Two books on FBI politics

Interested in the politics of the FBI? Check out:

Enemies, by Tim Weiner. A valuable pop history of the FBI’s secret intelligence activities. Any assumption you might have that the FBI has historically been an apolitical group of technocratic law enforcers will be immediately dispelled by this book.

There’s Something Happening Here, by David Cunningham. A scholarly study of the FBI’s perceptions of and responses to different radical and armed actors during the 1960s, based on extensive archival research. This book is part of the basis for my claims below about the views held by the American security apparatus of right-wing militias in the US – they need to be kept an eye on and sometimes need to be cracked down on, but are not existentially threatening or worth full-scale repression. The hard Left, by contrast, was totally baffling and perceived as deeply alien, even when not (or very lightly) armed.


The political basis of the JVP

Below is a simple scattergram of the correlation between the vote for the JVP in 1982’s Presidential election and the turnout level in the 1988 Presidential election. I restrict the sample to 19 primarily-Sinhalese districts, since the LTTE and IPKF throw everything off in Tamil areas. In 1982, the JVP was legal and putting huge effort into electoral mobilization, hoping to lead a leftist resurgence in Sri Lankan politics.

While acknowledging numerous caveats (small # of observations, possible confounders, low vote totals in 1982, etc.), what we see here is neither shocking nor unimportant: areas that voted for the JVP in 1982 were substantially less likely to turn out in 1988.The literature is unanimous in arguing that the JVP actively tried to suppress turnout in 1988 and 1989, so lower turnout, all else being equal, is likely to have something to do with JVP activities (= -.6375). The relationship between 1982 UNP votes and 1988 turnout is the opposite (though it’s less powerful).

This suggests a political-spatial basis to the location of JVP’s ability to suppress voting, rather than a purely military, geographic, or some other functional logic of armed group activity in war. Which shouldn’t be shocking, but does helpfully direct us to get a better handle on the historical roots of JVP support, rather than focusing exclusively on wartime and tactical dynamics.




America’s militias in comparative perspective

This Mother Jones article provides a fascinating glimpse into the world of American right-wing militias. As someone who studies militias, paramilitaries, and other armed groups, it’s worth asking how we can think about these types of actors. Another useful resource is the Southern Poverty Law Center.

First, America’s militias fall into what I refer to in published work (borrowing from Auyero) as a “gray zone” ideological space. They generally seem to be seen as undesirables in the eyes of Washington, DC – a potential problem to be monitored and whose activities need to be contained below a certain level (i.e. not doing Oklahoma City bombings), but not an existential threat to the state or nation. On the ground, it seems like some of these groups are seen by street-level Border Patrol members as more akin to business partners or even allies. They are protected from the kind of full-scale violence monopolization that a mortal enemy would face, instead living in a liminal space between enemy (the stereotypical insurgent/rebel) and friend (pro-state paramilitaries, the armed wings of ruling parties, etc) of the government.

Second, this ideological position is a mixed blessing. The ambiguities of what it means to be a patriotic militia protect it from annihilation – the militias can appeal to the symbols and language of the Constitution, claiming that seek to preserve and uphold the system rather than overthrow it. This is a key reason why large numbers of politicized men with guns are able to operate without attracting the kind of massive crackdowns that a similarly-sized/-armed group of Islamists or Communists would immediately face. Perhaps to their horror, they occupy a similar position as certain Islamist armed groups in Pakistan – unsavory, problematic, but tolerable.

Yet, like with loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, this leads them to attract lower-quality recruits – the formal state security forces are the natural place for highly motivated, educated, and skilled potential recruits seeking to preserve the republic (however, it’s worth noting that a good number of the militia members seem to be former enlisted military).

Though there is surely a lot of variation, one doesn’t get the sense that many of these recruits have articulated a clear political agenda or are able to draw on substantial political, intellectual, or economic resources. Trotskys and Kagames seem scarce. The Mother Jones article clearly identifies the potential dangers of recruiting from this kind of pool: too many unstable, poorly disciplined, and/or unsuccessful individuals who get an adrenaline kick out of playing war, too few of the committed leaders that Reno and Weinstein have identified as crucial for forging enduring rebellion in African civil wars.

Third, this is a hugely fractured movement, rife with rivalries and divisions. Such fragmentation helps militias avoid being perceived as major threats, but limits the movement’s organizational potential. There is no obvious unifying force that can turn localized pockets of discontent into a coherent armed force – depending which militia we’re talking about, these look like what I refer to in my book as fragmented or vanguard groups, with maybe a few parochial groups that draw on specific localities favorable to militia politics.

