Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Next month, The New Press is pleased to publish Mike German’s Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide: How the New FBI Damages Democracy, an engaging and unsettling contemporary history of the FBI and a bold call for reform, told by a longtime counterterrorism undercover agent who has become a widely admired whistleblower and critic for civil liberties and accountable government. In a starred review, Kirkus calls the book “Important reading for our current time” and Publishers Weekly says “impassioned . . . raises some valuable questions about the primary role of this key government agency.”

Mike German is a fellow with the Liberty and National Security program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. He has worked at the ACLU and served sixteen years as an FBI special agent. He is the author of Thinking Like a Terrorist. Follow him on Twitter @rethinkintel and catch him at upcoming launch events.


Your tenure as an FBI agent (19882004) came to a close during Robert Mueller’s first years as Director and you’ve been critical of his leadership of the Bureau. The reasons you resigned have been reported by the New York Times and others, but can you offer any insights into his actions as Special Counsel: while many hoped for a reckoning, did he execute the role as expected?

There’s no doubt that Robert Mueller is an extraordinary public servant. Even though he came from money and could have easily avoided the draft by continuing his education after graduating from Princeton, he volunteered to go to Vietnam as a Marine Lieutenant, which was probably the riskiest service to join. He later chose to spend the bulk of his legal career as a federal prosecutor rather than taking more lucrative positions in private law firms. But the idea that he was a reformer who was going to check Donald Trump’s power ignores his record. He was, and has again proven to be first and foremost, an establishment man. He led the nation’s primary law enforcement agency, but stood down when his agents learned the National Security Agency had begun spying on Americans without warrants, in violation of the law. When the CIA and military started torturing war detainees he didn’t give FBI agents in the field directives on how to respond, allowing some to participate and refusing others’ requests to initiate war crimes investigations. When high level government officials repeatedly lied to Congress and the courts about this conduct, his agency didn’t intervene. His special counsel report on the Trump investigation was exactly what I expected. A milquetoast document that didn’t challenge the powers-that-be in a way that would have disrupted the political and economic status quo.

Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide highlights the FBI’s disproportionate focus on minority groups, student organizations, environmental activists (to name a few), compared to its focus on white hate groups, historically and in the present day. How does the FBI justify or rationalize this internally? Have they faced external scrutiny over this?

The FBI is regularly criticized by courts, journalists, civil rights groups, and even the Justice Department’s Inspector General when evidence of spying on political advocacy groups is exposed through leaks or litigation, but it rarely acknowledges error and Congress has been unwilling to rein it in. The FBI does not even collect data about the number of people white supremacists kill every year, and it labeled eco-terrorists the number one domestic terrorist threat despite no homicides resulting from environmental activism. It is a bias that is clear, but the FBI hides the data that would conclusively demonstrate it. I am currently working with Congress to seek FBI data that would prove these disparities, but the FBI is opposing this legislative effort.

What is radicalization theory? What are its origins, and how is it being used today?

Radicalization theory is a government model of how someone becomes a terrorist, which claims that normal people go through a discernable process that begins with adopting a particular ideology, engaging in social or political activism, then becoming a terrorist. It was developed as a way to justify punishing not just violent insurgents, but any political opposition to government policy. It has been disproven by numerous empirical studies of actual terrorists, who follow no such pattern, are often not particularly ideological, and rarely have been involved in political advocacy. It is inconsistent with what I saw as an FBI undercover agent working inside violent white supremacist and far-right militia groups, but the government continues to promote the theory because it justifies invasive surveillance and suppression of groups vying for social or political change. The FBI uses this theory to justify infiltration of Muslim and political dissident communities like environmentalists and anti-racism protest groups.

How do the FBI’s tactics and internal practices trickle down to local law enforcement across the country?

The FBI is considered the country’s preeminent law enforcement agency and under J. Edgar Hoover it pioneered professional, scientific law enforcement. It is well-resourced and draws talented applicants who are some of the best investigators in the world, so other law enforcement agencies naturally look to the FBI for tactical and legal advice. This deference can be positive, such as when the U.S. Supreme Court required state and local law enforcement to issue Miranda warnings to suspects in custody, a practice the FBI voluntarily adopted decades before because it was an effective way to ensure statements were not coerced, not only to protect defendant rights, but out of recognition that coerced statements are less reliable. But it can also expand the impact of abuses, as state and local law enforcement agencies adopted intelligence practices designed to suppress dissent, particularly from minority communities.

Early in the FBI’s history, a series of scandals led to reform efforts. Were they successful? Why have recent reform efforts, particularly in the wake of the Snowden scandal, failed?

Yes, after the excesses of the Palmer Raids and surveillance of labor organizers, Attorney General Harlan Fisk Stone limited the FBI to conducting criminal investigations, and this effort did curb the types of political abuses that were common to the Bureau’s so-called intelligence operations. But the rules were loosened again when Nazi Germany became a global threat. It wasn’t until the Citizens’ Commission to investigate the FBI burglarized a Bureau office in Media, Pennsylvania, in 1971 that the public learned how the FBI abused these powers. The Church Committee investigation into these abuses resulted in a series of reforms, which had success in curbing the worst of these abuses. Obviously, no government powers can be trusted without public oversight, so there were still problems, which I document in the book. But overall, these problems were shorter lived. After 9/11 these protections were loosened again and while there is plenty of evidence of abuse, which I document, Congress has not stepped in to restore effective constraints, even after Snowden revealed the agencies were not honest about how they interpreted their new authorities. In the crazy political turmoil that the 2016 election unleashed, many of the FBI’s strongest congressional protectors are now quite skeptical of how it uses its powers, so hopefully it will lead to a greater effort to re-establish independent controls and public accountability.

You make a number of recommendations for reform, from ways to increase diversity to legislative action refocusing the FBI on domestic investigation and law enforcement. Which of these recommendations is most crucial in the short term?

As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, sunlight is the best disinfectant. After 9/11 Congress and successive presidents gave the FBI expansive new powers and a thicker cloak of secrecy so the public does not have a clear picture of how the Bureau uses these new authorities. History, including recent history, shows that excessive government secrecy threatens our security as well as our liberty. We need far stronger oversight of the FBI, particularly around its intelligence and national security activities.

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Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide