A History of the FBI
By Tim Weiner
On Dec. 31, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows for the indefinite military detention, without trial, of any American citizen “who was a part of or substantially supported Al Qaeda, the Taliban or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.” This act effectively abrogates the Bill of Rights and removes one of the cornerstones of Western liberty.
But not to worry. In a signing statement, Obama pledged that he would not authorize any such detentions. What a curious position for a former constitutional scholar to take: the promise of one man substituted for the rule of law.
It is just such presidential hubris, Tim Weiner makes clear in his important and disturbing new book, “Enemies: A History of the FBI,” that bears much of the blame for the worst violations of our freedoms in this century.
Contrary to conventional wisdom and Clint Eastwood movies, J. Edgar Hoover did not accumulate his power by barging into the Oval Office with a thick dossier of dirt on each new president and his family. Hoover was indeed a vicious gossipmonger, yet the most damning information he possessed could not be disseminated easily. No newspaper of his time would print it, no radio or television station would broadcast it.
The harder truth is that most presidents since Woodrow Wilson have been less intimidated by the F.B.I. than seduced by it. Under the rubric of protecting the nation, they secretly authorized the F.B.I. to open mail, infiltrate political parties, tap phones, perform “black bag” break-ins of homes and institutions, and draw up vast lists of Americans eligible for “custodial detention” during a crisis.
Or at least Hoover said they did. Often, his “authorization” came from an unrecorded, private conversation with the chief executive. When presidents or attorneys general or the Congress tried to rescind these dubious mandates — or when they were explicitly struck down by the highest courts in the land — he usually ignored these authorities.
Any power ever granted to the F.B.I. he considered to be his in perpetuity. A classic paranoid, he fostered paranoia everywhere. When the F.B.I. tapped the home phone of a Supreme Court clerk in 1936, Weiner writes, “Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes suspected that Hoover had wired the conference room where the justices met to decide cases.”
Yet Weiner also makes clear that the problem went beyond Hoover. The F.B.I., as Robert Penn Warren wrote about the rest of humanity, was “conceived in sin and born in corruption.” When Theodore Roosevelt first proposed a national police force in 1908, Congress said no, fearing “a central police or spy system in the federal government.” Roosevelt simply used a “special expense fund” at the Justice Department to quietly hire 34 agents for his new “Bureau of Investigation.” To this day, the F.B.I. lacks a formal charter, and its financing has often been shrouded in secrecy.
This opaqueness, unsurprisingly, has not improved performance. Wiselyconcentrating on the F.B.I.’s secret intelligence operations, Weiner lays bare a record of embarrassing, even stunning failure, in which the bureau’s lawlessness was matched only by its incompetence.
The F.B.I. conducted huge raids against pacifists, labor leaders and other dissidents during World War I, directing the arrest of tens of thousands of individuals. Yet it failed to uncover a single enemy spy, even as a nest of them blew up the enormous Black Tom munitions dump in Jersey City, riddling the Statue of Liberty with shrapnel. Combating Nazi agents before and during World War II, the F.B.I. was, by its own assessment, “a laughingstock.” During the cold war, a Soviet spy said its agents were “like children lost in the woods.”
The bureau often seemed as alarmed by its new rival, the C.I.A., as it was by foreign intelligence networks. It failed repeatedly to break up spy rings like the Rosenbergs’, even forgetting it already had damning evidence in its files against the atomic spies Harry Gold and Klaus Fuchs. Hoover himself derided the “gross incompetency” of his agency in failing to keep better tabs on Lee Harvey Oswald after his return from the Soviet Union.
There were successes, of course. By the 1950s, the F.B.I. had placed a spy “inside the highest councils of the Soviet Union,” something that neither the C.I.A. nor American military intelligence had accomplished. The political wizardry of Lyndon Johnson finally persuaded Hoover, an inveterate racist, to run a counterintelligence program that largely destroyed the Ku Klux Klan of the civil rights era.
Yet by the 1960s, the F.B.I. seemed just as lost combating domestic revolutionaries as it was battling foreign spies. The bureau failed utterly to stop the lunatic amateurs of the Weather Underground, even as they planted a bomb in the Capitol. “Four or five” of the agents charged with infiltrating the antiwar movement “liked their new lives so much that they never came back.” The Puerto Rican terrorist group F.A.L.N. carried out a hundred bombing attacks and “pulled off the most lucrative armed robbery in the history of the United States” without a single member being apprehended.
In 1971, the bureau got black-bagged itself, as a group calling itself the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the F.B.I. broke into a field office and made off with documents exposing some of its most notorious activities. Untold resources were wasted over decades surveilling the tiny Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, without turning up a trace of sedition. By 1976, 53 F.B.I. agents were under criminal investigation for such activities, and the bureau was forced to raid its own headquarters.
From the very start of his career, Hoover spoke of fighting “terrorism,” even imagining a “dirty bomb” delivered in an attaché case. Yet the F.B.I. proved singularly ill-equipped to deal with the modern reality. An Iraqi plot to kill Golda Meir on a 1973 trip to New York was thwarted only when two cars with bombs in them were towed away for occupying no-standing zones. (Makes one think differently about those traffic enforcement agents, doesn’t it?)
Botched confrontations with cults and right-wing radicals left a trail of blood from Whidbey Island to Ruby Ridge to the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. The bureau was penetrated again and again by double agents from Russia, China, Cuba, even Al Qaeda. (The Chinese spy Katrina Leung, truly a double agent, seduced both the special agent in charge of her case and “a leading F.B.I. counterintelligence expert on China.”) F.B.I. turncoats like Robert Hanssen and Earl Pitts went undetected for years, costing “hundreds of millions of dollars” and the lives of a “dozen or more foreign agents who worked for the bureau and the C.I.A.”
The best terror informant the bureau actually had was dropped for fear that he might be a double agent, while as late as 2002, only eight agents could speak Arabic. The F.B.I. remained a “pyramid of paper,” mysteriously unable to create a decent computer system; by 2000, “the average American teenager had more computer power than most F.B.I. agents,” according to Weiner, and agents “could not perform a Google search or send e-mails outside their offices.”
Hoover’s successors were mostly clueless bunglers; save for the current director, Robert S. Mueller III, none completed their terms of office. It’s infinitely depressing to read once again the epic of that ultimate loose cannon, Louis Freeh, who decided that his main enemy was the Clinton White House. He did not speak to President Clinton for nearly four years, and ultimately resigned without notice, three months shy of 9/11. It’s infuriating to read of how F.B.I. agents investigating Al Qaeda were stymied from stopping the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, thanks to a bureau misinterpretation of a Justice Department directive about sharing evidence. One agent, trying desperately to get a search warrant for the apartment of the captured terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui through the afternoon of Sept. 10, 2001, received a final denial from the F.B.I.’s International Terrorism Operations Section telling him that the “F.B.I. does not have a dog in this fight.”
Small wonder that Thomas Kean, the Republican chairman of the 9/11 Commission, concluded: “We can’t continue in this country with an intelligence agency with the record the F.B.I. has. You have a record of an agency that’s failed, and it’s failed again and again and again.”
Weiner, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former New York Times reporter who has spent years writing about America’s security apparatus and who won the National Book Award for his history of the C.I.A., “Legacy of Ashes,” has done prodigious research, yet tells this depressing story with all the verve and coherence of a good spy thriller. He holds out hope for the considerable ethical and operational reforms instituted by Mueller, finding both a reborn bureau and a federal government “trying, in good faith, to balance liberty and security.” This is encouraging, though as Obama’s willingness to sign the National Defense Authorization Act shows, all such efforts remain at the mercy of presidents and their insatiable appetite for information.