Behind the Bureau: On the FBI | The Nation


Behind the Bureau: On the FBI

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Weiner shows no sympathy for Hoover’s ideological excesses, but he does seem to agree with the director’s overall assessment of early CIA incompetence. In one especially jaw-dropping anecdote, Weiner notes that “the first CIA officer dispatched to Moscow was seduced by his Russian housekeeper,” who happened to be a colonel in the KGB. The hapless agent was then “photographed in the physical act of love, blackmailed, and fired by the Agency for his indiscretions.” By comparison, Hoover often comes across as a manipulative, obsessive but relatively competent bureaucratic leader. Weiner generously declares that Hoover was “not a monster” but “an American Machiavelli”—probably the best epithet Hoover could have hoped for in this day and age. He also scoffs at the longstanding rumor, most recently dramatized in Clint Eastwood’s 
J. Edgar, that Hoover carried on a forty-year homosexual relationship with FBI associate director Clyde Tolson. Weiner relies—not entirely persuasively—on the judgment of old bureau hands who have long insisted that Hoover was simply asexual, incapable of intimacy with either man or woman.

A History of the FBI.
By Tim Weiner.
Buy this book.

About the Author

Beverly Gage
Beverly Gage is a professor of history at Yale University and the author of The Day Wall Street Exploded (Oxford, 2009...

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This is not the final word on Tolson and Hoover, whose relationship was both highly public and deeply private. Still, Weiner is right to reject a cookie-cutter approach to the issue, in which Hoover’s alleged homosexuality is offered up as an example of his perpetual hypocrisy. It is to Weiner’s credit that he acknowledges FBI triumphs as well as travesties, competence as well as incompetence, even when they occur side by side. Weiner rightly laments the 
bureau’s anticommunist witch hunts during
the McCarthy era as a perversion of justice, 
in which ideology largely trumped useful 
intelligence work. At the same time, he notes that the Venona project, in which the FBI 
and the National Security Agency intercepted and decrypted hundreds of Soviet communications, was a marvel of early cold war signals intelligence. More recently, Weiner notes that the FBI’s post-9/11 data-mining and surveillance efforts have cast suspicion on millions of innocent people, even as he credits the FBI for rejecting the torture techniques deployed by the CIA. Above all, Weiner has a healthy sense of how difficult intelligence work is, and how easily it can become a threat to the very people it is supposed to protect.

* * *

The challenge for a writer of Weiner’s caliber is to analyze these contradictory strains of success and failure, excess and restraint. This is where Enemies falls short. Weiner repeatedly notes the back-and-forth between liberty and security in a democratic society, suggesting that the FBI’s history is something like a tennis match between the two. Rather than attempting to resolve or explore these larger political forces, however, Weiner mostly avoids them, jumping from anecdote to anecdote without pausing for much sustained analysis. This makes it difficult to say what Weiner really thinks of the FBI, either as a reporter or as a citizen. Enemies adopts the tone of an exposé without fully identifying which evils exactly are being revealed. The book often seems outraged about contradictory things. In one passage, Weiner criticizes Roosevelt for insisting on a divided intelligence establishment, a policy that Weiner suggests led straight to Pearl Harbor and other intelligence blunders. A few pages later, he excoriates Hoover for trying to consolidate intelligence operations under the FBI’s leadership.

As an investigative reporter, Weiner is skilled at digging up new documents. Unfortunately, he seems to think these documents speak for themselves. Enemies is packed with long passages drawn verbatim from FBI and CIA reports, as well as from oral histories, presidential tapes and State Department files. These are often newsworthy (and highly entertaining), but they are not unmediated glimpses of historical truth. Weiner quotes a memo written in 1943—by an FBI agent hired in 1911—that describes the origins of the bureau. Rather than identifying the document as one among many valuable insights into the FBI’s earliest years, Weiner presents it as the secret truth—“a unique record of the birth of the FBI, whose origins, with reason, were obscured by its founders.”

In that sense, Enemies is not so much “a history of the FBI” as a compendium of interesting historical material—a heavily annotated scrapbook, the meaning of which is left open for the reader to determine. Civil libertarians will find excellent evidence of FBI abuses: warrantless wiretaps, black-bag jobs, secret campaigns against ideological and partisan foes. Espionage buffs will be entertained by the spy-versus-spy intrigue. But no reader will find a clear narrative of how the FBI evolved from a tiny federal investigative force into a behemoth of a modern intelligence agency.

Weiner does identify two critical turning points for understanding the FBI’s more recent history, especially its role in today’s ever-changing intelligence structure. The first was Hoover’s death, which in Weiner’s telling set off decades of chaos and mission confusion that forever changed the FBI’s culture. The second was 9/11, which returned the FBI to full-scale counterterrorism and counterintelligence operations and undid many of the reforms enacted during the political battles of the 1970s. Weiner offers a scathing assessment of the Bush administration, which he suggests surpassed its predecessors in dismantling the legal restrictions on intelligence work. More than once he compares the post-9/11 world unfavorably to the McCarthy era. “Even at the height of the Cold War,” he reminds us, “a free society still looked askance on a secret police.”

For a book focused on the FBI as a “secret police” force that “has best served the cause of national security by bending and breaking the law,” Enemies concludes on a surprisingly upbeat note. Weiner writes that the Obama-era FBI, heir to decades of evasion on wiretapping and political surveillance, has at last settled on a happy medium, in which internal guidelines have set “specific legal limits” on surveillance in an attempt “to repair the damage done in the name of national security under the Bush administration.” Such a cheerful ending will undoubtedly vex critics of Obama’s use of armed drones in Somalia, Afghanistan and elsewhere, as well as his waffling on Guantánamo. It also seems to contradict at least some of Weiner’s own evidence. If Enemies suggests anything, it’s that secrecy prevents us from knowing what’s going on with intelligence work while the operations are under way. The passage of time—and the publication of documents—can change everything. Just look at what happened to J. Edgar Hoover.

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