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Book Review: All in the Family: America’s Big Brother

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Enemies: A History of the FBI by Tim Weiner (New York: Random House, 2012), 560 pages.

Since its humble beginnings in 1908 with a pint-sized force of 34 special agents, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has always been the pillow over the face of the First Amendment. From its inception, the FBI was first and foremost an intelligence agency interested in what people said and believed and whom they associated with, not whether they actually violated the law. Law enforcement — the click of handcuffs and the clang of prison doors sliding shut after the burdens of due process were satisfied — always came second, when it came at all, writes Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former New York Times reporter Tim Weiner in his magisterial Enemies. “Over the decades, the Bureau has best served the cause of national security by bending and breaking the law. A secret police is anathema in a democracy,” he notes at the outset of his book. “But the FBI’s powers make it America’s closest counterpart.”

The Bureau, aptly enough, was the handy work of President Theodore Roosevelt, who directed his attorney general, Charles J. Bonaparte, who was the grandnephew of the despot Emperor Napoleon I of France, to create an investigative agency within the Department of Justice in 1908. The House of Representatives denied the request. Opponent Rep. George E. Waldo of New York saw the danger the Bureau presented, saying it would be “a great blow to freedom and to free institutions if there should arise in this country any such great central secret-service Bureau as there is in Russia.” Bonaparte ignored Congress and administratively created the agency during the legislative body’s summer recess. As Mark Twain observed, Theodore Rex was always “ready to kick the Constitution into the back yard whenever it gets in the way.” Born outside the law, the Bureau would live outside of it as well, especially after an ambitious young man made it his own.

 

The Hoover Index

J. Edgar Hoover began his FBI career at the age of 22, spying on anarchists, anti-war activists, socialists, and communists, whom he saw as immigrant trouble-makers subverting his American dream. Rising quickly, he led the Justice Department’s Radical Division. He used the Espionage Act of 1917 to round up radicals, wiretap conversations, and open mail. A central ideal of the American democratic project was, and is, that within the territorial boundaries of this nation, no one would come under the watchful eye of a secret policeman. Trading in innuendo, lies, and stolen information to discredit the free exchange of ideas, Hoover punctured that idealistic bubble.

One of Hoover’s police-state innovations was his enemies list, later known as the Security Index. A person’s name could be added to the list if he simply attended a radical political rally or subscribed to a radical publication.

Weiner describes the importance of Hoover’s index: his cache of secrets formed the foundation of a primitive system of central intelligence. Within three months after taking office, he controlled files on more than 60,000 people; the Bureau compiled at least as many dossiers on the places where they gathered, the publications they read, and the political groups they joined. Every one of them had to be weighed as a potential threat to national security. Each might have a role in a secret underground, each might be a camouflaged soldier in what Hoover came to call “the mad march of Red fascism,” dedicated to creating a Soviet America.

Yet while Hoover hyped the Red menace to empower himself and the Bureau, Weiner notes that he admitted in his memoir that the Communist Party had no chance of overthrowing the U.S. government in the early 1920s. He called its influence “virtually nonexistent.” It was a straw-man argument Hoover used to ensure his career and extract rents from the American public, or as Weiner describes it, “the freely spent tax dollars that financed Hoover’s four-star style.”

Throughout Enemies, high-level bureaucrats and presidents recoil at Hoover and his phalanx of G-men’s lawless intrusions into the lives of those he deemed subversive or troublesome. But the allure of secret intelligence and the power and the leverage it gave those officials made them addicts. They couldn’t help themselves when Hoover came pushing and peddling his goods: the secrets and immoral information that made important men feel powerful and allowed them to stay in power by trading insider information or blackmailing opponents.

Harry Truman is an instructive case in point. Even though he was “very strongly anti-FBI,” believed Hoover led “a sort of dictatorial operation,” and had created “a Frankenstein in the FBI,” eventually the 33rd president decided to dance with the devil. At the advent of the Cold War, Truman signed the National Security Act, giving the FBI extraordinary powers. Hoover immediately wielded his mandate by spying on the CIA, which he saw as a competitor and a barrier to the FBI’s taking over worldwide intelligence operations. Then in 1950 Congress passed and Truman signed the Internal Security Act, the Cold War ancestor of the USA PATRIOT Act.

It contained provisions Hoover had been demanding for a decade. The laws defining espionage and sabotage were expanded and strengthened. Subversive citizens now were subject to political imprisonment. Communist and communist-front organizations were required to register with a new Subversive Activities Control Board. The new attorney general, J. Howard McGrath, decided that the Internal Security Act gave legal sanction to Hoover’s Security Index, with its provisions for preventive detention, its proposals for the suspension of constitutional protections, and its ever-growing roster of more than 20,000 Americans whom Hoover could order detained if habeas corpus were suspended. Hoover’s index was now legal — an accepted part of the American national-security establishment. It remained in effect for the next 21 years.

 

Hoover and minorities

Hoover loathed homosexuals, leading a witch-hunt against them in the government and public educational institutions under the Sex Deviates Program. He believed their sexual orientation made them “uniquely susceptible to sexual entrapment and blackmail by foreign intelligence services.” He also launched the Responsibilities Program to identify other leftists in public positions across the country. “Together, the Responsibilities and Sex Deviates programs resulted in the dismissals of uncounted teachers across the country,” Weiner writes. In other words, Hoover’s FBI destroyed the lives of those who either were attracted to the wrong sex or engaged in thought crimes.

