Tim Weiner: Getting Inside the Bureau

Any history of the FBI is inevitably a mini biography of J. Edgar Hoover, the controversial longtime director who stands at the center of the twentieth century “like a statue encrusted in grime,” in the words of New York Times reporter Tim Weiner, author of Enemies: A History of the FBI. And yet some of the bureau’s greatest successes (and failures) have occurred in the forty years since Hoover’s death, a period of time when terrorism eclipsed communism as the preoccupation of American law enforcement.

Weiner, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Pentagon, as well as a National Book Award for his 2007 history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes, has expertly sifted through reams of newly declassified files — including Hoover’s vaunted secret stash — and created a riveting narrative of the bureau’s journey from a tiny department charged with investigating land fraud (during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency) to the international intelligence agency it is today, responsible for counterterrorism and counterintelligence, not to mention the enforcement of federal, state, local, and international laws. In a recent e-mail interview with Barnes & Noble Review contributor Cameron Martin, Weiner discussed the FBI’s titillating, frightening, and exasperating history, and the bureau’s monumental, unending task. Namely, protecting citizens without simultaneously breaking the law.

Barnes & Noble Review: Why the name Enemies?

Tim Weiner: America’s enemies — real and imagined — are the targets of the FBI’s secret intelligence operations. The bureau arrays its forces against those who seek to alter or abolish the government of the United States: jihadis, militias, communists, anarchists.

BNR: One tends to think of the FBI in its crime-busting mode, and its secret operations targeting the Mob. Has the FBI’s focus on enemies overshadowed its more conventional law enforcement role?

TW: It’s a startling fact, but the FBI’s secret intelligence operations have been the dominant force at the bureau for most of the past hundred years. They are the most important mission today.

BNR: How long did it take you to write the book? And how do you go about sifting through such an overwhelming number of declassified documents and oral histories to determine what to include?

TW: Enemies took three years to write. I knew I had a critical mass of newly declassified documents when I got my hands on Hoover’s secret intelligence files. And the FBI helped by starting to release reams of case files and more than 200 oral histories taken from agents whose work reached from before World War II through the 9/11 attacks. I’ve been working with secret documents since the 1980s. The facts that are new and startling fairly leap from the printed page. And Hoover’s case files are covered with his handwritten orders. Reading them is like looking over his shoulder and listening to him think out loud.

BNR: Breaking the law in order to uphold the law — it’s a combustible provision that can be easily abused, and yet each presidency seems to embrace it to varying degrees. After researching the many instances in which this stipulation was implemented successfully and unsuccessfully, do you think it’s acceptable for the FBI to break the law if they believe it will ultimately protect citizens?

TW: Of course, it’s easier to win if you don’t play by the rules. But FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, who took office on September 4, 2001, has said that the United States cannot win its war on terrorism at the cost of its civil liberties. That is the dilemma. We can’t choose between liberty and security. We must have both — yet they are opposing forces. The FBI fights this tug-of-war every day.

BNR: Woodrow Wilson’s stroke in 1919 and his subsequent incapacitation and withdrawal from public life created a power vacuum. As you write, “His thoughts were fleeting, his speech halting. The president was only dimly aware of the war on communism being waged in the United States.” How important were Wilson’s health problems to the development of J. Edgar Hoover’s power? Would Hoover have become as powerful as he did regardless of the circumstances at the beginning of his career? And after having read so much about him, what’s your assessment of his character and his tactics?

TW: Hoover gained real power in 1919, when he was twenty-four years old. He became the head of the Radical Division of the Justice Department, and he renamed his office the Intelligence Division in 1920. There’s little question that he gained that power as an indirect consequence of the president’s incapacity.  

Hoover wrote at the time that he intended to combat “not only the radical activities in the United States” but also those “of an international nature”; not only radical politics but “economic and industrial disturbances” as well. He believed that the government could not handle “the radical situation from a criminal prosecution standpoint.” The law was too weak a force to protect America. He believed America needed a new weapon to fight communists, anarchists, and the forces he later called “Red fascism.” He believed that only secret intelligence operations could stop the threat from the left and protect America from attack.

Hoover stands at the center of the American century like a statue encrusted in grime. His opponents saw him as “a goddamned sewer,” in the words of President Kennedy’s national security adviser. Today, millions of Americans know him only as a caricature: a tyrant in a tutu, a cross-dressing crank. But Hoover’s secret intelligence files, newly opened, show him in a new light. He carried out secret missions that were almost inconceivable in their time, spying directly on the leaders of the Soviet Union and China in the darkest days of the Cold War, sending detailed intelligence warnings of suicidal airborne attacks against New York and Washington, controlling a coup against a democratically elected foreign leader.

He was not a monster. He was an American Machiavelli. He was astute, he was cunning, and he never stopped watching his enemies. He was a masterful manipulator of public opinion. He practiced political warfare and secret statecraft in pursuit of national security, often at the expense of morality. He fought communism and terrorism with a consuming passion for fifty-five years.

