Donald Trump vs. The FBI

Michael’s guest is Tim Weiner, author of 'Enemies: A History of the FBI.'
Who could have predicted that the FBI — long felt by the American left to be its heavy-handed, anti-democratic arch-enemy — would become the left’s special forces in its battles against the Trump administration? (Drew Angerer, Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images)

There has never been a more storied, more mythologized, more feared and more reviled police force in the world than the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The FBI has locked horns with American presidents, and aided and abetted them in abusing power. It has brought mobsters to justice, and persecuted labour leaders, anti-war protesters, civil rights activists and leftists.

It has worked feverishly to root out communists, spies and terrorists and has been infiltrated by foreign agents. And it was asleep at the switch when it might have had a chance to prevent the 9/11 attacks.

Under its longtime former director, J. Edgar Hoover, it became a law unto itself, turning into a reliable antagonist of the American progressive left and people concerned about civil liberties and the democratic rule of law.

So it might strike some as a little strange that those same traditional critics of the FBI are now among its champions.

But perhaps not so strange when you consider that the FBI's chief foes at the moment are Russia and the administration of Donald Trump.

The FBI's investigations into Russia's alleged meddling with the 2016 U.S. election — and alleged links between the Trump campaign and Russian interests — have been a constant irritant to the Twitter-happy president, who has vented his anger at the FBI in a succession of Tweetstorms.

Those investigations have also led to the indictment of Trump advisers. And, according to the president himself, the firing of James Comey as the Bureau's director.

James Comey, the 7th director of the FBI, was dismissed by U.S. President Donald Trump in May 2017. (Cliff Owen/Associated Press)
The list goes on, but over the past two weeks, the FBI has been in the middle of things again.

For special prosecutor Robert Mueller — himself a former FBI director — indicting 13 people connected to Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Tim Weiner, is the author of many books, including 'Enemies: A History of the FBI.' (Random House)
And for more tragic incompetence — failing to follow up on a tip that could have prevented the massacre of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

It's a mixed record, indeed. And very few people know more about the FBI's record than Tim Weiner.

He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Enemies: A History of the FBI, as well as Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, which won the National Book Award.

Below are excerpts from his conversation withThe Sunday Edition host, Michael Enright.

Donald Trump has been tweeting all week against the FBI, saying that the bureau was so preoccupied by the Russian investigation that it neglected to prevent the massacre in Florida. The governor of Florida has called on FBI Director Christopher Wray to resign over this. Are the criticisms fair, and should Mr. Wray resign?

Yes, the criticisms are fair. And no, Mr. Wray should not resign. Among the many ways in which our president misapprehends the FBI is to think that the failure to detect the threat that the shooter in Florida posed was somehow related to the Bureau's investigation of Team Trump. It isn't. These are two different worlds.

But how does a law enforcement agency as storied as the FBI screw up a thing like Parkland?

Because it's a fallen world, and human error and stupidity will always win out in the end.

Intelligence is a human endeavour and it is prone to failure. The failure to detect and stop the Florida shooter was a systemic failure on the federal state and local level. No one from local law enforcement, state law enforcement to the FBI picked him up. There are a large number of people like that in the United States who are crazy and have guns and want to kill a lot of people. You can't stop all of them.

Was Donald Trump's firing of Comey in keeping with his view of the FBI?

The president thinks that everybody works for him: his generals, his Justice Department. But they work for the American people, not the president. And Trump's firing of Comey was a prima facie case of obstruction of justice, and he will rue it one day.

Does it seem odd to you that after decades of the bureau trampling on civil liberties and abusing its power and targeting the left, that Democrats and the liberal left now have become cheerleaders of the FBI?

This is one of the many ways in which President Trump has plunged the United States into bizarro world, where everything is upside down. The president, in attacking the FBI as an institution and attacking the individuals who run it, has done something no president has ever done before. There were fears under Hoover, particularly as expressed by President Truman, that the bureau was becoming an American Gestapo. And under Hoover, in many ways it was. He ran the FBI as a secret police agency would do in an authoritarian or even totalitarian country. And Hoover's long shadow extended throughout the 20th century decades after his death in 1972.

