Why trust the FBI or any intelligence agency on Russia? They targeted civil rights activists for years.
We really don’t have proof of the Russians doing anything. Why trust these agencies now?
These are completely legitimate questions that I hear from black folks from time to time on social media and in person. I get it. Black people have a very conflicted relationship with law enforcement, be it local or federal policing. There are plenty of examples throughout the decades of these powerful entities harming black communities. Yet we depend on them to protect and serve us, despite their horrendous records of abuse.
The FBI has a particularly violent history (and if we are discussing the intelligence community in general, that extends to the present) of being aggressive against black liberation movements. COINTELPRO, for example, was one of the most disruptive anti-black law-enforcement programs the nation has ever waged against black civil rights activists.
Yet today the FBI stands as the single most important federal entity that will ultimately determine whether charges should be filed against people in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign for working with Russian entities to secure his victory on Election Day.
Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar, a historian at the University of Connecticut who researches the history of law enforcement targeting black people, told me he looks at the FBI the same way he does police agencies, school systems, the military or any other institution in the United States over the course of history. Ogbar brings up the history of the Atlanta Police Department as an example. One-quarter of the officers were once allegedly Ku Klux Klan members, and black officers could not arrest white people until 1960, Ogbar told me. By comparison, today’s Atlanta Police Department is majority African American and has black leadership.
“Institutions aren’t static,” said Ogbar, who believes the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian collusion. “I can’t see the Atlanta Police Department the same as it was in 1960, any more than I can think [the] FBI is the same as it was in 1960. It doesn’t mean it is incapable of committing some of the same offenses as it did before.”
For me, one of the toughest facts to respond to is that there is no publicly available smoking gun proof connecting the Democratic National Committee hack and other disinformation efforts to the Kremlin. The intelligence report released (pdf) in January is an assessment of what happened, not proof of an actual crime. It’s the job of the FBI and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation to figure out if any crime happened from either the Russian or Trump sides.
C. Christian Grant, who spent 12 years as an FBI and Defense Intelligence Agency officer, told me it could take decades before Americans learn the real facts of the Russia investigation. For starters, if the intelligence community laid out every detail of proof it has of Russia collusion, it could hamper the current investigation and even lead to the loss of life.
“If you divulge that information, you run the risk of divulging sources and collecting methods, and you want to still continue to be able to collect [information],” Grant, who is African American and tracked Russian targets in the U.S. for four years, told me. “That information is probably held by a small number of individuals or possibly one individual. If that information gets out, Russia, as you know, has a way of dealing with spies and folks who they think are giving up information.”
A recent example of the FBI’s surveillance of black people dates back to the years after 9/11, when, Vice reported, the bureau identified Ayyub Abdul-Alim as a possible informant who could spy on members of the Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem, which was connected to the black nationalist movement during the 1960s. Somehow, the FBI drew a connection between black nationalism and al-Qaida, Michael German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University and a former FBI special agent specializing in terrorism, told Vice earlier this year.
“The [FBI] files suggest that Muslims with family connections to black nationalist groups of the 1960s and 1970s were, after 9/11, viewed as suspicious, as part of the heightened focus on international terrorism and al-Qaida,” German said.
Abdul-Alim is serving a four- to six-year sentence for illegal-gun-possession charges. He believes that the charges are connected to his refusal to become an FBI informant.
Of course, the Russia investigation is a different can of worms. But the case of Abdul-Alim is another example of how our federal agencies have tried to draw conclusions that simply are not there. There was no proof of criminal activity at the Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood, but the possibility of criminality was strongly considered after Sept. 11.
I asked Grant, the FBI and DIA officer, if he was ever asked to spy on black organizations. He said, “No.” (I get it. He would not admit to such actions anyway, but I had to ask.) But he did tell me that he was very aware of the history of modern-day intelligence and law-enforcement agencies like the FBI and how some black people may be resistant to trusting the bureau’s judgment on Russian collusion.
In the end, he feels it is important that people remember that the Kremlin’s actions hurt every American, regardless of race. An attack against America’s electoral process is one of the toughest blows one can inflict. Grant also feels confident that the DIA and FBI he joined in the 2000s aren’t the same as their forebears of the 1960s.
But if you still have reservations about the investigation, given the intelligence community’s history, Grant understands.
“Folks have a right to be skeptical,” he said. “And if you’re not skeptical, then something is wrong with you.”