There’s probably not going to be a lot of new stuff written in the next few days, so I’ll be dipping into the archive of old reviews.
This one is from June 30, 2012 …
Review: Enemies: A History of the FBI, Tim Weiner, 2012.
Weiner’s book has one great strength. It rests entirely on on-the-record statements and recently declassified FBI documents. There is no questionable Bob Woodward secret sourcing going on.
Weiner’s book is also well-written and moves quickly – perhaps too quickly when one comes across an area where more detail is sought. However, that’s where the extensive footnotes come in with a great deal of the declassified documents to be found online. And this is, after all, a one volume history with a great deal of ground to cover: the existence of the FBI as a secret intelligence and security service. This book is not at all interested in the FBI investigating conventional crimes.
The FBI came into existence in July 1908 as the Bureau of Investigation in the Justice Department – after Congress had refused to appropriate money for keeping tabs on anarchists, foreign-born radicals, and politicians and developers looting public lands. In typical fashion, Theodore Roosevelt simply waited until Congress adjourned, dipped into a Justice Department’s expense account, and created the agency anyway. It was never created by a Federal charter and still doesn’t have one to this day. From its beginnings, it was there to gather intelligence on suspected and actual subversives.
J. Edgar Hoover, the man synonymous with the FBI, joined the Justice Department in July 26, 1917 at age 22. At age 23, he was overseeing the thousands of Germans interned in government camps during World War One and surveillance of hundreds of thousands of U.S. residents. On August 1, 1919, the 24 year old Hoover was made head of the Justice Department’s new Radical Division which, under the guise of the 1917 Espionage Act – still on the books but rarely enforced – spied on thousands of Americans thought to be violent anarchists or members of a “Red” communist conspiracy. It was in the time of a massive Wall Street bombing and the attempted assassination of several government officials via mailed bombs. The government responded with the famous Palmer raids, massive arrests followed, in the case of the foreign-born citizens, by occasional deportation. But those raids were actually directed and organized by Hoover.
While not a biography, a large part of this book is about Hoover, how he molded the FBI until his death – still as head of the FBI because he had been exempted from a mandatory retirement provision – on May 2, 1972. To his credit, Weiner, on the first page of the book, quickly dismisses nonsense about Hoover as a transvestite or closet homosexual. (Those seem to be rumors spread by William Donovan, head of the OSS, and a political rival of Hoover’s.) What he was, says Weiner, was an “American Machiavelli”. The relationship that many presidents had with him was summed up by the one that relied on him the most, Lyndon Johnson, “a pillar of strength in a city of weak men”. What Hoover’s organization did was provide information on domestic subversion and terrorism, penetrated the link between the American Communist Party (indeed, it had an agent at its first meeting) and its Soviet masters, and, perhaps most astonishingly, provided real-time battlefield intelligence during the forgotten American invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965.
But there were embarrassments that Hoover buried. These weren’t always matters of illegal activity. Hoover sincerely maintained his wiretaps and letter interceptions and buggings and “black bag” jobs (illegal break-ins) were legally ordered by presidents, and Weiner covers the ever changing legal interpretations the Bureau has operated under. They were things like losing track of one Lee Harvey Oswald – exactly the sort of Marxist agitator with Soviet ties that the Bureau was interested in or the pathetic early attempts to run its own intelligence operations in Latin American countries starting in 1940.
Weiner rightly supports the notion that Hoover had a particular idea of America and regarded anyone threatening that as a subversive worth keeping an eye on. The notorious COINTELPRO program was about that – specifically not only monitoring groups regarded as subversive but destroying them through propaganda campaigns and by sowing dissension within them. While the Ku Klux Klan was targeted along with left wing groups, Weiner does establish that Hoover was far less interested in the latter.
And Hoover was always interested in perpetuating the legend of the spyhunting FBI, wanted the agency to be highly regarded. It was the possible fear of exposure and the attendant public relations damage he feared, and not any legal squeamishness, that made him pull back on domestic spying operations as early as 1966 and 1967. And Weiner is quite good on the wars between the CIA and the FBI and notes the times that the FBI scooped the former with correct information.
The book’s first three parts, “Spies and Saboteurs”, “World War”, and “Cold War”, cover the Hoover years. The last 142 pages of text cover the FBI’s recent efforts on fighting terrorism and its general patheticness in internal communication, intelligence analyses, cybernetic resources, and focus, and it how was penetrated by several double agents. It is here that we get the second major figure of the book, Robert Mueller, who is clearly Weiner’s ideal of an FBI director, the figure who squared the circle of reconciling security with constitutional freedoms. As someone who was an adult during most of those years, it was still good to have various news stories of recent FBI activity put in a context or, in some cases, hearing about them for the first time.
For those interested in the history of American counterintelligence, this is essential as a one volume resource for the FBI. However, it is not without some questionable elements and omissions. Weiner insinuates that the Industrial Workers of the World simply practiced rhetoric against World War One. In fact, some of the organizations leaders did conspire with members of German intelligence to foment rebellion in parts of America. It is implied that Director Louis Freeh was wrongly obsessed with President Clinton’s sexual misconduct and investigating Chinese influence pedaling instead of investigating terrorism. Freeh’s tenure certainly was not good for the FBI, but you could argue that Clinton’s perjury was probably as serious a crime as Nixon’s Watergate cover-up – the scandal that continues to fascinate journalists like Weiner and makes for the only boring reading in the book. (In Weiner’s defense, Watergate did play a large role in creating disarray in the FBI and is integral to the book’s theme.) As for Chinese espionage, that country’s intelligence operations seem to use no neat division between military and political operations, government agents and private citizens seeking favor with their government. I note that no mention is made of the controversial FBI investigation of Israeli espionage in America, specifically the charging of Larry Franklin by the FBI under the 1917 Espionage Act in the so-called AIPAC spy scandal. Since Weiner makes a point of noting that Vides Casanova, the El Salvadoran National Guard general suspected of ordering the murder of four American church workers, was granted U.S. residency by President Reagan, why not also note that President Clinton gave pardons to 16 members of the FALN, the Puerto Rican terrorist group involved in over a hundred bombings as well as at least six murders and an armored car robbery and that is mentioned in the book several times?
Finally, the name of Jamie Gorelick appears nowhere in the book though she is sometimes blamed for the “wall” that inhibited the sharing of intelligence between FBI agents working criminal matters and those working intelligence cases. Weiner portrays it as purely an institutional misunderstanding on the part of the FBI, not the result of a dictum from a Justice Department superior.
Still, in that matter, as well as his favoring liberty and civil rights over security, Weiner’s book is also a useful counterargument to many prevailing political currents these days. Even if you don’t agree with his conclusions, his data’s validity must be acknowledged however incomplete the context is at times.