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To Fix the FBI, Abolish It

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Big Intel: How the CIA and FBI Went from Cold War Heroes to Deep State Villains, by J. Michael Waller, Regnery, 256 pages

Your perspective on the FBI depends a lot on when you grew up. If you are a reader of The American Conservative today and old enough to remember the classic television series The FBI starring the memorable actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr., you almost certainly still hold, somewhere hidden deep inside, a positive image of J. Edgar Hoover and the bureau.

The 1965–74 TV series was one of Hoover’s most brilliant PR successes. It burnished the FBI’s reputation in turbulent times, putting the bureau squarely on the side of millions of law-and-order Americans (many of us kids), who believed, rightly, that many radicals of that era were at war with our country.

As violent political insurgency and thousands of random bombings rocked the nation, we were reassured that a professional and patriotic FBI, personified by Zimbalist, was out there working the cases. It was always only a question of time, we believed, before Hoover’s G-men nailed dangerous radicals like the notorious Weather Underground, who planted bombs in public buildings, and the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), who could ruthlessly kidnap prominent citizens like Patty Hearst. 

We had no way of anticipating that the FBI’s failure to close down these violent radicals shrouded an even greater weakness: the bureau’s inability to protect American institutions from the Fabian revolutionaries who were subverting them from inside.

In an open society, it is a classically difficult mission for any undercover police or counter-intelligence service to counter a dedicated, home-grown enemy. The Weimar republic famously failed to prevent a repackaged Hitler from emerging as a “democrat.” In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper should have added a chapter on the deviousness of Weathermen Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, who papered over their Marxist–Leninist past to reappear as counselors to a young politician named Barack Obama.

In his ambitious new book Big Intel, J. Michael Waller takes on these large questions, examining the historic performance of U.S. federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies, most significantly the FBI and CIA, in battling the subtle forces that have for decades eaten away at the country’s institutions and traditional values.  

Waller’s central thesis—no surprise—is that the subversives won out. The book argues that the revolutionary left not only outlasted the FBI and CIA, but ultimately unleashed the same destructive ideology inside the federal security agencies themselves. Big Intel is the disturbing story of how Marxist-inspired “critical theory” turned Zimbalist’s noble G-man into the infamous Peter Strzok. 

Waller knows his stuff. He is not only an academic with more than 40 years examining intelligence matters, but he also dabbled in espionage tradecraft himself back in the early 1980s Central America wars. The author argues that today’s problems inside the FBI and CIA are more fundamental than these agencies have become highly politicized. He believes the left has succeeded in remaking the core professional values that motivate today’s career FBI agents, CIA case officers, and the analysts who support their work. 

Waller argues that critical theory priorities, such as embracing identity politics and social justice activism, have remade the “institutional culture” in the national security agencies. Reshaped by their university experiences and today’s prevailing norms, today’s young FBI agent and CIA officer are self-absorbed and disinclined to sacrifice for their country. Their idea of patriotism is to think globally and fight climate change. Their sworn oath to the Constitution is about protecting the government from conservatives who challenge a woke agenda.  

A skeptic might accuse Waller of having interviewed too many grumpy old federal agents with nostalgia for the higher standards of a bygone era. But the argument of Big Intel is that America’s enemies intentionally sowed, a century ago, the seeds of Marxist-inspired critical theory radicalism in universities and influential intellectual circles in America and Europe. It was a long-term strategy of subversion. Waller writes: 

Marxism’s permanent warfare would ravage the [West’s] culture, starting with education and family and spreading through the arts, deeply held religious beliefs and values, ethnicity, sexuality, patriotism, and law. We can trace the rise of cultural Marxism from its beginnings in early Soviet Russia, through interwar Germany, during World War II when it first penetrated American foreign intelligence, through the Cold War when the FBI led the country against such subversion, right up to the present when the CIA and then the FBI embraced it, wrapped it in lovely packaging called diversity, equity, and inclusion, and placed it at the core of their missions. The term “cultural Marxism” was too inflammatory to use in government and always denied. But the agencies internalized the train of thought to induce people to think and behave as cultural Marxists, usually without even realizing it. That intellectual construct or thought process is called critical theory.

Waller makes his case by examining the history of the FBI and the CIA, starting with Langley’s Second World War predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). These compelling historical narratives alone make the book worth the read.

