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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.