Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide: How the New FBI Damages Democracy
September 12, 2019
NYU Washington, DC, the John Brademas Center of New York University, and the Brennan Center for Justice hosted an evening discussion featuring Brennan Center Fellow and former FBI special agent Michael German, and Senior Washington News Correspondent for WBUR Boston, Kimberly Atkins.
The events of 9/11 transformed life in the United States —and with it, U.S. law enforcement, especially the FBI. After the attacks, the FBI, once made famous by prosecuting organized crime and corruption, shifted its focus to the disruption of terrorist activity. The problem: their strategy relies upon the discredited theory of “radicalization.” By targeting Muslims, foreigners, communities of color, and dissidents, the FBI pitted American communities against one another. And it ignored the threat of white nationalist violence.
In his new book, Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide, German details the transformation of the FBI from a law enforcement body into a secretive domestic intelligence agency. For 16 years, German served in the FBI and twice infiltrated extremist groups using constitutionally sound law enforcement techniques.
German examined the direction the agency has taken since 9/11 and its effect on public life and civil liberties. How did the Patriot Act alter the role and structure of the FBI? What are the dangers of ignoring white nationalist terrorism? What changes are needed to protect national security while respecting constitutional rights?
Please note that this event may have been filmed and/or photographed.
Kimberly Atkins, Senior Washington News Correspondent, WBUR, Boston
Kimberly Atkins is a senior news correspondent for WBUR, covering national political news from Washington, D.C., with a New England focus. She is also an MSNBC contributor, providing on-air analysis and commentary of the national political news of the day.
Before joining WBUR, Kimberly served as the Washington bureau chief at the Boston Herald, focusing her coverage on the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court and national news. She has appeared as a political commentator on a host of national and international television and radio networks, including CNN, Fox News, NBC News, PBS, NPR, Sky News (U.K.) and CBC News (Canada). She also previously served as a guest host of C-SPAN’s morning call-in show “Washington Journal,” where she interviewed lawmakers, public policy experts and journalists about the issues on Capitol Hill.
Kimberly was previously Washington bureau chief for the Dolan Company newspapers, a group of legal and business publications, where she focused primarily on covering the Supreme Court. She has also worked as a reporter at the Boston Globe and the Journal News in Westchester County, New York.
Before launching her journalism career, she was a trial and appellate litigation attorney in Boston.
Kimberly is a native of Michigan, and a graduate of Wayne State University, Boston University School of Law and Boston University College of Communication, and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Michael German, Brennan Center Liberty & National Security fellow; former FBI Special Agent; author of Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide: How the New FBI Damages Democracy
Michael German is a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, which seeks to ensure that our government respects human rights and fundamental freedoms in conducting the fight against terrorism. A former special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, his work focuses on law enforcement and intelligence oversight and reform. Prior to joining the Brennan Center, Mr. German served as the policy counsel for national security and privacy for the American Civil Liberties Union Washington Legislative Office.
Mr. German is the author of Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide: How the New FBI Damages Democracy, published in 2019 by The New Press. The book chronicles how the FBI transformed itself after the 9/11 attacks from a law enforcement agency famous for prosecuting organized crime and corruption to arguably the most secretive domestic intelligence agency the country has ever seen.
A sixteen-year veteran of federal law enforcement, Mr. German served as a special agent with the FBI, where he specialized in domestic terrorism and covert operations. As an undercover agent, German twice infiltrated extremist groups using constitutionally sound law enforcement techniques. These operations successfully prevented terrorist attacks by winning criminal convictions against terrorists. He also served as a counterterrorism instructor at the FBI National Academy. There, he taught courses on extremism in democratic societies and developed a graduate-level training program for state, local and international law enforcement officers.
Mr. German left the FBI in 2004 after reporting continuing deficiencies in FBI counterterrorism operations to Congress. He began lecturing on counterterrorism and intelligence matters and served as an adjunct professor for Law Enforcement and Terrorism at the National Defense University. He joined the ACLU Washington Legislative Office staff in 2006. Mr. German is the author of scholarly articles including “Squaring the Error,” published by the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College and “Trying Enemy Combatants in Civilian Courts,” published in the George Washington Law Review. His first book, Thinking Like a Terrorist: Insights of a Former FBI Undercover Agent, was published in 2007. Mr. German currently serves on the Constitution Project's Liberty and Security Committee and is a Senior Fellow with GlobalSecurity.org. Mr. German graduated from the Northwestern University Law School, and graduated cum laude from Wake Forest University with a B.A. in Philosophy.
Impressively researched and eloquently argued, former special agent Mike German’s Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide tells the story of the transformation of the FBI after the 9/11 attacks from a law enforcement agency, made famous by prosecuting organized crime and corruption in business and government, into arguably the most secretive domestic intelligence agency America has ever seen.
German shows how FBI leaders exploited the fear of terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11 to shed the legal constraints imposed on them in the 1970s in the wake of Hoover-era civil rights abuses. Empowered by the Patriot Act and new investigative guidelines, the bureau resurrected a discredited theory of terrorist “radicalization” and adopted a “disruption strategy” that targeted Muslims, foreigners, and communities of color, and tarred dissidents inside and outside the bureau as security threats, dividing American communities against one another. By prioritizing its national security missions over its law enforcement mission, the FBI undermined public confidence in justice and the rule of law. Its failure to include racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and xenophobic violence committed by white nationalists within its counterterrorism mandate only increased the perception that the FBI was protecting the powerful at the expense of the powerless.
Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide is an engaging and unsettling contemporary history of the FBI and a bold call for reform, told by a longtime counterterrorism undercover agent who has become a widely admired whistleblower and a critic for civil liberties and accountable government.