Before he became a deputy assistant to the president of the United States, Sebastian Gorka was one of Washington’s many nebulous counterterrorism experts-about-town. It was in this capacity that, in 2011, he was invited to make a presentation on “Islamic extremism” before the FBI’s Washington, D.C. field office to an audience of around 60 agents and intelligence analysts.
According to a report published that year by Wired magazine, Gorka, who believes that “America and her allies are in a war with people who do what they do to please their God and obtain salvation by serving him as warriors” and has refused on multiple occasions to acknowledge that Islam is a religion, was the less extreme of the two speakers invited to address the bureau that day.
While much of the intrigue and outrage at the abrupt firing of former FBI Director James Comey has focused on the investigation into alleged collusion between between members of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia, another question looms just as large: Someone is going to replace Comey as head of an agency with a long and ugly history of racism and Islamophobia, and the person who will appoint them has a long and ugly history of racism and Islamophobia.
Trump surrounds himself with loyalists and flatterers, and has so far filled his administration with officials who mirror his own bigotries. So what happens if a director in the ideological mold of Attorney General Jeff Sessions—a man with an open disregard for civil rights and basic checks on the power of law enforcement—takes over the country’s top law enforcement agency and its vast surveillance apparatus?
Nothing good, basically.
“[J. Edgar] Hoover’s tenure gives us some sense of what this might look like, though obviously it’s a different moment in history,” Beverly Gage, a professor of 20th-Century American History at Yale University who was responsible for revealing the first unredacted copy of the infamous “suicide letter” sent by Hoover’s FBI to Martin Luther King, Jr., tells me. “His views on race really did permeate the FBI, so what the person at the top believes does tend to trickle down to the rest of the bureau.”
Right now, the FBI remains more than 83% white and 80% male. It has also grown less diverse in recent years than it was even two decades ago. (According to statistics from 2015, just 4.5% of the special agents at the end of 2014 were black, a drop from the still paltry 5.6% in 1997.) That kind of homogeneity is rich ground for breeding and transmitting the anti-Islam biases that have defined the agency’s recent history, even when it wasn’t being led by blatant racists like Hoover.
“We have a president who on the campaign trail called for mass surveillance of mosques, with a total disregard and understanding of the rule of law,” says Farhana Khera, president and executive director of the California-based Muslim Advocates, which in 2011 sued the federal government to release the FBI’s guidelines on domestic intelligence gathering. “There is already a concern around the agency’s use of what we call bigoted training materials and trainers. These were materials basically teaching agents a warped and false interpretation of Islam and painting Muslims as the enemy.”
Khera isn’t being hyperbolic. The decision to invite Sebastian Gorka and an even more extreme “expert” to address 60 agents and analysts in 2011 wasn’t an oversight made by a rogue agent, it was a reflection of the kinds of materials being used by the agency to train new recruits and introduce them to Islam.
As detailed in testimony Khera delivered before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2016, a 2009 powerpoint presentation by the FBI’s Law Enforcement Communications Unit called Islam a religion that “transforms [a] country’s culture into 7th-century Arabian ways.” Orientation materials mandated for more than 4,000 members of the agency’s Joint Terrorism Task Force claimed that “Sunni [Muslim] core doctrine and end state have remained the same and they continue to strive for Sunni Islamic domination of the world to prove a key Quranic assertion that no system of government or religion on earth can match the Quran’s purity and effectiveness for paving the road to God.”
This worldview has dictated the agency’s surveillance targets and resulted in more than a decade of invasive monitoring, interference, and entrapment of Muslim and Arab Americans and immigrants in the United States.
“Certainly the amount of data the FBI collects and the lowering of the guidelines [since the September 11 terror attacks] about when they can start investigating people have given them the opportunity to create massive databases that are just on hand,” Michael German, a former special agent at the FBI who is now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, tells me. “There is this huge trove of information they can troll through to find something that might embarrass you or otherwise coerce you into cooperating with the government in whatever they want to do.”
This is the FBI after eight years of operating under a Democratic president and the leadership of directors, like Comey, considered by many to be non-ideological. Attorney General Sessions is now the person in charge of shaping the sprawling authority granted to the FBI, and the person named director will be taking cues from him. It’s no secret what those cues are.
German also pointed to the agency’s targeting of activists, particularly Black Lives Matter and protesters at Standing Rock, as a site of possible escalation under a Trump FBI. It’s a concern shared by Gage.
The leadership of the Justice Department and next next director will shape how the “bureau ends up thinking about crime and what’s legitimate protest and what’s breaking the law,” she says.
“The most obvious piece that’s probably going to come into play here are the themes”—like law and order and a law enforcement crackdown—“that Trump ran on,” she continues. “It has a long history in U.S. politics, most notably associated with Nixon, but that is basically a way of talking about cracking down—often on minority communities—and empowering the police. I would think that a figure like [former New York City mayor and Trump surrogate Rudy] Giuliani has embraced that kind of vision as well.”
Things have been bad, there is no contesting that. But the answer to the question of whether they can get worse is: always. As we saw with the Obama administration’s record number of deportations, overt bigotry isn’t a requirement for catastrophically bigoted policy outcomes. The warning then, as it remains now, was that future presidents would also be inheriting these vast machineries. Now men like Trump and Sessions are pulling the levers.
Toward the end of my conversation with German, which was largely spent sketching out worst case scenarios, I asked him if any of my questions about the FBI under Trump had sounded alarmist. He hesitated a moment and laughed: “I think it’s definitely time for alarm.”