There is a lot of buzz at the present moment about American Hustle, which has received ten Oscar nominations. While the film is characterized by excellent acting, it provides poor historical context to fully understand the FBI's ABSCAM investigation of the late 1970s. The viewer is led to believe the investigation of members of Congress on bribery charges inadvertently fell into the lap of the bureau, instead of being part of a major FBI program aimed at "public corruption."
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter named a former federal judge, William Webster, to the FBI director's post and Webster made public corruption an early priority, doubling the number of cases in this area to about 1,000 within his first year in office. In addition to investigating members of Congress, the FBI went after other elected officials -- governors, state legislators, and mayors.
As I write about in The Dangers of Dissent (2010), the public corruption probes had a built-in ideological goal: to restore public confidence in government, fighting the “credibility gap” that developed after the Watergate crisis and the congressional Church committee hearings. In a speech Webster delivered on October 17, 1980, before the Atlanta Bar Association -- a speech I obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) -- Webster outlined the background and goals of this initiative. “It’s reported that public officials today rank somewhere in popularity below that of the used car salesman,” Webster said.
While he recognized that “just to have it known that a public official is under any kind of investigation may jeopardize his reputation,” Webster believed the FBI needed to play a major role to restore regime legitimacy. “The abuse of public trust through corruption undermines all Government including the lessening of respect for law enforcement…Perhaps nothing could be more important as we emerge from the post-Watergate era…Public corruption involving kickbacks is very widespread.”
American Hustle does not reference past FBI undercover operations which also employed entrapment methods. For example, under COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), which ran from 1956 to 1971, undercover informers and agents routinely advocated violence within groups and organized crimes to tempt people to break the law. However, during ABSCAM, the FBI dealt with members of Congress, not radicals. As a result, undercover FBI agents led the operations, although informers, too, played key roles.
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As Webster told the Rotary Club of Chicago on Sept. 12, 1978. “We used to rely substantially upon informant information and forensic evidence, but now we have a large cadre of volunteer Special Agents acting in undercover capacities.” As Webster explained, the benefit of the undercover agent over the informer is training. “The undercover Agent is more disciplined and obviously more trustworthy than the conventional informant.” Agents were preferred in cases with large transfers of money. In a context of “extreme danger,” so too the agent was favored over the informer. Agents, as opposed to informers, were more likely to have the “psychological capacity to deal effectively with role playing.”
Were undercover agents permitted to break the law? “Obviously, our undercover agents are not going to engage in the type of illegal activity that involves violence or bloodshed, but it is necessary for them to go along with some of that activity in order to preserve their cover... Almost every undercover operation exposes the undercover Special Agent to one or more technical violations of the law.”
American Hustle uncritically accepts the FBI narrative of ABSCAM, while many critics at the time raised civil liberty concerns. For example, soon after details of the investigation reached the press, Adlai Stevenson, the former liberal Democratic presidential candidate, said: “The FBI is trying to harass and entrap innocent citizens, and to play games with U.S. senators.”
Civil libertarians noted government should not create crimes under any circumstances. Moreover, the timing of the ABSCAM investigation suggests it might have been designed as payback for the critical Church committee hearings. That is, the FBI sought to punish Congress for exposing its own past corruption.
Webster noted in the October 17, 1980 speech: “In the FBI we’ve been under attack for past incidents and circumstances. It’s quite understandable for those in Congress who love their institution, who are trying to rebuild its reputation and the confidence of the American people, to have an encounter and deal with a situation of this kind, and emotions run high. It’s my sense that the good sense of the Congress, similar to the emotions in the Bureau when they had their times, that now people are saying, well, let’s wait and see what the facts are, and at the proper time and in the proper forum, I’ll be prepared, the Attorney General will be prepared to discuss in great detail the way in which these undercover operations function.”
American Hustle does not engage such important contextual matters. The history of the FBI role in ABSCAM is a lot more complicated than depicted on screen here. Yet, the film is compelling and offers a glimpse into an important FBI investigation whose meaning still is subject to debate.
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