Since the Mueller investigation was launched, the character of the FBI and intelligence agencies have been called into question by Trump and congressional Republicans. Democrats have reflexively defended these institutions. The truth is the FBI and intelligence community more broadly have routinely been used by politicians in the executive branch to further their interests, oftentimes at the cost of people’s civil liberties.
In 1964, before Watergate was a historic scandal, President Lyndon Johnson had wiretapped his opponent in that year’s Presidential election, Sen. Barry Goldwater and placed a CIA asset within his campaign. Johnson would later wiretap Richard Nixon in the 1968 campaign to succeed him. Later Nixon would bug multiple political enemies using CIA assets, including two Democratic Presidential candidates, Sen. Ed Muskie and Sen. George McGovern.
The FBI, under the tenure of J. Edgar Hoover wiretapped many different political subjects seen to be at odds with the political establishment. The most prominent case was Martin Luther King, whose every move was carefully monitored. A March 1968 FBI memo was written about King in which it was stated “He [King] could be a real contender for this position [ of ‘black messiah’] should he abandon his supposed ‘obedience’ to ‘white liberal doctrines’ (non-violence) and embrace black nationalism.” The memo concluded with the statement “Through counter-intelligence it should be possible to pinpoint potential trouble-makers and neutralize them.” King would die at the hands of an assassin the following month in Memphis. The King wiretap was initiated and continued by two figures seen as champions of civil rights, Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
The sudden defense of the FBI and CIA by Democrats is a phenomenon that is relatively new. For decades, the relationship between the intelligence agency and the Democratic Party has been frayed, starting under Nixon but continuing for decades. The only other President to fire a sitting FBI director besides Trump was actually Bill Clinton, who fired William Sessions just six months into the Clinton administration’s first term. The bad blood between intelligence agencies and the Democrats reached an all time high during the Bush administration. During 2002’s state of the Union, President Bush claimed Saddam Hussein was getting uranium from Niger. It was later revealed that this was based on faulty intelligence. Further claims about uranium tubes used by Colin Powell to justify the war at the UN were also bunk. Later, it was revealed that the Bush administration selectively used information that would bolster the case for war while ignoring conflicting information gathered by the CIA. Democrats would later hammer the CIA for conducting a sophisticated torture program. Later, in the 2016 elections Democrats sharply disapproved of the FBI’s handling of the Clinton email case by noting FBI director Comey broke protocol by commenting on a case where no indictment was issued.
When the Trump administration attacks intelligence agencies for being used for political ends, he can point to a history that spans over 50 years that proves his point completely. The problem for Trump, however, is that no evidence exists to show that they’ve treated Trump unfairly. In fact, publicly known information actually shows that the FBI had a pro-Trump bias prior to the Presidential election. The official probe into the Trump campaign began in July 2016, but unlike the Clinton probe, there was no public press conference or even knowledge the investigation was happening. Later in the campaign, Rudy Giuliani was leaked information that the investigation into Clinton would be opened just days before the election. Just six days before the election, a story ran in The Guardian where anonymous sources claimed the FBI was “Trumplandia”. The controversial surveillance of Trump aide Carter Page that was the subject of the Nunes Memo was also done for nonpartisan reasons. Carter Page had been approached by Russian assets in 2013 and the orders for his surveillance were okayed by FISA judges that were all Republican appointees.
The new wars over the FBI have made hypocrites of both sides. At least so far, Trump is completely wrong when he claims there was any different treatment of his case compared to others. Likewise, Democrats aren’t being truthful when they claim that the US’s intelligence agencies are wholly benevolent apolitical actors.