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Why I learned to respect the FBI

Then-acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe testifies in June

Then-acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe testifies in June on Capitol Hill. Credit: AP / Alex Brandon

In 1982, shortly before I graduated from college, I was interrogated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

There was no bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. No cloaks or daggers. Just two slightly overweight men in shirtsleeves and ties, asking me about a guy named Vladimir.

Not Vladimir Putin, of course, who was an unknown KGB operative at the time. They wanted to know about a man who had shown up one night at the college paper at Columbia University, where I was the editor-in-chief. He said he was a political scientist in the Soviet Union, specializing in American student journalism.

I thought that was pretty cool, so I agreed to have a drink with him. One drink became another. And then we hung out a few more times, always at dive bars in Morningside Heights.

I never heard from Vlad (as he called himself) after that. But I did hear from an FBI agent, who asked me to come to his office downtown.

I was shown into a drab room, where the guy who had called me was sitting on a cluttered desk next to another agent. They got straight to the point. Vlad was a Soviet spy, they said. They wanted to know what we had discussed, and whether Vlad had asked me to help him in any way.

I told them to be fruitful and multiply. But not in those words.

Actually, talking to Vlad had done more to turn me against Communism than anything else I had experienced. He defended the recent Polish crackdown against the Solidarity labor movement. And he told me that novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a liar, dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov was a “bad guy,” and Jews had it good in the Soviet Union.

But I didn’t tell my friendly FBI inquisitors any of that. Put simply, I hated the FBI. And with good reason, or so I thought.

A few years earlier, elements of the agency had conspired with Richard Nixon to cover up the Watergate burglary. It had planted undercover agents in college classrooms. It had harassed gays. And it had spied on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., then sent him anonymous letters threatening to expose his marital infidelities.

How would I handle my interrogation today? Frankly, I’m not sure. There’s still something creepy to me about our own government spying on Americans to prevent foreign espionage.

But it’s even creepier when our own president openly denigrates the agency, despite everything it has done to clean itself up since the Watergate era. The FBI of today is not the FBI of yesteryear. But you wouldn’t know it from listening to Donald Trump, who seems stuck in a 1970s time warp. He almost sounds like . . . well, like me, 30-some years ago.

Just last week, after Assistant Director Andrew McCabe was fired, Trump denounced “lies and corruption” at “the highest levels of the FBI.” And late last year, he declared that the agency was “in tatters” and the “worst in history.”

Really? Worse than the FBI that colluded with Nixon to cover up Watergate? Worse than the FBI that hounded gays and civil rights leaders?

Don’t get me wrong: no government official should be above the law. If McCabe — or anybody else in the FBI — abused his authority, we should know about it.

But we should also show more respect for the thousands of people in the agency who work — fairly, reasonably, and professionally — to keep all of us safe. I wish I had done that, back in my younger days, but now I know better. Too bad our own president doesn’t.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania and is co-author of “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools.”