I ran across a PunditFact article today, where Louis Jacobson seeks to refute Greg Jarrett’s contention that “The FBI has become America’s secret police … like the old KGB.” I won’t take up Jarrett’s comparison with ‘the old KGB.’ I’d say the FBI more resembles the new KGB: secretive, deceitful, and incompetent. If you say ‘the old KGB,’ someone will ask, “Well, which decade?”
Jacobson’s article is interesting in its use of words. He says that police who operate in secret are not secret police if they operate under rule of law. Good heavens! Secret police operate in secret because they want to escape rule of law. You turn over a rock, and you do not expect to find beautiful organisms growing underneath. You expect to find sun-starved Gollum in his cave, tending to his ring of power. If the FBI or any police force wished to obey the law, they would not need secrecy.
More significantly, you can hardly say we have rule of law anywhere anymore. Government authorities do what they like. They pretend to operate under rule of law, because perceptions of lawfulness work to their advantage. That is certainly the case for the FBI. The more people believe the FBI represents lawful authority, the more freedom the agency has to deviate from it.
A foundational principle of our republic is that unchecked authority is lawless authority. Secrecy enables agencies like the FBI to operate unchecked. As long as the agency operates in secret, its authority is by definition illegal. Rule of law and legitimate authority both require transparency. We all know that. Jacobson ought to know it. The pretense of legality founded on secrecy – where we accept secrecy as a condition of security, then illogically liken security with rule of law – can’t continue. We already have no respect for institutions that claim to protect us.
In the end, secret police are neither police, nor secret. They are just storm troopers who run around with impressive gear to intimidate people.