The Baffler
Rafia Zakaria,  April 29, 2019

The FBI: A Love Story

The bureau has a long history of strange bedfellows and jilted defenders

The Baffler
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It has been an unlikely love affair. Ever since the first dismal days after President Donald Trump’s election, the Democratic Party has been falling for the FBI. Such have been the twists and turns of this romance that by the time the May 2017 firing of FBI Director James Comey came around there was no cheering the end of a man who had cost them the election. Shortly after Comey was fired, the former FBI chief Robert Mueller was appointed special prosecutor and Democrats had found their vaunted hero and darling. Now with the Mueller report released in its entirety, and without sufficient evidence for impeachment (a la Nancy Pelosi ) they are unsure of what to do with all the love they had been lavishing on a law enforcement agency that has never cared much for them.

Andrew McCabe is also a legacy of the fateful day in May. McCabe was handed the position of acting director of the bureau, a position he held for less than a year, before himself being fired just days ahead of his official retirement date. Now he brings us the swashbucklingly titled The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump. His view is that the FBI is the restraint that keeps the political branches of government, including the executive, under which it rests, in place. The weakening of that restraint can have disastrous consequences for presidents and even presidential candidates. Yet we see in his book the difference between the act-at-any-moment, constantly-facing-lethal-danger hero that McCabe imagines himself to be and the reality of a politicized FBI marked by the very bureaucratic snafus (such as the “improper” release of information to the media) that actually led to his demise as acting director.

It is a curious exercise, reading McCabe’s book after, rather than alongside, Mueller’s agonizingly long and calamitously indecisive report. There is nothing like considering the screed of a man who was almost an anointed hero, when the very cause of his heroism (in this case the seemingly fizzled Russian investigation) has been declared moot. And yet here we are, doing just that. The misery of the moment, besides the near-exoneration of the man whom Andrew McCabe declares a threat to American democracy (and he may well be that but not for the cause one assumed), is having to consider the eager embrace with which Democrats largely and liberals mostly clutched and cooed over McCabe, Mueller, and the notion of FBI rectitude. The FBI, with its factual findings, and Robert Mueller, with his prosecutorial whip, would deliver the damning blows, prove the amorphous collusion that has been so heavily insinuated, and deliver them from the scourge of the Age of Trump.

This was not to be. The ease with which white American liberals tossed aside the misgivings of FBI overreaches past is one of the pressing lessons of the moment. McCabe, who declares, “I love the FBI” during media interviews and book talks, is not at all apologetic about any of this. Describing the transformation of the bureau into the post-terror behemoth that it has become, McCabe describes the agency’s counterterrorism division’s approach as one akin to a boy on a beach encountering a shiny pebble, then another, and yet another, while putting them all in his pocket. The FBI after 9/11 picked up one, then another, and then yet another suspect and put them all in detention.

The ease with which white American liberals tossed aside the misgivings of FBI overreach past is one of the pressing lessons of the moment.

The metaphor, like all of McCabe’s clever and occasionally smarmy ripostes, hides a cruel reality. The pebbles in that case weren’t unfeeling stones but actual people, their shininess less tangible threat and more the fact of being Muslim or from South Asia or the Middle East. The lives of these “pebbles,” who bore the cost of the FBI not knowing what it did not know about terrorism, were devastated by the long near two decades of being targeted and harassed. That fact, of course, is left out of The Threat, as is any consideration of the architecture of the Islamophobia on which Trump erected his electoral victory.

The new FBI unleashed a world of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants, warrantless collection of information, all of it a spinning mess of coercive law enforcement practices, none of which drew criticism beyond a handful of stalwart civil liberties organizations. Within its ranks, everyone was told, were America’s polo-shirt-wearing and khaki-clad patriots who could listen to anyone, bring anyone in for questioning, and arrest anyone, citing “secret evidence” that even their own lawyers could not see. With the exception of a few hundred thousand terrified and threatened Muslim Americans, everyone could nestle cozily in the FBI’s protective embrace.

It was this “above reproach” status that was bolstered by Republicans and Democrats, both marching obediently to the pro-security drumbeat the agency played, neither seeing fit to criticize the construction of the terrorist-catching industrial complex that was the agency’s post 9/11 reality. The Patriot Act, which razed rights and granted previously unheard-of powers and billions in budget allocations to the bureau, was not overwhelmingly opposed, either in its original state or in the renewed bills that came up in ensuing years. Republicans were especially in love; patriotism, per their equation, equaled a rapturous and eternal romance with the agency that was responsible for keeping America safe in the years since the attacks of September 11, 2001.

It would have lasted forever if it were not for a man named James Comey, McCabe’s nearly seven-foot-tall boss, who took the agency’s “non-political” creed a bit too literally. Saddled with overseeing the investigation into the Hillary Clinton emails, he imagined (as only an agency as drunk on power and money as the FBI could) that there was no election happening in 2016. Disappointing Republicans who had made the Clinton emails a backbone of their campaign to retake the White House, he announced that there was not enough evidence to prosecute Clinton. The ensuing Republican vitriol may have alarmed the towering man at the head of all of the many heroes of the FBI; eleven days before the election he made a second statement, announcing this time that the Clinton investigation was “still ongoing.”

That was undoubtedly the moment of Democratic disenchantment with the bureau; the Republican reckoning with this monster of America’s post-terror moment came in early 2017 and has been ongoing since. The Russia investigation, which has led to Republicans denouncing the FBI as the enemy of Americans, its investigations as corrupt and its agents liars, has now left a Republican president beleaguered, damaged, and at war with an agency the right now sees as part of the Deep State.

Andrew McCabe’s book does not directly provide insight into why James Comey (who loves beer and classic films) decided that there was not enough evidence to indict Hillary Clinton over her email server, or why he came back to make a public announcement that she was still under investigation. It can be assumed from the content of his book that he would use this as a means of burnishing the organization’s above-the-political-fray credentials. One could have believed him, were it not for the non-conclusions of the Mueller report. With this more complete picture, a more plausible hypothesis can be drawn from another anecdote McCabe mentions offhandedly in his book—about his special technique for rapidly unbuckling his seatbelt. The FBI, being the above-all-reproach, laden-with-largesse agency that it has become, is the seatbelt that provides necessary restraint—and the government is a car that cannot be driven unless the belt is worn. McCabe admits as much in his book, implying ominously that a population that does not trust and believe in the FBI is one that can become “ungovernable.”

Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn in Pakistan. She writes regularly for the Guardian, Boston Review, The New Republic, and The New York Times Book Review.

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