Tim Weiner says FBI Director Robert Mueller has succeeded in making the FBI an intelligence service governed by the rule of law. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
However, Robert Mueller did something really remarkable. In his 12 years as FBI director, he struggled, and in many ways won a battle royal, to make the FBI an intelligence service governed by the rule of law — something no one had done in the 20th century. The bureau's been around for 110 years now, and under Mueller and his successor Jim Comey — who is now by the way Robert Mueller's star witness as he goes after Team Putin and Team Trump — the bureau really came out of its long century of darkness.

Robert Penn Warren, the novelist, says that the FBI was conceived in sin and born in corruption. What was its mission originally?

President Theodore Roosevelt created the FBI in 1908 with two aims. First, to go up against what he called the malefactors of great wealth — the 0.0001 percent of early 20th Century America, who essentially governed the United States Senate and many state legislatures. And second, to go up against the anarchists of the world. An anarchist had assassinated (Roosevelt's) predecessor, President McKinley, in 1901, making Teddy Roosevelt the youngest president ever. So these were the twin goals. And they certainly went after the anarchists, and they certainly went after the Communists after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Hoover, at age 25, was the head of the radical division of the Justice Department and oversaw what remains today the greatest mass arrests of real and imagined enemies of the United States on New Year's Day, 1920. And four years later, at the tender age of 29, he was given control of the FBI. And he ran it for 48 years — 48 years of untrammelled power. We have not seen his like in American history and we pray we will not see his like again.

Tell me about this man John Edgar Hoover. How does he define the FBI?

From the beginning, Hoover saw communism as a virus that rose up from the killing fields of World War I and rose up from the chaos of the Russian Revolution and floated across the Atlantic like a toxic cloud and settled upon the United States. And he believed that Soviet communism could kill American democracy unless this virus were identified, quarantined and eliminated. He saw not only American Communists — and there were never more than 80,000 members of the American Communist Party — he also saw members of the Democratic Party, anybody who held progressive or leftist views, and the entire civil rights movement as either witting or unwitting tools of the Kremlin.

John Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Did J. Edgar Hoover see the FBI as being above the law, or did he see it simply AS the law?

HE was the law. And a Supreme Court order banning warrantless wiretapping in the 1930s — he overruled it by fiat. He went to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and said, "Look, I'm supposed to have a good picture of what communists are doing in this country and the Supreme Court won't let me.' And Roosevelt signed an order saying, essentially, screw the Supreme Court, and Hoover kept that in his desk all his life.

The fear of Hoover's all-seeing eye was greater than the power of perception of the FBI. But he ruled by fear. Hoover ruled by fear.

Did he really keep files on politicians? And when he got into the '60s, specifically files on John F. Kennedy and his brother?

He did. And the FBI actually had a tape of a sexual encounter that young Navy Lieutenant John F. Kennedy had with a suspected Nazi spy in 1942. This was catnip for Hoover. And he showed it to the future President Kennedy's father, Joe Kennedy, who at the time was the ambassador to Great Britain. Papa Kennedy let young JFK know in no uncertain terms that this was bad business. Hoover held that over Kennedy all his life. When it came to the point where Hoover demanded of the Kennedys that he have the power to bug every hotel room, every telephone that Martin Luther King ever used, they gave it to him. He convinced them that one of Martin Luther King's aides was a secret communist and that therefore Martin Luther King himself was a tool of Soviet communism.

What was the COINTELPRO program all about?

COINTELPRO was an abbreviation for Counterintelligence Program. It was a secret FBI within the FBI that used every trick in the book — including blackmail, poison pen letters, total surveillance, wiretaps, bugs, break-ins, black bag jobs — to go against Hoover's enemies: socialists, real and imagined communists, Martin Luther King, and everybody else in the civil rights movement. And, for balance, because President Lyndon Johnson ordered him to do it, the Ku Klux Klan. These were brutal but effective attacks.

Can you give me a sense of the bureau's most spectacular failures?

I think you have to look at the systemic failure to detect the threat of the 9/11 attacks. This was a government-wide failure. It was a failure of the CIA. It was a failure of the Federal Aviation Administration. It was a failure of the National Security Council, and of presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. But it was also first and foremost a failure of the FBI.

The FBI, throughout the 20th century, was a place where — in the phrase of Clinton's Attorney General Janet Reno — the left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing. And counterintelligence and counterterrorism was really the bastard child of the Bureau. People didn't want to work those cases.

Individual FBI agents sent a multiplicity of warnings up to headquarters in the months and weeks before the 9/11 attacks. And there was a failure to act. In the 1990s, the bureau spent a lot of time and energy chasing Bill Clinton and chasing phantom Chinese spies who allegedly had contributed to Clinton's election. They spent a lot more time chasing shadows than they did chasing al-Qaeda.

Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno had described the FBI as a place where the left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing, says Tim Weiner. (Dennis Cook/Associated Press)
But does that not add to Donald Trump's argument? If the FBI was running all over about Whitewater with Clinton and the so-called Chinese spies that they missed 9/11, doesn't that suggest that perhaps Trump has something on his side in this?

I think not. And the difference here is the fact that Robert Mueller as the investigator has in a very short time done a truly startlingly effective job. He has laid out the factual basis for determining that there was an attack, an act of war — information warfare, if you will — directed by Russia. That the aim of this attack was to a) disrupt American democracy, and b) elect Donald Trump.

Is it a different FBI than the one we know historically? Was the place reformed in your view?

I think by and large it was. And I think that Robert Mueller gets an extraordinary amount of credit for that, and that credit is well-deserved. He spent 12 years running the FBI. And I really believe that Mueller brought the FBI's operations under the rule of law. He said explicitly a year after the 9/11 attacks that he would not be the guy who went down in the history books with a medal saying, you won the War on Terror but you lost your civil liberties in the meantime. This balancing act between national security and civil liberties is something that we as a nation, and the Bureau as our national police force and our national counterintelligence force, has struggled with all down the decades. And national security usually trumped civil liberties. And I think that Mueller brought this tug of war back into balance.

There have still been plenty of cases of the FBI running roughshod over civil liberties in the War on Terror. Have there not?

There have, but I think we forget how terrified people were in the days and weeks and months after the 9/11 attacks. We're still imprisoning people without trial in Guantanamo. And we unjustly imprisoned people in the weeks and months after 9/11. And I think the blame for that goes to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. They commanded that this happened.

But I think the pushback came in early 2004. It's a remarkable story of Bob Mueller, the head of the FBI, and Jim Comey who was the acting Attorney-General and therefore Mueller's boss, going up against the President of the United States over the National Security Agency's secret and unconstitutional warrantless wiretapping of Americans.

Donald Trump has claimed that the FBI was so preoccupied by the Russian investigation that it neglected to prevent the recent massacre in Florida. (Odd Andersen/Jim Watson/AFP/Getty)
You've said that we're about two tweets away from an extraordinary constitutional crisis. Are things that bad?

The danger, of course, is that our president will act out on his anger at the fact that he's under criminal investigation. And really the only force that has the power to investigate the president is the FBI. And they are doing so under Mueller's direction.

Trump has the power to fire the FBI director. He does not have the power to fire Robert Mueller. That's the tripwire to prevent the president from becoming a dictator in this room. Now, he can fire his way down the upper ranks of the Justice Department until he finds a willing executioner to do his bidding. But the fact is that if he gets somebody to fire Mueller, there will be another Mueller — maybe not as competent or diligent, but there will be someone else to take his place.

Given its record, past and present, does the FBI currently deserve respect by Americans?

It's the only force we've got with the power to investigate the President of the United States. The FBI is the only force that has the right to conduct a criminal legal investigation, to subpoena the president, to compel the president to testify under oath. And you may not like it, but it's the only force we've got with the power to do that.

Tim Weiner's comments have been edited and condensed. Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.