Before the 20th century, Washington had no significant federal law enforcement or civilian intelligence service. As foreign threats emerged, presidents turned to the Department of Justice, which responded with a hybrid of federal police and proto-intelligence activities. One early milestone was the 1919–20 Palmer Raids, carried out against revolutionary foreign radicals who were a genuine peril. Washington’s handling of the raids would set a pattern: federal authorities overreaching in a necessary crackdown, while rounding up many innocents. 

The key DOJ official to emerge in this early period is, of course, a young John Edgar Hoover, who would stay on to run the FBI an incredible 48 years. The fact that, in such an ad hoc manner, a security service developed and would keep the same man in charge for almost half a century indicated the difficulty for Washington policymakers of finding the formula for running a professional and non-political federal police. That challenge is still largely unmet today.

Nevertheless, Big Intel provides an even-handed assessment of the controversial Hoover, who today is routinely vilified by liberal historians and rarely defended by modern conservatives. No apologist for the FBI director, the author still makes a convincing case that, on balance over his (too) long career, Hoover undertook a professional approach that realistically perceived the sub rosa dangers America faced. Today, it is hard to assert that Hoover did more good than harm, but there is a case to be made. 

The author writes,

[Hoover] was right in identifying the institutional, individual, and ideological drivers of destructive change in America. He fairly predicted the social trends at work to fundamentally transform the country. History may have reviled him. So has the FBI itself. But the twenty-first-century FBI, as with the CIA, became a greater threat to the constitutional system and American society than the surprisingly restrained Hoover ever could have been.

Waller contrasts the record of the FBI and Hoover with that of the OSS, the CIA’s forerunner, and its director “Wild Bill” Donovan. For the author, Donovan represents the dominant liberal forces in the American establishment that crucially overlooked or downplayed the cultural Marxist threat. 

Waller argues that the OSS, and later the CIA, would never fully comprehend the subtle, termite-like ideological dangers loose in American society. While Langley would go on to play an important role, perhaps even a crucial one, in countering Soviet political power and conventional espionage, the CIA never grappled, according to the author, with the forces of cultural Marxism, the more subtle enemies of open American society. 

The book devotes considerable space to the Institute for Social Research, examining its role in nurturing and spreading cultural Marxism in Europe and America. Launched in 1923 by the Comintern in Frankfurt, Germany, the institute was, as Dr. Waller clearly documents, a Soviet-funded influence project. Today, commonly remembered as the Frankfurt School, the institute’s Marxist academics would escape Nazi Germany and establish themselves in the United States, several ending up in Donovan’s OSS.

The Frankfurt School became a phenomenally successful Soviet intelligence operation with much more long-term significance than, say, Moscow’s espionage networks in Western countries. The Frankfurt School’s academic Marxists, like Franz Neumann, Otto Kirchheimer, and Herbert Marcuse, not only served in the OSS, but more importantly were crucial in advancing critical theory into the modern university mainstream.  

Particularly influential, Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) motivated a generation of university students who went revolutionary en masse in the 1960s, giving us everything from Tom Hayden’s New Left to terrorists like the Weather Underground and Germany’s Baader–Meinhof fanatics. Marcuse and his colleagues were so successful that the tens of thousands of intellectual Marxists on American and European universities became, decades ago, the dominant intellectual force in Western social sciences. The FBI could root out deep-cover Soviet agents like Alger Hiss, but proved useless against Marcuse and his Marxist academics. 

Big Intel is not just about how things went wrong. The author does suggest ways to fight back, starting by disbanding today’s FBI. Waller argues that a domestic intelligence service like the FBI that also exercises federal police powers is “incompatible with our constitutional form of government.” In point of fact, the bureau was never established in U.S. law by an act of Congress. It was created by bureaucratic legerdemain: a one-page DOJ memo from the year 1908. 

“Since the FBI,” Waller writes, “was founded with a short memo by an attorney general, it can be dissolved with a short memo from a future attorney general.” The author recommends as a first step transferring and dividing the FBI’s functions to other, already existing, national security and law enforcement federal agencies. Waller writes: “[The FBI] has serially abused its authority and the public trust. It has become too politicized to function legally. It is a rogue organization that resists congressional oversight. And it is populating itself with a new, politicized cadre who will make tomorrow’s FBI far worse.”

Indeed, conservatives of all stripes must admit our memory of the patriotic and professional FBI agent is never coming back; some may even argue that he never even existed, but I would join Waller in demurring on that. In any event, our national challenge today is to keep the very real, flesh and blood, Peter Strzok and his ilk out of federal service. It is time for the FBI to go the way of the OSS.  

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