The FBI in Our Open Society
Despite its broad title, this is a very narrow book. It has two themes: (1) All criticism of the FBI to date has been largely based on a distortion of the record. (2) In the opinion of the Overstreets, no criticism of the FBI is warranted. The development of these themes reveals that the Overstreets, themselves are capable of considerable distortion, and that they know very little about the FBI.
Almost half of the book is devoted to demolishing the FBI’s critics. The style of the attack is sufficiently shown by the treatment given, on a single subject, to two of them—Max Lowenthal and Fred J. Cook—each of whom is the subject of a separate chapter and of running fire throughout. Lowenthal’s The Federal Bureau of Investigation, first published in 1950, was the first comprehensive criticism of the FBI. Cook’s the The FBI Nobody Knows, published in 1964, was the second. Neither could be described as an objective study. Both contain distortions beyond the “reasonable margin for error” which the Overstreets would “grant to any author who copes with a host of details.”
All three books begin their accounts of the FBI by exploring its origin. The originator, all agree, was Theodore Roosevelt’s Attorney General Charles Bonaparte (grandson of Emperor Napoleon’s brother). In his 1907 report to Congress he complained that the Department of Justice had “no permanent detective force,” being obliged to borrow special agents from the Secret Service Division of the Treasury Department. Although the 1870 statute creating the Department of Justice gave him ample authority to create such a force without additional legislation, he repeated his complaint in his testimony before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee of the Sixtieth Congress in 1908, and again in 1909.
The subcommittee was more interested in his existing arrangements than in his proposals. The Secret Service Division had much earlier been subjected to criticism for its role in investigating the amorous adventures of a Navy officer on leave and, more to the point, for airing unsustained charges that a Congressman had tampered with an appropriation bill. As a consequence, its appropriations had for some time been granted expressly for the detection and punishment of counterfeiting and violating pay and bounty laws—with protection of the President added in 1907—“and for no other purpose whatever.”
It seemed to the subcommittee that the use of Secret Service agents by other Departments for other purposes violated this attempt by Congress to control their use. Accordingly, it recommended and Congress adopted a new limitation in the 1908 and 1909 appropriation acts forbidding other Departments to use appropriated funds to pay Secret Service agents from the Treasury Department. In the course of House debates on this matter only Appropriations Committee Chairman Tawney opposed a permanent detective force for the Department of Justice. But other Congressmen, including most of the members of the subcommittee, expressed their opposition to a “Federal secret police,” to a “general system of …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.