truman wrote: "We want no Gestapo or secret police. FBI is tending in that direction. ... This must stop." But the bureau's power soared after Congress passed the Internal Security Act of 1950, authorizing massive crackdowns on suspected subversives. Hoover compiled a list of more than 20,000 "potentially or actually dangerous" Americans who could be seized and locked away at the president's command. "Congress secretly financed the creation of six of these (detention) camps in the 1950s," noted Tim Weiner in his excellent 2012 book, Enemies: A History of the FBI.
From 1956 through 1971, the FBI's COINTELPRO (counterintelligence programs) conducted thousands of covert operations to incite street warfare between violent groups, to get people fired, to smear innocent people by portraying them as government informants, and to cripple or destroy left-wing, black, communist, white racist and anti-war organizations. FBI agents also busied themselves forging "poison pen" letters to wreck activists' marriages. COINTELPRO was exposed only after a handful of activists burglarized an FBI office in a Philadelphia suburb, seized FBI files, and leaked the damning documents to journalists.