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VIEWPOINT The FBI, Loaves of Bread, Corruption, and Reform
by Nick Patricca
2023-01-25

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When I was 13 years old I used to ride shot gun with my uncle A. on his Italian bread truck deliveries. My job was to enter the store with him and remove the old, stale loaves of bread while he carried in the new, fresh loaves of bread. I performed these duties most Saturdays and school holidays to earn a few dollars to assist the family budget.

Most deliveries were normal transactions except for a few "special stops" when I had to deliver a large hollowed out Sicilian loaf of bread so that the store keeper could stuff it with numbers slips. When that particular store had a "hit" my hollowed out loaf of bread had cash inside to pay off the winner.

My uncle A. was a small time bookie.

At various times during these "special stops," I witnessed my uncle bribing City of Pittsburgh police who were there waiting for him. One Saturday, I decided to discuss these bribes with him. His response to my questioning was, "Everyone is on the take. It's the way of the world."

I naively replied "not the FBI."

The following Saturday, my uncle took me to the Spigno-Saturnia Society Club in the Larimer Avenue area in East Liberty for lunch. While we were eating, two men in suits came to our table. My uncle asked them to show me their ID's. They were FBI. I was impressed. Then, my uncle handed them envelopes stuffed with cash.

That was my first FBI lesson.

My second FBI lesson happened when I was teaching theology at Loyola University Chicago. I had several FBI agents in my graduate classes. Two of the agents came to me to discuss some moral dilemmas they were suffering: They were either witnessing or participating in the manufacturing and planting of evidence against Catholic nuns and priests who were protesting the Vietnam War.

We had long difficult discussions on how to handle these situations. They were honest, competent men caught up in a corrupt system.

Today, there is a large chorus of calls for reforming the FBI—several for abolishing the FBI—because of its incompetence, its partisan political actions, its corruption. These calls come from the full spectrum of contemporary U.S. politics: right, left, center, Republican, Democrat, Independent.

Let's examine some of the reasons for these calls for reformation or abolishment.

Beginning in June of 2018 and continuing through August of 2021, the Inspector General of the Department of Justice issued several reports on the conduct of the FBI in its investigations of politicians and political campaigns in the 2016 elections.These reports document a long list of failings on the part of the FBI regarding procedures, regulations, and laws.

These failings did not break in favor of one party or another, but encompassed all of the FBI investigations—whether of Hillary Clinton's emails, or of the ties of Donald Trump's campaign to foreign agencies such as actors for the Russian State, or of the relationships of federal agents to social and other media. Among the many instances of improper procedures, the reports cite two cases of special interest: that of former FBI Director James Comey in regard to the Hillary Clinton emails, and that of former Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr in regard to foreign actors in the Trump campaign.

In the first case, it is alleged that Comey decided to bypass his superiors for fear that either President Barack Obama or Attorney General Loretta Lynch would interfere with his decision to re-open the investigation of Clinton emails—a decision made two weeks before the presidential election with possible effects on that election. In the second case, it is alleged that Ohr decided to bypass his superior Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in the Trump Administration for the same reason—possible political interference.

Whether Comey and Ohr were right or wrong, their concerns were entirely valid. History shows clearly and abundantly how politics influences and often controls the work of the FBI.

J. Edgar Hoover used the FBI to investigate, harass, and hunt down anyone he judged to be a threat to his idea of "America." In the '70s, US Senator Frank Church initiated an investigation of the FBI, the CIA and other federal agencies focusing on their illegal surveillance of U.S. citizens and of their systematic programs of actions against persons and groups they judged hostile to US interests.

The Church committee brought about significant reform of the FBI, putting into place procedures and policies designed to protect citizens and prevent the political weaponizing of federal police powers. It is an open question as to how well these reforms have worked.

From its beginnings, the FBI has been a federal political police force. The FBI was instituted after the assassination of President William McKinley, September 1901, to hunt down and eliminate "anarchists.'' Among the original targets of the Bureau were Mexican-U.S. citizens working to overthrow the tyrannical dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, president for life of Mexico. The FBI shut down newspapers, arrested people on both sides of the US-Mexico border, surveilled and interfered with first class mail, and, in some cases, cooperated with the killing of opponents of Díaz ... all in the name of protecting U.S. property in Mexico and the "American" way of life in the USA.

In January, the Republican-controlled House of the U.S. Congress initiated an investigation of the FBI. This investigation is an opportunity for the Republican party to demonstrate that, like the Church committee, it is interested in governing in the best interests of the American people in a bipartisan manner—anything other than this course of action prolongs the dysfunction in Washington and the necessary reform of the FBI.

Without the trust of the American people, the FBI cannot do its job. Without this trust, our next presidential election will generate even more suspicion of—and hostility to—federal authority, further damaging the democratic values of our republic.

2023 © nicholas.patricca@gmail.com

Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago; president of Chicago Network JP; member, Writers in Prison, San Miguel PEN; member, TOSOS Theatre Ensemble, NYC.


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