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The Master of Hate

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Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images
J. Edgar Hoover with President Nixon at an FBI Academy graduation ceremony held at the White House, May 1969. Hoover named Nixon an honorary member of the FBI.

Fear of the evil foreigner seems to be an ever-present poison in American politics, and it was running higher than usual in 1917 when young J. Edgar Hoover took his first job at the Justice Department. It is a fear that flourishes most dangerously when whooped up by politicians too highly reputed as statesmen to be dismissed as demagogues, and the man whooping loudest in 1917 was President Woodrow Wilson, the most pious statesman of the day. Wilson’s evil foreigner was a German spy-saboteur burrowed deep in American society and spreading disloyalty and terror on behalf of Kaiser Wilhelm.

It was a natural choice for Wilson. He had just guided the United States into war against Germany, in alliance with Britain and France, and needed to assume the role of warrior president. Minor patriots were showing their mettle by striking “sauerkraut” off the menu and substituting “liberty cabbage,” but stronger stuff is required of presidents. Wilson chose brutal legal assaults that created public fear while dramatizing his readiness to protect Americans from foreign agents supposedly infesting the community. By executive order he authorized the arrest and imprisonment without trial of foreigners the government deemed dangerous to the United States. Under the Espionage Act of 1917 he authorized the arrest, trial, and imprisonment of citizens who expressed or circulated ideas at odds with his war policy.

In Enemies, Tim Weiner states that of 1,055 people convicted under the Espionage Act, not one was a spy. “Most were political dissidents who spoke against the war. Their crimes were words, not deeds,” he writes.

Wilson’s own words had prepared Americans to accept this roughhouse justice. In a message to Congress he declared the nation gravely threatened by subversive forces that had to be “crushed out,” adding, “The hand of our power should close over them at once.” Germany, he said, had “filled our unsuspecting communities and even our offices of government with spies, and set criminal intrigues everywhere afoot.” He warned of “vicious spies and conspirators” who “spread sedition among us,” and said that “many of our own people were corrupted” by them. Wilson’s rhetoric stoked such fear that one Justice Department official later said, “When we declared war, there were persons who expected to see a veritable reign of terror in America.”

Such was the political culture of Washington when J. Edgar Hoover, twenty-two years old, started work in the Justice Department’s War Emergency Division. It was a culture he accepted with enthusiasm; he was destined to spend the rest of his life promoting it with a zeal that would make him the most powerful and most feared policeman in American history. With his lifelong readiness to put his own idea of patriotic necessity ahead of constitutional nicety, Hoover was the spiritual child of Woodrow Wilson.

It was this culture, too, that formed his determination to make the FBI an intelligence service protecting the government from alien threats rather than a crime-fighting police force shooting it out with domestic gangsters, as depicted on movie screens and breakfast cereal boxes. As a result, for most of its existence the FBI has been basically a secret intelligence service keeping vast numbers of people under surveillance and compiling a long record of illegal arrests, detentions, break-ins, burglaries, wiretapping, and bugging.

Such is the conclusion of Tim Weiner’s intensely researched history of the bureau. Lawbreaking by lawmen, as every police reporter knows, can easily become a casual habit in certain kinds of police work, but it seems to be universally accepted as essential among agents on the intelligence beat. As a journalist with a long successful career covering the world of secret intelligence, Weiner seems uneasy about this, but aware that illegal deeds are sometimes necessary to protect a free society.

The question, of course, is always: How much illegal activity is too much, especially when it is a president who is issuing the work order? During the Iran-contra affair in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan presided over such blatant contempt for law that he seems to have been flirting with impeachment. Congress let it pass, however, perhaps because he was Reagan. It was not so indulgent with Richard Nixon. Nixon held that it was simply impossible for a president to do anything illegal because presidents enjoyed a unique immunity from law. “If the president does it, it is not illegal,” he and his defenders insisted. And so, in his White House tapes we find Nixon ordering up a burglary in a style reminiscent of Edward G. Robinson: “Goddamn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”

Enemies is a companion volume to Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes, a history of the CIA, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2007. With this new history of the FBI, he appears to be the reference source to go to when the subject is America’s troubled career in secret intelligence. Though both books contain huge quantities of information, both are always readable, often entertaining, and sometimes hair-raising. In Enemies the accounts of the incompetence that afflicted the bureau after Hoover’s death and its impotence when confronted by the rising fury of religious fanaticism in al-Qaeda are not just hair-raising, they are tragic comedy.

Weiner works in the journalistic tradition of I.F. Stone, whose best work usually resulted from his exhaustive reading of documents available to the public in such quantity that few reporters had time or patience to read them. For Enemies Weiner drew on some 70,000 pages of declassified documents, among them some of Hoover’s intelligence files, and over two hundred oral histories recorded by former agents. These documents, dealing with hundreds of events scattered over the past century, provide him with a fascinating mixture of subject matter—criminal, political, comical, scandalous—some of it familiar, much of it not so widely known.

Is everyone aware, for example, that Mark Felt—Hoover’s chief lieutenant and the mysterious “Deep Throat” whose leaks to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about the Watergate burglary helped bring down President Nixon—was working systematically with a group of top FBI agents to engineer Nixon’s fall? And that, though the public did not learn “Deep Throat’s” identity for thirty-three years, it was known to Nixon within ten days after Felt’s first leak appeared in The Washington Post?

