In his new book, James Comey describes his deep admiration for Martin Luther King Jr. and decries the FBI’s treatment of him as “a dark chapter in the Bureau’s history.” Shortly after he became FBI director in 2013, Comey instructed the entire workforce of the FBI to read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” one of Comey’s favorite writings. He created a curriculum for new agents to “remember how well-meaning folks lost their way,” and introduced an exercise for the new recruits to visit the King memorial, pick one of the quotes inscribed on the marble wall, and write an essay “about the intersections of that quotation and the FBI’s values.” On his desk at the bureau, Comey kept a copy of the letter authorizing the wall-to-wall surveillance of King as a reminder of this “shameful” history.
Despite this professed appreciation for King and his aim to right the wrongs of the bureau’s past, Comey presided over many of the same racialized tactics and assumptions in his tenure as FBI director: broadly targeting the Muslim-American community, coercing informants, trafficking in racial profiling, surveilling Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock activists, and largely standing aside amid police violence and misconduct. As he hits the lecture circuit this week, feted by many across the political spectrum as the nation’s conscience, we would do well to move beyond his claims of “ethical leadership” to his actual actions as director of the FBI.
Despite his aim to right the wrongs of the bureau’s past, Comey presided over many of the same racialized tactics in his tenure as FBI director.
First, the bureau’s history: In the 1950s, the FBI regarded the emerging civil rights movement with fear and horror. The bureau surveilled movement activists and stood aside amid escalating white violence. Extensive FBI spying in the months leading up to the March on Washington in 1963 dovetailed with public fears of civil rights activism; 150 FBI agents were on hand to monitor the crowd. In the wake of the march and King’s growing national stature, the FBI described his speeches as “demagogic.” “We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security,” wrote one official. The bureau sought to amplify its surveillance of the civil rights leader, fearing ties to communism. Then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy signed off on intrusive surveillance of King’s residence, offices, phones, and hotel rooms, as well as those of his associates.
The FBI’s campaign against King’s family only deepened. When he was set to receive a Nobel Prize in 1964, the bureau sent King a letter urging him to commit suicide and mailed Coretta Scott King a tape of her husband’s sexual indiscretions. Two days before King’s assassination, according to his wife, then-director J. Edgar Hoover leaked a story that the civil rights leader was planning to stay at the Holiday Inn — at the time considered too “fancy” for a black person. King changed his plans and got a room at the Lorraine Motel, where, on the evening of April 4, he would be assassinated while emerging from his door. The bureau stepped up its surveillance of Coretta Scott King after her husband’s assassination, worried she would “tie the anti-Vietnam movement to the civil rights movement.”
FBI surveillance of the civil rights movement extended well beyond King. The bureau monitored many other leaders, from Ella Baker to the “Harlem Nine,” a group of mothers who kept their children out of school in 1958 to challenge school segregation in New York City. At President Lyndon Johnson’s behest, the bureau also sought to undermine groups like the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which had been built by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to challenge the seating of the Mississippi Democrats and systematic disfranchisement of black people at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. FBI agents posed as NBC reporters — with full support of the network — to solicit information from the Mississippi Freedom contingent, with the aim of undermining their support.
The bureau’s actions perpetuated twin harms. The agency surveilled, monitored, and at times tried to disrupt the civil rights movement, particularly through its Counterintelligence Program, known widely as COINTELPRO, in the late 1960s and 1970s. Equally important, it stood aside amid escalating violence on black people, and black activists in particular. The FBI regularly cast white racist violence as outside of its jurisdiction, even when agents had inside information that could have prevented it, as with attacks against the 1961 Freedom Rides. A Bureau informant was in the car whose occupants attacked Viola Liuzzo, a white woman from Detroit who was killed following the first Selma to Montgomery march in 1965; rather than risk bad publicity, the bureau scuttled investigations of her murder.
In 1967, the FBI reformulated its COINTELPRO program — which began in 1956 in order to attack communist organizations — to “disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist hate type organizations.” The bureau also launched other similar programs, like the Ghetto Informant Program, which aimed to combat the rising Black Power movement. The agency colluded with Chicago police in the raid that killed Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, and spread misinformation to spark rivalries and violent reprisals between black organizations.
As the bureau sent an army of black informants into groups like the Black Panther Party, it finally desegregated its own ranks. (Hoover had resisted hiring black people, except for menial jobs, until 1962.). By the 1970s, the bureau also took aim at growing and militant indigenous rights activism, and in particular, at the American Indian Movement.
The surveillance of the civil rights movement only started to be revealed in March 1971, after activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, took records, and sent them to three media outlets. While the New York Times and Los Angeles Times promptly returned the files to the FBI, the Washington Post courageously reported the story.
