Tim Weiner begins his extensively-researched history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation by observing that “[o]ver the decades, the Bureau has best served the cause of national security by bending and breaking the law.” The 104 years of the Bureau’s existence has been a constant tug-of-war between the Nation’s need for national security and the desire of its citizens for the protection of civil liberties. And at the center of this struggle between safety and freedom was J. Edgar Hoover, who served a forty-eight year tenure as the head of the FBI.
Weiner benefited from over seventy thousand pages of recently declassified documents and more than two hundred oral histories from agents who worked for the Bureau. Weiner claims the newly unsheathed evidence shows Hoover in a new light; as not a monster but as “an American Machiavelli”: astute and cunning and a master manipulator, but also the architect (for good or evil) of American intelligence and surveillance.
The story begins in 1908 during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s principal concern was anarchists, like the one who assassinated his predecessor, William McKinley. He ordered his attorney general to create an investigative service within the Department of Justice. The order resulted in the formation of the “Bureau of Investigation.” The Attorney General, Charles Bonaparte, sought the approval of Congress to start such an independent bureau, but was emphatically rejected. Bonaparte and TR merely waited until Congress adjourned, and hired 34 “special agents” with money from the Department of Justice’s expense fund. As Mark Twain observed, Roosevelt was “ready to kick the Constitution into the back yard whenever it gets in the way.” Interestingly, the FBI to this day doesn’t have a Congressional charter spelling out its role — it is the creation of an executive order.
Nationwide domestic surveillance under the Espionage Act of 1917 received a fillip when J. Edgar Hoover was appointed chief of the Justice Department’s newly created Radical Division. Originally charged with keeping tabs on radicals and other “untrustworthy” citizens during the war, Hoover turned the appointment into a life-long career.
Hoover’s organization did not become known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation until the early years of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency. The great Depression spawned a crime wave of bank robberies and hijackings. In response to the perceived lawlessness and incompetence of local law enforcement, Congress passed statutes making it a federal matter if interstate travel were involved in the commission of a crime or robbery of a federal bank. The newly christened FBI was charged with enforcing the new federal criminal statutes. With the help of numerous Hollywood movies and some professional public relations, Hoover became the public face of the government’s battle to fight crime.
Despite his public acclaim as a fearless crime fighter, Hoover always considered his primary task to be combating communism, not law enforcement. He made certain that the FBI’s principal activity was intelligence gathering, not the assembly of evidence to sustain legal prosecution. Unbeknownst to the vast majority of Americans, for Hoover’s entire career, the FBI allocated the lion’s share of its resources and talent to surveillance of suspected communists.
From the 1930’s through the 1950’s the Communist Party in the United States never became a mass movement, but it did have several members well placed in the American atomic weapons program, and the Party was clearly beholden if not completely subservient to the Soviet Union. The FBI was able to infiltrate the Communist Party, but it did not identify several spies until they had already disclosed some important atomic secrets and decamped to Russia.
Ignoring the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Fourth Amendment’s proscription of unwarranted searches and seizures, the FBI became expert at “black bag jobs” — breaking and entering private homes and foreign embassies, planting electronic listening devices, and stealing and copying personal documents. That expertise of undetected surveillance was turned on many prominent people. Hoover kept the information thus gathered very secret, but was able to use it as a kind of blackmail when he felt the need.
By the 1960’s the general awareness of the realities of Soviet communism had tarnished the ideological luster of the Communist Party. Membership in the party had shrunk to such a level that it was not clear whether there were more communists in the United States or more FBI agents surveilling them. Nevertheless, Hoover saw communists everywhere. He completely ignored directions from Attorney General Robert Kennedy to investigate “the Mob.” He seems to have genuinely believed that the leaders of the civil rights movement were directed from Moscow. It was not until Lyndon Johnson became president and a series of horrendous murders of civil rights workers occurred that the FBI directed some attention to the Klan.
The assassination of Martin Luther King proved to be a real turning point in the FBI’s priorities. Despite the fact that Hoover and President Johnson despised King, the Bureau pursued King’s assassin relentlessly and caught James Earl Ray after 53 days and one of the most intense man hunts in history.
For most of his career, Hoover paid scant attention to constitutional constraints. He seemed indifferent to the fact that much of the information in his secret files was inadmissible in court. Nevertheless, there were bounds that even he would not cross. When Richard Nixon tried to limit the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in and some illegal wire taps that Henry Kissinger had planted on his own staff, Hoover refused to “call off the dogs.” Hoover died on May 2, 1972, but ultimately, it was information gathered by the FBI that brought down the Nixon presidency on August 8, 1974.
After Hoover’s death, the FBI fell into disrepute as disclosures of his illegal spying and racial prejudice became public. The Bureau faced the embarrassing task of having to investigate itself. Attorney General Edward Levi drafted the first legal guidelines in the Bureau’s history for conducting investigations. The guidelines were governed by the principle that the government should not break the law to enforce the law. Levi assigned Department of Justice personnel to investigate misconduct by FBI agents.
By the 1990’s, with the threat of communism faded and Hoover dead, and the Bureau redirected its attention to the threat of Muslim extremism. Surprisingly, various FBI agents had good partial information on the 9/11 plot to hijack airliners. Lack of information sharing with the CIA complicated the analysis of the various threads that were known by different people in the U.S. security apparatus. Unfortunately, the one agent who was able to connect the dots was ignored by his superiors.
Weiner is optimistic that the current agency has improved its competence and its respect for legal constraints. He points out that FBI agents protected John Ashcroft in his hospital bed when he defied Vice President Cheney’s orders to conduct a program of warrantless electronic surveillance. He notes that administrative structures to share information have been implemented. He describes numerous convictions for engaging in terrorist plots. He gives high marks to the director, Robert Mueller, serving at the time he wrote this book.
Evaluation: This is an important book about a critical national institution. To some extent, it is also a social history of the United States for the last 100 years. The author is thorough in his research and fair in his judgments, giving credit where appropriate and vigorously criticizing the personal shortfalls of many prominent historical figures. It is not a dry history, but like Weiner’s award-winning book on the CIA, Legacy of Ashes, is full of fascinating anecdotes that make you want to run and share them with everyone you know. Highly recommended!
Published by Random House, 2012