Behind the Bureau: On the FBI

Behind the Bureau: On the FBI

Tim Weiner’s Enemies is not so much a history of the FBI as a compendium of interesting historical material.


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-
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.

* * *

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.

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.

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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