BNR: It was fascinating to see the relationships that existed between Hoover and respective presidents, many of whom seemed more willing to revert to skullduggery and outright lawbreaking than is commonly associated with their legacies. The dynamic that existed between Hoover and Richard Nixon was particularly interesting, and left the impression that Hoover could have saved Nixon from himself if Hoover had simply allowed the FBI to carry out the same kind of black-bag operations that had been green-lighted during other presidencies, including Johnson’s. Why do you think Hoover changed course after so many years?

TW: Hoover changed course — he refused to do Nixon’s dirty work — because he felt the slowly rolling earthquake of the 1960s. The geotectonic plates of American politics were shifting under his feet. If the FBI had been caught burglarizing Democratic Party headquarters, as Nixon’s men were, shortly after Hoover’s death, it would have destroyed everything he had worked to build for five decades.

BNR: What was a major success of the FBI that came to light in your research, a success that perhaps didn’t get much attention beforehand? Conversely, what was a major failure you came across that was not widely known?

TW: I never knew that Hoover’s FBI helped LBJ run a secret coup in the Dominican Republic in the 1960s — a major success. Nor did I fully understand that the Bureau was penetrated by an Egyptian agent working for Osama bin Laden in the 1990s — a mortal failure.

BNR: Do you think the bureau has been able to better insulate itself against similar penetrations since then?

TW: There’s no evidence that the FBI has suffered such catastrophic counterintelligence failures since 9/11. But any director who goes to bed at night without wondering if the enemy is sleeping in his camp would be a fool.

BNR: The role of the FBI has evolved continuously throughout its history. In the lead-up to World War II, you wrote that it “became America’s first real foreign intelligence service” and was heavily involved in counterintelligence against foreign powers. After the war, many of these tasks were assumed by a new organization, the CIA. Having now written books about both organizations, which do you find the most interesting, successful, and properly conceived?

TW: I covered the CIA for years as a reporter, and I had a lot to learn about the history of the FBI when I set out to write Enemies. I found it fascinating to see the extent to which the history of the FBI is the history of the United States. The relationships between presidents and FBI directors are spellbinding, often scary. I don’t think there is any question that the FBI is a more successful organization — in part because they have been at it since before World War I, whereas the CIA was set up only after World War II. Both missions are vital. Any nation that projects its power beyond its borders needs intelligence.

BNR: Compared with other periods, how would you describe the current relationship between the FBI and the CIA?

TW: Better than it once was. Not a high standard.

BNR: Obviously in a history such as this, not everything can be included. Were there incidents you would have wanted to touch on more deeply, but could not?

TW: I always want to touch more deeply! But I also want to give equal weight to the past and the present day. When I really want to get into the gory details, I put the back-story into the end notes, with citations. Readers who want more can find it in the notes.

BNR: Details about the relationship between President Clinton and his FBI director, Louis Freeh, were quite alarming. Because of the FBI’s long-term investigations into Clinton’s alleged misbehavior, Clinton and Freeh had little to no interaction, with distrust on both sides. What was the biggest effect of this dysfunctional relationship — one in which the president felt politically obligated not to fire an FBI director who was investigating him?

TW: It’s a terrible thing to have to say, but Freeh’s silence, the failure to cooperate, the friction between the FBI and the White House, was one cause of the 9/11 disaster.

BNR: How was the lack of cooperation between the FBI and White House a cause of 9/11?

TW: Al Qaeda declared war on the United States in 1996; it blew up American embassies in Africa in 1998; it was no secret that they were aiming to hit targets that were symbols of American power. But Freeh would not talk about the threat with the president; nor were the FBI and the CIA on speaking terms at the working level. Intelligence wasn’t shared; leads went untraced. This is how the attackers got off a million-to-one shot.
BNR: Which president comes up for the greatest reassessment following your research and why?

TW: It’s a close contest. Readers may be surprised that most liberal Democrats used the powers of the FBI as did conservative Republicans. FDR loved secret intelligence, loved the ways that Hoover gathered dirt on political enemies, loved to play the cunning spy, and loved a skillful lie if it served a greater good than the plain truth. LBJ was much the same. In the end, though, readers may be astonished at the extent to which George W. Bush misused and abused the FBI. They may be equally impressed at the intensity with which the bureau fought back.
BNR: What’s an aspect to the present construct of the FBI that comes up for the greatest criticism? And can it be changed?
TW: The FBI still has a way to go before in catches up with the computer capabilities of the average teenager in the United States. The bureau has poured a billion dollars or more down a rat hole since the 1980s trying to get online.
BNR: After Hoover, who has been the most important director of the FBI — from either a positive or negative point of view — and why?
TW: Without question, Robert Mueller, the director for the past decade. He has fought hard — and won more than a few battles — in the very difficult struggle to conduct secret intelligence operations within the law.
BNR: We understand you’re working now on a history of the American military. When can we expect to see that, and can you share some early findings that might startle future readers?
TW: With luck, the United States will be winding down a long and bitter war in Afghanistan when the next book is done. I think future readers will be appalled at the cost — in blood and treasure — of America’s long reign as the most powerful force on earth.

February 16, 2012