Each week, the FBI sends reporters an email of “top ten news stories” that it hopes will hit the headlines. The press releases usually highlight crooks nabbed, terrorism plots foiled and convictions notched up by the straight-shooting, gang-busting agents from the world’s most famous law enforcement agency.
It’s doubtful any of the cases the FBI likes to publicize made it into Tim Weiner’s absorbing Enemies: A History of the FBI. It is a scathing indictment of the FBI as a secret intelligence service that has bent and broken the law for decades in the pursuit of communists, terrorists and spies. Worse, in his view, the bureau was often grossly inept. As Thomas Kean, Republican chair of the 9/11 Commission, declared in 2004: “You have a record of an agency that’s failed, and it’s failed again and again and again.”
Weiner eviscerates the FBI in a sweeping narrative that is all the more entertaining because it is so redolent with screw-ups and scandals. Like his best-selling last book, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, which documented misdeeds at the CIA, this is a mordant counter-history. It is a compendium of illegal arrests and detentions, break-ins and burglaries, wiretapping and surveillance. Weiner calls it a chronicle of “the tug-of-war between national security and civil liberties”, but it’s clear to him which side won. The CIA denounced his last book. The FBI won’t give him any medals, either.
Weiner’s genius is finding recurring threads that weave through the decades. Here he sees the FBI employ the same illegal tactics, and often the same hysterical rhetoric, against everyone from ‘20s anarchists to al-Qaida. Much of the story is familiar, but Weiner has mined recently released oral histories and declassified documents, and gleaned grime-encrusted nuggets by the cartload. Presumably the FBI has done some useful things over the years, but they get short shrift here. The Hollywood-beloved takedowns of John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, and Bonnie and Clyde, for example, merit one sentence in this 500-plus-page tome. That is one sentence total, not one sentence each.
The sordid story starts in 1908, when the Justice Department set up an investigative unit to help track suspected subversives. New laws banned anarchists from living in the United States. By 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson warned that terrorists and anarchists were the “gravest threats against our national peace and safety,” the bureau had begun rounding up radicals, wiretapping conversations and opening mail.
Enter J. Edgar Hoover, who would serve as the FBI’s imperious director for nearly five decades. Inevitably, Weiner weaves his tale around Hoover’s endless obsessions and hates, and his disdain for the Bill of Rights. Early on, in 1920, determined to crush a “Communist conspiracy,” Hoover presided over the so-called Palmer Raids that netted up to 10,000 people without warrants or due process, the biggest mass arrests in US history. Most suspects ultimately were released.
But the pattern was set. The bureau began spying on thousands of suspected radicals, burgling their offices and homes, intercepting their mail and tapping their phones at Hoover’s whim. No one was immune, including members of Congress. By the ‘30s, bugging, blackmail and break-ins were mainstays of FBI investigations. The bureau tripled in size during World War II, when it began operating overseas for the first time to collect intelligence.
Hoover was determined to turn the FBI into a global espionage organization after the war. But President Harry Truman warned aides that Hoover was “building up a Gestapo.” Furious when Truman authorized creation of the CIA in 1947 — one of the few times Hoover lost an internecine battle — he barred anyone who had ever worked for the FBI from joining the new spy service. He spread rumors that William J. Donovan, a key rival, was a Communist sympathizer, while Donovan whispered that Hoover — who had led a malicious crusade to expel gays from government — was a secret homosexual.
Weiner doesn’t buy the Hoover rumors. Americans know Hoover, he writes, “only as a caricature: a tyrant in a tutu, a cross-dressing crank. None of that is true.” He argues that Hoover had a sexless relationship with his constant companion, Clyde Tolson, mostly because no one can prove otherwise. Overall, he offers grudging respect for the astute cunning and iron will of a man he calls “an American Machiavelli.”
Hoover became his most paranoid, and most dangerous, during the early Cold War. Soviet spy rings were real enough. But Hoover fueled the nation’s anti-Communist frenzy, warning that millions of Russian children were training as “suicide paratroopers”, and that a secret army of domestic Communists secretly plotted to use “weapons of mass destruction”, then a new concept, to destroy America. His solution? He proposed detaining 25,000 political suspects in military stockades, setting up secret prisons for US citizens, suspending the writ of habeas corpus, and so on.
During the ‘60s, the FBI illegally wiretapped and spied relentlessly on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders, convinced they were under Moscow’s direction, but ignored the predatory Ku Klux Klan, the most violent US terrorist group of the century. Hoover balked at investigating the Mafia, but happily built voluminous files on the sex lives of John F. Kennedy and others.
Hoover died in his bed in 1972, and Congress belatedly imposed oversight and reforms on the FBI. Yet the bureau barely changed. Scores of Soviet spies were unmasked in the mid-‘80s, including a senior FBI agent, Robert Hanssen, and Aldrich Ames, a senior CIA officer. They had sold Moscow a catastrophic collection of national security secrets. Weiner’s assessment of the breach is perhaps his most pitiless.
The traitors thrived for so long because US counterintelligence “had become a shambles”, he writes. “The FBI and the CIA had not been on speaking terms for most of the past 40 years. The sniping and the silences between them did more harm to American national security than the Soviets.”
The last few decades largely follow the headlines, including FBI errors prior to the 1993 World Trade Tower attack, the Oklahoma City bombing, and other fiascoes. When al-Qaida emerges in force, Weiner finds senior FBI and CIA counterterrorism specialists “too busy making war on one another” to focus on Osama bin Laden until it is too late. Sadly, one is given little reason to assume the FBI will do better in the future.