Behind the Bureau: On the FBI
J. Edgar Hoover died forty years ago, at the reasonably ripe age of 77. The timing of his death—a heart attack on May 1, 1972—turned out to be a blessing and a curse for his historical legacy. Had he lived a few months longer, he could have become mired in Watergate and been tarnished by the downfall of his longtime ally Richard Nixon. A few years beyond that and he might have been hauled before the Church Committee to answer for the civil liberties abuses committed during his thirty-seven-year tenure at the FBI. His death spared him the experience of seeing the bureau maligned, denounced and partially dismantled in the 1970s. But it also made him a poster boy—often rightly, sometimes wrongly—for all that had gone wrong in American intelligence policy since the ugly days of the Palmer raids in the wake of World War I. In the four decades since his death, Hoover has come in for merciless treatment at the hands of journalists, biographers and government investigators seeking to expose his secrets and scuff up his polished public image. Today, most Americans know him best not as the consummate public serv-â¨ant of FBI lore but as a tyrannical brute and alleged cross-dresser who spent a lifetime assaulting Americans’ constitutional rights.
At first glance, Tim Weiner’s Enemies fits comfortably into the tradition of exposé. A longtime intelligence reporter, Weiner is best known for Legacy of Ashes, his award-winning 2007 indictment of the CIA’s secret operations since its founding in the late 1940s. Enemies promises revelations from never-before-seen FBI files and vows that the truth about the bureau has—at last—come out. But the truth, it turns out, is rather messy. Enemies suffers from one-damned-thing-after-another syndrome, a common hazard with case-based intelligence histories. The book covers a wide range of issues and contexts, from the civil liberties violations committed in the bureau’s early years to World War II espionage on up through the “war on terror.” Weiner seems determined to judge each episode on its merits, and at its best Enemies is surprisingly evenhanded. But at its worst, Enemies collapses under the weight of its internal contradictions. Weiner describes his book as a study of “a century of constant conflict over the conduct of secret intelligence in an open democracy.” Unfortunately, Enemies often seems to embody rather than explain that conflict.
Weiner begins with the founding of the Bureau of Investigation in 1908 and traces its evolution from a tiny, incompetent band of misfits into the Hoover-led powerhouse reorganized as the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935. From there, he offers a selective and often fascinating journey through the FBI’s efforts to protect the nation from its alleged “enemies, foreign and domestic.” Enemies does not pretend to be an encyclopedic institutional history. Instead Weiner focuses on the FBI’s intelligence work: ferreting out Russian spies, running American agents against the Russians in turn, manipulating foreign governments, investigating terrorism and keeping tabs on that dubious category of malcontents known as “domestic subversives.” As Weiner notes, the FBI has long been a hybrid agency: part police force, part secret intelligence bureau. And we tend to know a lot more about one side of the story than the other. Enemies is an attempt to fill in some of those gaps.
Weiner summons a blend of well-worn FBI scholarship and new revelations from declassified intelligence files acquired through the Freedom of Information Act. The first quarter of the book, which covers the period from 1908 to 1940, draws heavily on the work of such historians as Richard Gid Powers and Athan Theoharis. During these early years, Weiner writes, the bureau bounced in and out of secret intelligence work as public opinion, institutional priorities and presidential directives seemed to demand. In the main, though, it was a law enforcement agency—and not a terribly good one. The early bureau failed to solve many of its biggest cases, including the 1920 Wall Street bombing, the era’s worst terrorist attack. It also bungled its first high-profile campaign against the communists and anarchists who would become the lifelong focus of Hoover’s domestic intelligence efforts.
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The Palmer raids of 1919–20 turned out to be a disaster for the bureau. With the Bolshevik Revolution stirring up fears among some Americans of a similar revolt at home, the bureau helped round up thousands of alleged communists, anarchists and other left-wingers, often ignoring the need for warrants and failing to distinguish between resident aliens and homegrown radicals. It also lacked the legal authority and the institutional know-how to carry out a mass deportation effort. In response, the fledgling ACLU joined forces with some of the nation’s most prominent attorneys to make the case that the bureau was acting outside the limits of the law. Among those persuaded was Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone, who shut down the bureau’s political surveillance apparatus upon assuming office in 1924.
The Palmer scandal foreclosed serious domestic intelligence operations for more than a decade, until Franklin Roosevelt gave the go-ahead for the FBI to plunge back in. In telling this next chapter of the story, Enemies finally hits its mark. Roosevelt was cagey with his orders at first, encouraging Hoover to keep an eye on homegrown fascists and communists as early as 1934 but refusing to put the instructions in writing. When World War II began five years later, the FBI’s intelligence mission quickly expanded. In the two years between Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the bureau doubled in size. It also acquired jurisdiction over espionage, sabotage and “subversion” cases throughout the Western Hemisphere. Today we tend to think of the CIA (another product of World War II) as the foreign intelligence wing, with the FBI mostly limited to domestic soil. During the 1940s, however, the FBI took charge of fully half the world—albeit the half least engulfed in war.
The FBI’s activities abroad, especially during World War II, are perhaps the least studied aspect of its history, and Weiner provides a valuable, detailed and sometimes shocking account of what bureau agents were up to at that time. Despite its glowing reputation in the 1930s, the FBI was not particularly well prepared for the exigencies of wartime intelligence work. As a result, agents assigned to the new Special Intelligence Service, the FBI’s South America division, faced a steep learning curve. Weiner narrates the war as a series of desperate experiments in spying and counterspying, with the FBI initially a laughingstock to the more established diplomatic services. Things got so bad that Hoover begged to get out of the South America work—one of the “few examples of Hoover offering to cede power,” as Weiner notes. Roosevelt refused the request, eager to keep the intelligence services competing with (and often undermining) one another. So the FBI adapted to the challenge as best it could, creating a “legal attaché” position that allowed its agents to work with rather than against the State Department and established a permanent infrastructure for FBI activities abroad.
One of the dirty secrets of espionage work, Weiner explains, is that success or failure often depends more on jurisdictional cooperation (or the lack thereof) than on any given agency’s competence. In one of the book’s best chapters, Weiner provides a sharp account of Hoover’s attacks on the early CIA as a cabal of socialists, adventure seekers and clueless intellectuals. “Their use as a secret intelligence agency in the postwar world [is] inconceivable,” Hoover sputtered to Truman—with little effect. Hoover had hoped that Truman would abolish the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA, and place the FBI in charge of global intelligence. Instead, he got a permanently divided intelligence establishment.