The FBI Nobody Knows
Mr. Cook is an old hand at drafting indictments. His accusations have never been irresolute and have often, one suspects, been true. Though his earlier charges were not specifically aimed at the men of the FBI, there was reason to suppose that its special agents of reaction and, in particular, its Director, then named accessories to ugliness, would someday be indicted by Mr. Cook. That indictment has now been returned. It is an effective and powerful document which, if it provides no unfamiliar data upon which to base judgment, skillfully summarizes material examined in fuller detail by Max Lowenthal in 1950, and carries the story of the FBI through that frightened decade, and on to the present time.
If such an indictment as Mr. Cook’s were to be returned, it was inevitable that the central figure in nearly every count should be J. Edgar Hoover. In each instance of excessive zeal before 1924 when Mr. Hoover became Director, he was an ardent participant. This gives him a share of responsibility in A. Mitchell Palmer’s tranformation of a nation’s anxiety into its hysteria. It also involves him in Harry M. Daugherty’s vengeful hounding of Senator Wheeler. For the extravagances since 1924—mobilizing the national dread of Communists and fellow travelers; conducting unlawful searches and seizures, and otherwise abusing power; displacing local police authority for the glorification of the FBI’s reputation and the sanctification of its Director’s name—J. Edgar Hoover is, of course, wholly responsible. For the Bureau’s laxities—its sluggish concern for civil rights; its strange indifference to the feudalism of the underworld—the Director must, again, be held responsible.
There can be little doubt that answers to Mr. Cook’s charges will be forthcoming from Mr. Hoover’s friends. It is unlikely, however, that these answers will consist of much more than unverified replies to Mr. Cook’s unsubstantiated accusations. Even the most perceptive bystander observing such an engagement is incompetent to pass judgment on its outcome, since most of the data for decision are inaccessibly stored away in classified documents. This fact, which means that nearly all the cards are in the government’s hands, may lead some onlookers to have an energetic bias in Mr. Cook’s favor, to see the scrappy reporter as their champion, the guardian of their rights and privacies. I must confess that my dispositions are almost all in Mr. Cook’s favor and that I doubt whether any documentation by the FBI of error or exaggeration on his part will change the inclination of my mind. Yet I cannot help wondering whether the indictment which Mr. Cook has so wrathfully prepared against Mr. Hoover and the FBI should not, in fact, have been drawn against the American Congress or, perhaps, against the American people as a whole.
The substance of this suggestion can best be indicated, I think, by referring to that count in the indictment in which Mr. Cook summarizes he FBI’s plans for “Operation Dragnet”—the “rounding up and sending off to concentration camps” of all Communists in the United States at some moment of anticipated emergency. Mr. Cook so deals with the Operation as to give the impression that it is a plan devised by the Bureau from its own timid and distorted malevolence. He makes no reference to Title II of the Internal Security Act of 1950—that preposterous piece of legislation in which Congress expressed its will for extravagant action by directing, among other strange things, that when and if crisis takes command of government all known Communists should be seized and held in detention centers. With such a statute on the books it is hard to see what course of action the FBI and its Director could have followed but to take those preliminary steps toward the identification of scoundrels which they considered essential for prompt and efficient execution of the Congressional plan. Perhaps Mr. Hoover and his agents showed an unwholesome zeal in carrying out their responsibilities under the statute. Furthermore, the FBI’s earlier exaggerations and distortions of the Communist menace may have stimulated some of the hysterical reflexes in the Congress. Yet the indictment of Hoover and his Bureau on a charge that says nothing of the legislative background of their action or the mood of the American people in the 1950s seems a little spiteful.
The same tendency to blame the Bureau for the sins of their nursing fathers—Congress and the Attorney General—seems to me to impair Mr. Cook’s discussion of the role of the FBI in the field of civil rights. Though there is every reason to share Mr. Cook’s belief that the Special Agents and their Director have not been as vigorous as they should have been in the investigation of offenses against the civil rights statutes, we cannot, in fairness to the Bureau, overlook the fact that until very recently few of our judges or jurors, few of our Attorneys General, few of our Presidents, and a mere handful of our Congressmen and Senators have wanted the Civil Rights Acts to be vigorously enforced, particularly, perhaps, in the cases in which they have been most obviously applicable—the cases, that is, in which State and local officials have been guilty of brutalities and other outrages against Negroes. Sometimes, I am sure, the considerations that have prevented prosecution have been base and unclean. Often, I take it, the decision not to prosecute has been based on the judgment that however conclusive the evidence of guilt may be, a local jury would not convict. Mr. Cook evidently believes that a very significant departmental motive for not prosecuting in those cases has been the FBI’s desire to maintain a high batting average. He may be right, but one cannot help wondering whether another more legitimate consideration may not often have played an important part—the judgment, that is, that Federal authority may quickly become the laughing-stock in a community that persistently refuses to enforce Federal law. Whatever motive, creditable or discreditable, may have kept lethargy in charge of civil rights for a century, it seems to me quite clear that the primary responsibility for this has not been Mr. Hoover’s. The frustration of civil rights legislation has been brought about by an effectively organized opposition within a divided Congress, executive indifference, and a national apathy collaborating with local enmity.
I have, perhaps, suggested a larger issue with respect to the admirable impulses which prompted Mr. Cook to prepare his indictment. As a dedicated libertarian he distrusts police authority and roundly scolds Mr. Hoover for his excessive vigilance. As a committed advocate of civil rights he longs for effective action and upbraids the Director for his immoderate caution. Whenever the FBI battles triumphantly against the powers of political and social darkness—the Klan, for instance—Mr. Cook is generous in his expressions of esteem for the Bureau and its Director. Mr. Hoover does not, however, receive the benefit of any doubts when he adds lustre, if not glory, to the FBI’s name by following the questionable leads of Elizabeth Bentley to their degrading conclusions. Mr. Cook’s desire to have it both ways is quite natural. All of us would like our government and its police power to be the forceful and sensitive ally of decency, and the firm and resolute scourge of evil. Mr. Cook may be right in supposing that if the FBI had been spared the mawkish idolatry which its Director has adroitly fostered, the agency would more nearly have fulfilled its responsibilites and our hopes. The shamefulness of the story is, however, more broadly based than Mr. Cook’s indictment indicates. The disgrace has found its nourishment in our national character. There seems to me to be a little innocence in Mr. Cook’s assumption that a people will ever have a better police force than its governors want them to have. The accusations which Mr. Cook has made would, I think, serve a more useful purpose had he named more than a handful of sinners.