Secrets of September 11

Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden; drawing by David Levine


The second job of any intelligence organization, after identifying where danger lies, is to protect its secrets. In theory the secrets are being kept from enemies so that the organization—the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Central Intelligence Agency, say—can pursue the rest of its important work, but in practice the secrets held most tightly are those that can wreck careers, let cats out of bags, or bring a halt to operations—the secrets of failure kept from public exposure. The glacial progress of the investigations of the two most damaging spies in American secret history, Aldrich Ames at the CIA and Robert Hanssen at the FBI, may be explained in part by the queasy certainty of high agency and bureau officials that they were going to catch unshirted hell when the news got out. Of course, the longer the wait the worse the explosion, but who wants trouble today when it can be put off until tomorrow—and maybe even left to ruin the career of the next person to fill the job?

Hiding trouble seems to be part of the ethos of intelligence agencies, especially at the FBI, which rejected and denied all criticism during its half-century under J. Edgar Hoover, the strange celibate who built the bureau in his own crabbed image. “Investigation” was the mission he hid behind: he insisted the bureau only collected facts—it did not interpret them. Filed in his “Do Not File” file were the capital’s most embarrassing personal secrets; when he acquired a juicy one he made sure the subject knew about it—a main reason why no president dared fire him, although several wished to, and why congressional committees rarely turned down his budget requests.

Personal survival was Hoover’s first goal but the second was to protect America from the kind of internal decay which fire-and-brimstone orators of yesteryear used to call “moral pollution.” For decades, as recounted in Ronald Kessler’s history The Bureau, Hoover detested all those he considered un-American—most famously godless socialists and Communists—and found ways to hound and torment them; but Hoover’s deepest loathing was reserved for “sexual perverts,” Negro agitators like Martin Luther King Jr., and civil libertarians who denounced the bureau’s appetite for gossip, rumor, and innuendo.

Still, Hoover, who died in office in 1972, was both rigid and adaptable. When public enemies changed he did, too, and by the mid-1960s the bureau was seeking telephone wiretaps, bugs, mail covers, and especially confidential informants who could deliver intelligence about the Ku Klux Klan and the loosely organized families of Italian-American gangsters known as La Cosa Nostra (“Our Thing”) or the Mafia, an old word which has no accepted translation. For years Hoover resisted pressure to go after organized crime, fearing that the bureau’s special agents would be corrupted by Mafia money. But Robert F. Kennedy, United States attorney general under his brother Jack, refused to take no for an…

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