They Were a Commission Against the FBI

1971, the story of the whistleblowing Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI which raided files from a regional FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, made its theatrical debut at New York City’s Cinema Village on January 6. The documentary should spark a rediscovery of the seminal but unrecognized group dedicated to exposing the FBI’s disruption of the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements. They uncovered FBI misdeeds ranging from intimidation of Martin Luther King, Jr. (showing, contra LBJ loyalists, that that was not just Selma‘s dramatic license) to the existence of COINTELPRO. The ensuing Church Committee investigation imposed substantial restraints on domestic surveillance powers.

The move, in their words, “from nonviolent protest to nonviolent disruption” exemplifies what Howard Zinn called non-violent direct action, “more energetic than parliamentary reform and yet not subject to the dangers which war and revolution pose in the atomic age.”

Zinn adds that “for us in the United States, it is hard to accept the idea that the ordinary workings of the parliamentary system will not suffice in the world today.” Indeed, the doublethink of party politics is a boon to the domestic security apparatus. Republicans who damned the FBI for Waco during the Clinton years ignored it under Bush. In turn, Democrats who condemned Bush’s post-9/11 surveillance state abruptly made peace with it under Obama. And the film notes the FBI used identical tactics against groups on the right as well as the left.

But such polarization has failed to contain snowballing distrust in the system. 1971’s clips of the TV hit The F.B.I. look quaint when even The X-FilesFBI agents with “cool” jobs suspect their employer’s motives.

In 2006, the Los Angeles Times scolded the still-unknown members of the Commission that “it is tragic when people lose faith in their government to the extent that they feel they must break laws to expose corruption.” But even those who accept Zinn’s observation that “no form of government, once in power, can be trusted to limit its own ambition, to extend freedom and to wither away” can be strikingly equivocal about that power itself. As Variety notes, even one of the participants laments that their attention to abuses aided “the destruction of public belief in government.”

But network age organization requires the dispersed local nodes that were the FBI’s Achilles heel. Just as the Commission’s 8 outmatched the FBI’s 200 investigators who failed to track them down, the human scale has an advantage in getting things done. Including the investigations into genuine, non-victimless interstate crime that are a bureau always primarily about combating domestic dissent’s purported rationale.

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