“To become targets of the FBI, it wasn’t necessary for African Americans to engage in violent behavior,” said Betty Medsger, the Post reporter who broke the initial story. “Being black was enough.” Agents were required “to investigate and, if possible, infiltrate every black student organization at two year and four year colleges.”
This history reveals the contingent and political definitions of “national security” and “extremists,” a point King actually makes in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which Comey claims to love. The fears of communist subversion that provided justification for mass surveillance of black communities, as well as claims of “new urgency,” are replicated in the fears of terrorism that justify counter-radicalization efforts and the widespread monitoring of Muslim communities today.
When Comey became head of the FBI, he condoned a similar set of racialized, rights-abusing practices, including widespread, warrantless surveillance of American citizens, despite warnings from top-level bureau officials. In particular, the harassment and targeting of Muslim Americans, particularly Muslims who express dissenting views, in post-9/11 America has paralleled the civil rights era, as the intimacies of Muslim life — from worship to family time to community organizations to student activities — came under persistent scrutiny. Comey maintained and at times amplified that tact. The FBI now has 15,000 informants, mostly tasked with surveilling the Muslim community — up from 1,500 when Congress began its hearings on COINTELPRO in 1974.
The harassment and targeting of Muslim Americans, particularly Muslims who express dissenting views, in post-9/11 America has paralleled the civil rights era.
FBI agents are instructed to target Muslim student associations, listen for so-called un-American or critical speech, and identify young people who are becoming more religious. “Since we’re looking for young people re-engaging with their Islamic faith, the local MSA” — Muslim Students Association — “is a great place to start,” instructed one FBI training presentation.
Indeed, under Comey’s leadership, the FBI expanded the practice of using undercover informants to surveil Muslim communities, preying on the weak, the poor, and the mentally ill to bolster the rosters of arrests, in order to demonstrate the effectiveness of domestic counterterrorism efforts. He allowed agents to ramp up pressure on Muslim Americans to become informants, and endorsed the practice of undercover FBI agents posing as members of the news media. The bureau brought pressure to bear in the name of cultivating informants — putting people on the “no-fly” list when they refused — and also scraped vulnerable data, gathered by Customs and Border Patrol, on immigrants entering the country to use in recruiting informants
Even as he claimed to want to diversify the bureau, Comey approved the surveillance of Muslim analysts: “Of course, we must also discharge our duty to apply appropriate scrutiny when folks have significant foreign national contacts or contacts of concern with subject [sic] of criminal, counter-intelligence or counter-terrorism cases, by virtual of [sic] family friends or travel.”
Comey continued the practice, up through 2016, of paying Sebastian Gorka to provide Islamophobic lectures and training materials to agents in its Joint Terrorism operations course. Gorka’s company received $103,000 between 2012 to 2016, when he was finally let go, though his anti-Islam beliefs had been flagged for years. (Gorka then went on to serve as deputy assistant to President Donald Trump in 2017.) Gorka reportedly taught agents that there is no such thing as a mainstream Muslim — only those radicalized and those soon to be radicalized — warranting suspicion of all Muslims.
The former FBI director also maintained the bureau’s practice of surveilling black and Native American activists. As a Black Lives Matter movement that highlighted police abuse gathered steam, the FBI did not focus on curbing police abuses, but on monitoring activists. Comey, in a 2015 speech at Georgetown University, claimed that, after the “Ferguson riots,” he sought data on police killings of African-Americans, but that the “data is incomplete and therefore, in the aggregate, unreliable.” Claiming that law enforcement needed to do better, he nonetheless explained that “police officers on patrol in our nation’s cities often work in environments where a hugely disproportionate percentage of street crime is committed by young men of color.” He added, “After years of police work, officers often can’t help but be influenced by the cynicism they feel.” In his book, Comey goes farther, finding the term “mass incarceration” to be “inaccurate and insulting to a lot of good people in law enforcement.”
What the bureau did, instead of broadly investigating police misconduct, was target growing protest movements around police brutality and Native American rights. Recent revelations attest to FBI monitoring of the Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock movements, and show how the bureau now claims “Black Identity Extremists” are a rising threat — a direct legacy of Comey’s leadership during that period.
Comey’s King exercise sought to “provide a lesson on what happens when power is abused.” But to take the notion seriously requires changing the ways the bureau has conducted a domestic war on terror over the past two decades and how it treats new protest movements like Black Lives Matter — which Comey resolutely did not do.
“It is painful to stare openly at ourselves but it is the only way to change the future,” Comey writes in his book. While the former FBI director is touting “ethical leadership” on his lucrative book tour, we would do well to stare openly at the treatment of Muslim, black, and Native American communities during his leadership of the bureau. Comey replicated the rights-abusing tactics and racial assumptions of the past — practices and assumptions that helped give rise to the Trump era, not the solution to opposing those abuses.