In May of 1965, after serving as a naval officer for several years, I arrived in Washington, D.C., to begin my training for the position of Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I was both naive and apolitical. I thought of myself as an intense idealist and was convinced that the FBI was an organization in which personal integrity was highly valued. To me the organization was above all a protector of the innocent public and only secondarily the relentless pursuer of wrongdoers. In short, I was an ideal candidate for the job. I would not question; I would simply learn to do as I was told, content to believe that the FBI would never direct me wrong.
This belief managed to survive my first two years in the bureau, during which I worked on criminal investigations and government job applications. It was when I was assigned to work in Internal Security in Washington, D. C., that I began to have my first serious doubts about the integrity of the organization, its motives, and its goals.
The Washington Field Office is the operating arm of the FBI in Washington, D.C. Like other field offices, we reported to the bureau’s Washington headquarters, but our office was one of the largest. Assigned to the office were between five and six hundred agents, broken up into squads of from a handful to fifty or sixty. Two squads worked only on applications for government jobs and five or six handled criminal investigations. In addition, there were nine squads assigned to do “security” work. One of those nine was charged with investigating all of the various individuals and organizations that allegedly threatened the national security or that advocated the overthrow of the United States government by force or violence.
It was to this squad that I was assigned in May, 1967, shortly before my second anniversary as an agent. I looked forward to the assignment because anything would have looked good to me after a few months spent investigating applicants for government jobs. But I realized that all my FBI experience until then had in no way prepared me for work in security. During the training course for new agents which I had undergone in 1965, instruction on “security” meant listening to stories of the bureau’s great accomplishments, e.g., the capture of the Nazi espionage teams that landed in Florida and New England during World War II, and, of course, the apprehension of Colonel Rudolph Abel. We learned also that the bureau had been able to break up the Ku Klux Klan and the Communist Party.
But nothing in this training was meant to define how the FBI views national security or threats to it. We were told instead that only a handful of experienced and carefully picked agents, the “cream of the crop,” were selected to work in this most difficult and challenging field. Furthermore, information about the security work of the FBI was supplied on a “need to know”…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.