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Stevie Van Zandt: I deeply respect the FBI. It’s in that spirit that I say they’re getting this very wrong

Opinion by Stevie Van Zandt

(CNN) — I support law enforcement. I’m an independent, “law and order” liberal. My friend, former New York Police Department detective Kevin Schroeder, and I proudly hold a huge fundraiser for law enforcement charities in the US every year in New York City. I count many friends on the job.

I also have friends in the FBI. I’m very grateful for the excellent job the FBI does in keeping us safe every day from a world that seems to grow increasingly and more dangerously insane by the day. Whether it’s the never-ending threat of foreign terrorism or former President Donald Trump’s zealots who have chosen to follow their leader in ignoring the rule of law, the FBI has helped to thwart what feel like hourly threats to our nation’s safety.

I’m sure it doesn’t always feel that we are a grateful nation, but still, on behalf of all Americans, I thank all members of the FBI, including its leadership.

And it’s in that spirit, as a citizen who deeply respects the work of the FBI, that I now write to call on FBI Director Christopher Wray to right a wrong. Wray recently opposed the parole of Native American activist Leonard Peltier. Peltier is serving two consecutive life sentences after being convicted of first-degree murder for killing two FBI agents on June 26, 1975, on the Oglala Lakota Nation’s Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Peltier denies he killed the agents. He has been denied parole before, but now he is 79 and in ill health.

Peltier’s imprisonment has been controversial since the incident that precipitated it. In his letter opposing Peltier’s release, Wray wrote: “Peltier is a ruthless murderer who has shown an utter lack of remorse for his many crimes. His release would strike a serious blow to the rule of law.”

But that’s not the full story. The historical context for this incident was the war that former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was waging against anyone and everyone that he perceived as a threat. His dangerous and illegal tactics under COINTELPRO — the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program, active from 1956 to 1971 — were a direct assault on American citizens. This distorted sensibility continued for far too long after Hoover’s death in 1972. The FBI that pursued Peltier was largely Hoover’s creation.

Wray’s outreach in opposition to Peltier’s release seeks to deny a 79-year-old man on a walker not just parole, but compassionate release. It seems clear to me that only an FBI that is completely detached from its own history would want to end this chapter in this way.

Though some still contest it, the simple reality of the case is this:

Peltier has served nearly 50 years on evidence that decades’ worth of observers have called into question. Witnesses were coerced and advocates say evidence was falsified. Two of the other men charged with the same crime were acquitted. In addition, a witness whose information was key to Peltier’s extradition from Canada to stand trial for the murders later said she made up her story under pressure from the FBI.

My question to Director Wray is also simple. Why would you feel the need to defend Hoover’s FBI by condemning Peltier to die in prison when you have been an integral part of making the contemporary FBI into the law-abiding organization in the righteous defense of the American people it is today?

This isn’t about re-litigating Peltier’s case. It’s about the fact that Hoover’s completely irrational paranoia in regard to the American Indian Movement, the Black Panthers, the Women’s Liberation Movement and other groups encouraged the perpetual harassment of these organizations and members of these movements, leading inevitably to countenanced acts of violence, numerous shootouts and assaults in an environment of constant life-and-death-level fear. It’s about multiple examples of un-American, extralegal activity under the guise of the phony premise of “protecting“ society, in some cases resulting in deaths.

If there was any true historical justice in this world, Hoover’s name would be removed from the building where your organization is headquartered.

Why would you want to defend the actions of a Hoover FBI that considered the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for School Children Program a threat to the FBI’s efforts to protect democracy?

Why would you choose to defend a Hoover FBI that bugged Martin Luther King Jr.‘s hotel rooms to try to embarrass him with the full intention of destroying the Civil Rights Movement?

Let me say it again: Hoover’s FBI did everything it could to consciously and deliberately derail the Civil Rights Movement.

I appreciate loyalty, perhaps more than most, but does the FBI really want to defend any part of that chapter in its history when it doesn’t have to? After all it has accomplished to become an organization Americans can be proud of?

I just don’t understand it. It is my hope that Wray will do as much due diligence as he possibly can on this case and consider writing new letters, explaining that with additional light on the subject, and in the interest of American justice, Leonard Peltier should be released from prison immediately.

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