FBI Director for life J. Edgar Hoover – he died in office at age 77 after 48 years in the job – could be way ahead of the times or far behind them. In the late 1940s, he was the first public official to raise the specter of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons being smuggled into the United States. In the 1950s and early 1960s, his agents were more attentive to the purported threat posed by America's nascent civil rights movement than they were to the activities of Mafia or the Klu Klux Klan.
Some of Hoover’s quirky policy decisions could be explained by his personal animosities: As a top FBI official put it, “He was very consistent throughout the years. The things he hated, he hated all his life. He hated liberalism, he hated blacks, he hated Jews – he had this great long list of hates.” He wasn’t that keen on women, either. His FBI agents were virtually 100 percent male and white.
In his fourth book, Enemies: A History of the FBI, Tim Weiner provides an exhaustive chronicle of the FBI’s dealings with the intelligence portion of its portfolio from its humble beginning in 1908 to its performance before and after 9/11. Weiner, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of national security topics for The New York Times, knows chapter and verse. He also makes use of recently declassified documents, oral histories by FBI agents, and Hoover’s own intelligence files. "Enemies" is a compelling and chronological read which could have been improved with better transitions and connections between episodes. Sometimes the stories come rapid fire one after another, and the reader is left longing for a bit more context or analysis.
Still, it is a fascinating, if disquieting story: Again and again a concern for national security – whether real or perceived, whether in 1919, 1954, or 2001 – trumps civil liberties. In the tug of war between safety and freedom, our nation has frequently sacrificed the latter at the altar of the former. During the past century there are illegal wiretaps by the thousands, countless break-ins and burglaries, listening devices placed in bedrooms, and warrantless arrests and detentions. Under Hoover and beyond, the FBI would freely break the law in the name of enforcing it.
Without question, actual dangers abounded and deserved attention. There were bomb-wielding anarchists, German saboteurs, and Soviet spies to ferret out, arrest, or keep track of. The American Communist Party was hounded into even greater irrelevance by Hoover’s tactics, but there was substantial collateral damage. For example, Senator Joseph McCarthy used raw FBI information, often third-hand hearsay, in his witch hunt for Communists in America. Hoover was happy to help the Senator along until “Tail Gunner Joe” went too far and started attacking the nation’s national security establishment itself.
Not all of the FBI’s extracurricular activities can be laid at Hoover’s feet. Presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Richard M. Nixon knew and encouraged such FBI activities. They wanted Hoover to go after America’s enemies and he was happy to oblige – although he had a broad definition of who was a threat. It included the likes of Martin Luther King, Helen Keller, and the American Civil Liberties Union. The FBI tapped the phones of journalists and government officials and even caught Supreme Court Justices on tape. And, of course, there were files on presidential girlfriends.
The FBI’s dalliances with trivial or political matters survived Hoover. In the late 1990s, the FBI assigned hundreds of agents to investigate the Monica Lewinsky affair, while it had a lone analyst working on al-Qaeda. Neither the FBI nor the CIA get high marks for their pre-9/11 efforts to keep America secure from the machinations of Middle Eastern terrorists.
The excesses of the FBI include one of Hoover’s pet projects: the Security Index. It was a list of people, primarily American citizens, who would be detained in the event of war or some other national emergency. These people had done nothing but were deemed “potentially or actually dangerous.” There were 26,500 individuals so designated in the mid-1950s, among them American prisoners of war who had returned home after the Korean War armistice. Even before this paranoid fantasy became fodder for the movie “The Manchurian Candidate,” Hoover was worried that these soldiers had been brainwashed to serve as a fifth column. The US Congress even approved funds to create camps to house Security Index members.
The Index itself, it turns out, wasn’t all that secure. It didn’t include the name of a US Marine marksman who had defected to the Soviet Union in 1959. His defection had been front page news. He returned to America in 1962 with a Russian wife and settled in Dallas. He spent his spare time passing out pro-Castro leaflets. Lee Harvey Oswald was known to the local FBI bureau, but he was not monitored in the days before President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Dallas in November, 1963.
David Holahan is a regular contributor to the Monitor's Books section.