Freeh’s Blind Mice: A Critical Look at Tolerance Training, FBI Style

Published as a ZNet Commentary, September 24, 2000

That I’m no Biblical scholar is an understatement of monumental proportions. Yet I recently found myself, for reasons I’ll explain shortly, thinking of the following verse from the book of Matthew, if memory serves:

Why behold the mote in thy brother’s eye, but consider not the beam in thine own eye?

Arcane language aside, let it suffice to say this verse has something to do with what some would now refer to as the “pot calling the kettle black.”

Upon reading the headline of my local paper a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but think of these pots, and kettles, and motes, and beams. For there, in black and white was the following: “Police role in Holocaust added to FBI Agent’s training”

According to the article, FBI Director Louis Freeh has implemented new training for Bureau recruits, to “teach of the failure of law enforcement to protect citizen’s rights” in Nazi Germany. According to Freeh, the course will demonstrate the evil of law enforcement when it “abandons its mission to protect people,” and becomes “an engine of repression.”

Applauded by the Anti-Defamation League, the new training takes recruits on a guided tour of the Holocaust Museum and asks them to write essays on the relevance of the training to their work. One graduate of the process explained it had made clear his duty to “preserve human life and protect the civil rights of every man, woman and child.”

How nice. Presumably if Hitler comes back, this recruit will make sure to stand tall against the threat of German fascism, since apparently, that’s the only kind worth fretting over, and the only kind capable of teaching the lesson intended.

But one hardly need travel thousands of miles away and a half-century back in time to demonstrate the complicity of law enforcement with repression. Frankly, new FBI recruits would do better to learn about the nefarious history of their own employer, which provides more than enough examples of the same phenomena Freeh seeks to demonstrate.

The new training spends a great deal of time discussing the passivity of German law enforcement in the face of growing repression under the Third Reich. But we needn’t look to Hitler’s regime for that lesson. After all, FBI agents were notorious for standing around, watching, and doing nothing while civil rights workers and freedom riders were beaten by racists throughout the South in the 1960s. Ask Howard Zinn: he’ll tell you how FBI agents looked him in the eye and insisted they had no power to do anything, even as Selma police below the Bureau’s own window, dragged, beat, and shocked with stun guns those seeking to register black voters. Or how, in 1964, J. Edgar Hoover waited thirty-seven hours after the disappearance of three civil rights workers in Mississippi before beginning a pathetically weak investigation. Or how FBI operative, Gary Rowe, rode along with the assassins of Viola Liuzzo, after the Selma to Montgomery march, knowing they planned to kill someone, and yet did nothing.

As for the new training’s discussion of how law enforcement sometimes takes an active role in repression, here too, it’s hardly necessary to study German history. As noted in Michael Linfield’s book, Freedom Under Fire, by the late 1920s, the FBI had an enemies list of nearly half-a-million “subversives,” and in 1936, even as Hitler was consolidating his power, President Roosevelt authorized the Bureau to spy on organizations considered dangerous. Four years later, FDR would authorize massive wiretapping by the Bureau, increasing the number of “anti-subversive” investigations to nearly 70,000 annually. From 1947-1952, the FBI conducted roughly 6.6 million “security investigations” of U.S. citizens: about 3000 such actions every day.

And for involvement with direct repression, you can’t get much better than the 2,400 or so FBI COINTELPRO operations to “disrupt and neutralize” targeted groups and individuals from the mid-’50s to 1971. According to declassified documents and a Senate Committee investigation (about which I doubt FBI recruits are informed), the Bureau actively attempted to discredit and destroy the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, and dozens of organizations dedicated to Black, Latino, and Indigenous liberation.

Martin Luther King Jr. may be a revered icon today, but from the early 1960s until his death, the Bureau marked him for political (if not literal) destruction by wiretapping his phones (with the approval of Attorney General and liberal hero Bobby Kennedy), as well as spreading rumors about marital infidelity and sending him letters encouraging him to commit suicide. A month before his assassination, Hoover wrote that there was a need to “pinpoint potential troublemakers” in the black movement, “and neutralize them.” William Sullivan — the agent in charge of the anti-King operation — told the Senate, “No holds were barred. We’ve used similar techniques against Soviet agents. We did not differentiate. This is a rough business.”

One suspects the new recruits are too busy learning about the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising to be told that the agency they’ve joined conspired with Chicago police in 1969 to assassinate Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton, by providing them detailed floor plans of Hampton’s apartment prior to a raid they knew the police were planning to launch. Or that the Bureau collaborated with other police departments in killing nearly 30 Panthers in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

One imagines the new FBI recruits writing heartfelt essays about the horrors of Kristallnacht, while studiously ignoring their employer’s admitted role in fomenting the factional dispute within the Nation of Islam that led to the assassination of Malcolm X, or their all-out war on the American Indian Movement that led to the murder of over seventy residents of Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

Figuring that most of the new recruits probably grew up in the Reagan ’80s, they should perhaps know — but I’m sure won’t be told — that even after COINTELPRO, the FBI continued spying on domestic organizations. Early in his administration, President Reagan, himself a former FBI informant against fellow actors, issued Executive Order 12333, allowing the FBI to wiretap without a warrant and engage in undercover operations against organizations opposed to his Central America policies. One of the FBI’s key infiltrators in this period, Frank Varelli, has said the FBI paid him to destroy the Dallas chapter of the Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador (CISPES) by burglarizing member homes, recruiting thugs to start fights at CISPES rallies, and even seducing an activist nun so as to procure blackmail photos for use against the group. The FBI encouraged him to plant guns on CISPES members and Varelli regularly passed information on U.S. and Central American-based activists to the Salvadoran National Guard: the entity in control of that nation’s vicious death squads, responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Salvadorans.

I would imagine Freeh’s foot soldiers will learn all about the diabolical experiments conducted on twins by Joseph Mengele, but nothing about the program operated by the FBI’s sister agency, the CIA, called MK-ULTRA, which intentionally exposed unsuspecting residents of the San Francisco Bay area to a whooping cough virus, and used unwitting hospital patients as guinea pigs for experiments with hallucinogenic drugs.

And while we’re on the subject of Nazis, one wonders if the Holocaust Museum will mention that after World War II, U.S. intelligence agencies helped over 5,000 Nazi scientists and doctors find refuge in the states, including many who had been directly involved in mass atrocities. Somehow, I doubt it.

That the Anti-Defamation League is giddy about the new training ought to be enough evidence that there’s something wrong with it: after all, it was this group’s San Francisco affiliates who were exposed in the early ’90s as having spied on, and passed information to the FBI about, assorted Central American peace and justice activists, as well as anti-apartheid activists and those supporting Palestinian rights and liberation. Birds of a feather, are, in this instance, flocking very closely together.

Let this serve as yet another exhibit item, to be filed away under Passing the Buck 101: further proof that we are more than comfortable discussing the crimes of others, but still unwilling to peek under the hood of our own engines of repression. The one thing the FBI’s new attempt at tolerance training apparently can’t tolerate is the truth that hits a bit too close to home.

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