Hoover’s FBI was also an implacable foe of the Civil Rights Movement, something he believed was communist-inspired. Even the Freedom Riders were actively subverted by the FBI. “The Bureau tipped off state and local law enforcement officers in Alabama,” Weiner writes. “The police and the Ku Klux Klan, working in concert, planned to waylay the demonstrators and beat them half to death. The FBI knew that too.” As Martin Luther King Jr. rose to prominence, Hoover put him under intense surveillance, even as the Ku Klux Klan, whose members often included law enforcement, initiated a reign of  terror across the deep South in opposition to African American demands for the same rights whites enjoyed. The unlimited electronic surveillance, part of the infamous counterintelligence program, or COINTELPRO for short, led to the wiretapping of King’s communications and the bugging of his hotel rooms. The point of the surveillance wasn’t to uncover crime but a target’s improprieties, such as King’s sexual habits, and then blackmail him. In the case of King, Bill Sullivan, the FBI’s intelligence chief, sent a package of tape recordings of the Civil Rights leader’s sexual congresses to his home with a poison-pen letter. King’s wife opened the package and the letter. It read, “King, look into your heart….” The American people soon would “know you for what you are — an evil, abnormal beast…. There is only one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

While the Bureau would eventually go after and break the KKK — the country’s quintessential domestic terrorist organization — using the techniques pioneered by Hoover and used against the Left, it wasn’t because of the FBI director. Lyndon Johnson ordered him to do it. According to Burke Marshall, chief of the Civil Rights Division at Justice, Hoover would have looked the other way as the Klan lit up the Southern nights if it weren’t for Johnson. “Mr. Hoover never would have changed by himself,” Weiner quotes Marshall as saying. “‘The FBI was grudging about doing anything’ against the Klan. Mr. Hoover viewed the Civil-Rights activists as lawbreakers.” Sullivan put it more bluntly: “He hated liberalism, he hated blacks, he hated Jews.” Communism scared him, not fascism. Civil Rights threatened America, not bloody state-sanctioned southern white supremacy.

 

The ghost

Hoover’s reign at the Bureau would end with him dead in his bed in May 1972 — just before the Watergate scandal broke. The Watergate “plumbers,” led by former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy, modeled their unit on COINTELPRO. The Watergate scandal, ironically exposed by leaks to reporters from within the FBI, undermined the American public’s already-tenuous trust in government and would eventually lead to investigations that would expose the FBI’s long history of criminality after COINTELPRO files were leaked. The Church Committee, which Weiner curiously never identifies by name, blamed the Bureau’s authoritarian activities on “the long line of Attorneys General, Presidents, and Congresses who have given power and responsibility to the FBI, but have failed to give it adequate guidance, direction, and control.” The FBI was effectively neutered — for a time. Two and a half decades later, al-Qaeda struck and Hoover’s FBI was resurrected.

The weakest portion of Enemies is its closing chapters, where Weiner recounts the FBI’s post–9/11 return to the intelligence game under the direction of Robert Mueller. While Weiner does document post–9/11 abuses, he paints Mueller as a heroic figure who defied the warrantless wiretapping and torture initiated by the Bush administration. Certainly Mueller deserves recognition for protesting the worst of the Bush administration’s authoritarian transgressions, such as shutting down the National Security Agency’s Stellar Wind program before the New York Times exposed it. Nevertheless, that was also a Bureau wielding powerful and unaccountable powers, such as national-security letters armed with gag orders, exigent letters, and sting operations abetted by agents provocateurs in pursuit of making terrorism cases. As the Bureau and the Department of Justice well know, once someone is accused of terrorism in post–9/11 America, his fate is essentially sealed. As Weiner puts it, “No jury in Los Angeles, Chicago, or Tuscaloosa would accept an argument of entrapment by an accused terrorist handcuffed and shackled by the FBI.” Yet Weiner seems cautiously optimistic that the Bureau can balance liberty and security a decade after 9/11, even though his preceding 447 pages should have convinced him otherwise.

The Gestapo. The Stasi. The FBI. Mentioning the Bureau in the same breath as those authoritarian, murderous police forces seems like hyperbole. Unfortunately, as Weiner forensically documents and many officials saw, the equivalence is apt. Whether ostensibly democratic or sliding toward authoritarianism, all police forces, we fear, can learn a lesson from the FBI: Murder and assassination are unnecessary; blackmail, lies, and innuendos can eliminate problems more easily, and without raising questions when an opponent or dissident goes missing. If that doesn’t work, a well-placed agent provocateur can always convince gullible and stupid people to step over the line from thought to action, something they never would have done without a push, and discredit a movement, no matter how legitimate its grievances are.

Make no doubt about it,: The paunchy ghost of J. Edgar Hoover still haunts the Bureau’s hallways.

This article was originally published in the April 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    Matthew Harwood is a writer in Alexandria, Va. He holds an M. Litt. in International Security Studies from the University of St. Andrews. His work has appeared at The American Conservative, The Guardian, Reason, Salon, TomDispatch, The Washington Monthly, among others.