Without links to parties, social movements, or political entrepreneurs, and in the face of a coherent central security apparatus, this challenge will be enormously difficult to overcome. Nevertheless, potential remains for the various factions and micro-groups to carry out operations that could involve violence or escalation into broader conflict.

Fourth, and finally, this is a reminder that the United States has a long history of political violence: riots, lynching, militias, violent leftist radicals, the KKK, the police, ethnic cleansing, the FBI, etc are all part of American politics. Violence isn’t just something that just happens in the “developing world,” but instead has been central to the formation of our state and society. The American political “mainstream” has been defined by these struggles, and it (and the formal institutions and processes that receive so much study) are garrisoned and made possible by huge, if highly decentralized, security forces. All of this is worth far more attention than it gets.

Social composition of Indian cabinets

Some fascinating data in a recent Livemint piece (h/t Milan Vaishnav):
“According to the political scientists, Christophe Jaffrelot and Gilles Verniers, OBCs have a share of around 20% among elected MPs in the Lok Sabha . While this figure is much more than the share of SCs, it still falls short of a proportionate share given the fact that OBCs have a population share of around 40% in India’s population. The dominance of upper castes and OBCs in Indian Union cabinets has been stark since the early days of the Indian republic, as an earlier Plain Facts column showed. The already skewed balance gets even worse when the BJP comes to power, as can be seen in the figures for 1999 and 2014.”

Sri Lankan Army KIA, 1981-1999

Below I posted about a source I’d found with micro-data on SLA combat fatalities. The OCR-ing has proven more of a challenge than I had hoped, but the information on date and place is inputted for all observations, though we still need to add many of soldiers’ names and do extensive cleaning on names of places, how to aggregate them into districts, etc. I think, combined with the qualitative research, this will also help us generate a clear order of battle for the 1980s/1990s SLA: where which units were, when, conditional on taking at least one fatality.

Preliminarily, this graph shows variation over time in SLA KIA:


The huge spikes are not surprising – the conventional phases of the LTTE-SLA war in the early and late 1990s, with dips during the IPKF and then the 1994-5 ceasefire.

Here are the places where 100 or more SLA members were killed over this period:

Place Freq. Percent Cum.
Vavuniya 954 8.93 8.93
Palaly 875 8.19 17.12
Paranthan 647 6.06 23.18
Kilinochchi 555 5.20 28.38
Welioya 550 5.15 33.53
Mankulam 509 4.77 38.29
Elephant Pass 434 4.06 42.36
Batticaloa 404 3.78 46.14
Mannar 355 3.32 49.46
Pooneryn 286 2.68 52.14
Jaffna 206 1.93 54.07
Mullaittivu 199 1.86 55.93
Vettalaikerni 191 1.79 57.72
Trincomalee 185 1.73 59.45
Vavuniya-Mankulam 143 1.34 60.79
Valachchenai 120 1.12 61.91
Pulmoddai 111 1.04 62.95
Kanagarayakulam 106 0.99 63.95
Vavuniya-Omanthei 100 0.94 64.88

Not much surprising here, either – these are the main battle zones in and around the Tamil north and east.

So what is surprising? I’m intrigued by how *few* SLA casualties we see in the 1980s, even as the country was politically coming apart. Body counts aren’t necessarily a proxy for political disorder – throughout the contemporary and historical literature, you get a sense of a country and political system on the brink, but these are not particularly substantial death counts in comparative perspective, or compared to the size of the Sri Lankan security apparatus.

Also, 1988 and 1989 are pretty light on fatalities despite the raging JVP rebellion in the south. There are 305 KIA in those 2 years combined, with only Welioya, Mannar, Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Cheddikulum, and Matara having 8 or more KIA combined during those two years. I’m going to be doing more on the spatial breakdown of the 1981-87 period with an eye on the LTTE’s rise and then 1987-89 period with a JVP focus.

So either the Army wasn’t that involved in anti-JVP operations compared to the police (data on which I continue to be in search of!) and pro-state paramilitaries, or they were involved but were not particularly vulnerable to JVP operations. I continue to wonder where the claims about total death counts (~40,000) in the 1987-1990 period actually come from, though it’s clear that civilians overwhelmingly bore the brunt of the violence and their experiences are unlikely to recovered from history.