While Felt was leaking to the press about the president’s Watergate involvement, someone else, perhaps another FBI agent, was leaking to the White House about Felt’s leaking to the press. Such was life in the world of top secrecy. According to their oral histories, a group of senior FBI agents decided to get involved partly because, when Hoover died, Nixon chose L. Patrick Gray instead of Mark Felt to succeed him. They saw Gray as a clueless political stooge whose appointment demeaned the bureau.

“It hurt all of us deeply,” one of the mutinous agents recalled in an oral history.

Felt was the one that would have been the Director’s first pick. But the Director died. And Mark Felt should have moved up right there and then. And that’s what got him into the act. He was going to find out what was going on in there. And, boy, he really did.

Why didn’t Nixon immediately fire Felt? The answer is preserved in the Nixon White House tapes, with Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, saying: “If we move on him, then he’ll go out and unload everything. He knows everything that’s to be known in the FBI…. He has access to absolutely everything…. Gray’s scared to death. We’ve got to give him a warning….”

Then Nixon: “What would you do with Felt?… Christ! You know what I’d do with him? Bastard!”

As Weiner explores the old documents we revisit two of Washington’s more highly favored Latin American dictators—Augusto Pinochet of Chile and Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic—running ham-handed murder plots in the United States to eliminate irritating dissidents. We see young Hoover himself showing up one icy night in 1919 at Ellis Island to savor a moment of triumph: he has come in person to see the celebrated anarchist-lecturer Emma Goldman put on a ship for deportation to the Soviet Union.

We are given the roll call of intelligence agents—FBI, CIA, and military—who sold secrets to Soviet spymasters, not out of devotion to Marxism, but usually to supplement their government salaries. Moscow seems to have had millions to spend on American entrepreneurial risk-takers looking for profit. We also meet Katrina Leung, identified by Weiner as the FBI’s most valued source on Chinese espionage in the United States, who was spying for China as well during the 1980s and 1990s. People in the bureau had long suspected she was a double agent, but since she was “having sex” with an FBI special agent and occasionally, too, with a leading FBI counterintelligence expert on China, nobody wanted to embarrass the bureau by asking awkward questions. For her work as an intelligence asset, the FBI paid her more than $1.7 million.

The heart of Weiner’s book, however, is the story of J. Edgar Hoover, who ruled supreme for forty-eight years. Until his death in 1972, Hoover was not simply the director of the FBI—Hoover was the FBI. Hoover decided who would become an FBI agent, and who would not. Under Hoover, no woman ever would; blacks were unwelcome. Hoover favored Catholics and Marine Corps veterans. Hoover established the square suit-and-necktie dress code that made FBI men so easy to recognize (“Snap-brim hats and affidavit faces” was the phrase coined by Edward Bennett Williams, Washington’s celebrated attorney for the defense). All publicity about the bureau flowed from Hoover through authorized spokesmen; self-promoters might find themselves transferred to distant rustic byways.

Hoover also decided how much money to request annually from Congress, knowing that members would vote him even more as a gesture of their respect. All Washington knew that Hoover could secretly spy on all politicians, including presidents and their wives, and could also keep their embarrassing secrets out of the press if so disposed. He was not so disposed toward Eleanor Roosevelt after she became angry upon learning that the FBI was spying on her. News leaks began appearing about the First Lady’s friendship with a newspaperwoman known for lesbian inclinations.

Hoover provides Weiner’s book with an overpowering character of dark, operatic grandeur: the patriotic policeman who embodies the state’s terrible power to create a culture of fear. He seems close kin to Victor Hugo’s Inspector Javert, whose single-minded devotion to a grotesque concept of justice makes him a self-righteous lunatic. Late in his career, sending his shocking hate notes that urge Martin Luther King to kill himself, Hoover finally seems to slip into a madness artistically suitable for the opera house, but alarmingly beyond bizarre when played out in the bureaucratic barrens of the Justice Department.

His lifelong ambition to establish an autocratic security state seems to have made him despise whatever he thought was a threat to state security. “He was very consistent throughout the years. The things he hated, he hated all his life,” according to William Sullivan, who had served high in the FBI intelligence division. “He hated liberalism, he hated blacks, he hated Jews—he had this great long list of hates.”

Weiner thinks he “hated ideologies more than individuals, pressure groups more than people; above all, Hoover hated threats to the stability of the American political system.” The black civil rights movement represented such a threat, and he became one of its fiercest enemies. Backed by Moscow, infiltrated by Communists—that was his judgment. He hated it, and he hated Martin Luther King.

He was also Washington’s consummate master of bureaucracy politics: ruthless in the uses of power, passionate in his loyalty to the state, and merciless in hostility to all he perceived to be its enemies. He could impress presidents, amuse them with salacious gossip, defy them, scare them, or sometimes simply ignore them. Although he got along well with Joseph P. Kennedy, who founded the short-lived political dynasty that came to power in the 1960s, he seems to have detested Robert Kennedy, who became his boss after President Kennedy made him attorney general in 1961. He could not have approved of President Kennedy’s private character and surely must have been pleased when duty required him to notify the president that the FBI had been monitoring his sex life and regarded some of his adulterous partners as potentially too dangerous to be suitable company for a president to keep.

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