Monday, June 25, 2012

Book review by Michael Breen on "Enemies: A History of the FBI"

My friend and colleague Michael Breen is the regional NSW correspondent for this blog. Michael lives in the NSW Southern Highlands  and is regular contributor. 
One of his pieces about the outlaw Jimmy Governor is among the ten most read pieces on the blog. He has also written pieces on the search for Malcom Naden in regional NSW and the Sydney Writers Festival and another piece features photos from his travels in Thailand.
When Michael told me he was reading Tim Weiner's massive book Enemies  I asked him if he would write a review. 
Weiner's book is a definitive study of the history of the FBI and follows on from his earlier award winning book on the history of the CIA.

If like me you have seen the book on bookshop shelves but have not been able to read it yet, Michael's review is wonderfully informative. 
“Enemies A History of the FBI” by Tim Weiner.
a book review by Michael Breen
Organizational Brief
So you want an organization whose job is to keep the United States safe? Managers and employees need certain essential qualifications: to lie, to break the law, to obstruct due process, to be unaccountable and secretive. Particularly they need to be able to avoid detection. Most will need several identities. They will have to consort with spies, swindlers and subversives but remain loyal to their own organization rather than the US constitution. They will have to handle large amounts of cash for corrupt payments. Some will be required to subvert sovereign states. There is no target discrimination; everyone from the President to benevolent societies is fair game. Funding for the organization is contingent on maintaining governmental terror. There are no patent criteria for assessing progress. The end must always justify the means. Since the publication of successes could lead to funding cuts it is better instead to publicize threats. That organization exists it is called the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Obama’s Visit.
On April 28th 2009 President Obama visited the Hoover Building, to mark the centenary of the FBI. “Back in 1908, there were just thirty-four special agents reporting to Theodore Roosevelt’s attorney general. Today, there are over 30,000 men and women who work for the FBI. So much has changed in the last hundred years,” he said turning on the charm. “Thank God for change”. The crowd went wild” Tim Weiner records. Weiner is no newcomer to the annals of intelligence work. His history of the CIA, “Legacy of Ashes” is a classic, well documented and researched as is his latest “Enemies” A History of the FBI. Published this year by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books. What is striking about the book is Weiner’s ability to document many of the paradoxes of such a strange organization. He does it at a time when many key documents have been declassified. However no one is able to recover Hoover’s bonfires and his “Do not File” repository. Nonetheless Weiner avoids imaginative fillers and maintains a measured descriptive balance.
Management initiatives.
Presidents of the USA and their attorneys have been unable to manage the FBI but several have been managed by intelligence gathered about them and their supporters. Hoover was able to manage, defy or charm presidents from Roosevelt to Nixon because of the illegally obtained snippets he had on them and their rivals.
The Bureau grew from Theodore Roosevelt’s desire to unity the nation after the Civil War by prosecuting crimes against the United States. The infant organization, replaced the work of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency the de facto secret service agency since Abraham Lincoln.  It had a budget of $50,000 but no federal code of laws regulating how justice was to be served.
J. Edgar Hoover at 22 years joined the Justice Department in 1917. For fifty-five years Hoover was the face, the force and the culture of the Bureau. Woodrow Wilson via his attorney general engaged Hoover to crush Communism in 1919. His product, like that of terrorists was to increase the terror quotient for government thus insuring his funding and government’s scope to announce threats and reduce freedoms. Hoover saw Communism as a colossal evil. He died on May 2nd 1972, his relationship with the then President Nixon and the White House in ruins. Attorney General Mitchell hated him and Halderman and Dean pressured the President to fire Hoover. “We’ve got to avoid the situation where he could leave with a blast. We may have on our hands here a man who will pull down the temple with him, including me” Nixon said. Such was the power of Hoover. Prior to this he had managed relationships with Presidents and Attorneys General with masterful Machiavellian dexterity.
I found Weiner’s treatment of FBI vs. Nixon particularly fascinating as I had been in the United States during the time and heard rumours and dribbles from our Boston education research centre’s contacts with Washington agencies on an almost daily basis Weiner tells us how we knew. Nixon was being investigated by the FBI while at the same time using the agency to cover up his connection with the CIA break in at the Democrat offices at the Watergate building. After Hoover’s death L. Patrick Gray was awaiting Nixon’s re-election in November 1972. Gray had been seriously ill and Mark Felt ran the Bureau while Gray convalesced. Felt was the obvious man for the top job, better suited and experienced than former submarine commander Gray. Ultimately Felt’s rejection and frustration led to his becoming “Deep Throat” the informant to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at the Washington Post.
Suspecting Felt, Nixon summoned his boss Gray to the Oval Office at 9.00am February 16th 1973. What transpired is a priceless glimpse of Nixon and the White House relationship with the FBI. Nixon played on Gray’s desired Senate Selection Committee confirmation as FBI Director, “They (the Committee) would probably ask you such things as: Do you know about any other things that the Bureau’s done? Have you gotten into this (illegal)domestic wiretapping? I’d say, yes we do have to do it… What would you want us to do about this? Do you want to let people get shot?” Gray was stunned. After telling Gray that the FBI should get into hijacking, wiretapping and the use of weapons Nixon switched to Watergate. Gray gulped seized the moment and affirmed his willingness as the man for the Director’s job. Nixon narrowed his invective to the leaks about the Watergate burglaries naming the Bureau as the source and Felt in particular. He said leaks didn’t happen under Hoover’s governance, because staff feared Hoover. Spluttering and fuming Nixon continued. “You’ve got to do it like they did in the war. In World War II, the Germans if they went through these towns and then one of their soldiers, a sniper hit one of them, they’d line up the whole goddam town and say until you talk you’re all getting shot. I really think that’s what has to be done. I mean, I don’t think you can me Mr. Nice Guy over there.” Quite a briefing from a president.
“The FBI’s relentless focus on fighting terrorism had an unforeseen consequence. The investigation and prosecution of white-collar crime plummeted, a boon to the Wall Street plunderings that helped create the greatest economic crisis in America since the 1930s” They are still at it and unwatched and unaccountable certainly do not always get their man.
Weiner tracks these itchy governmental symbioses, which are in the annals of the FBI. He is well able for the job following his “Legacy of Ashes” the Pulitzer Prize winning History of the CIA. He knows and documents where the bodies are buried. “Enemies” large as it is (537 pages) is not a difficult book. Weiner is eminently readable. As in “Legacy of Ashes” Weiner’s headings are often direct quotes. His factual descriptions and direct speech convey with immediate crispness the organizational history of the FBI and White House agencies will be an enlightening document for many readers and a conformational “thought so” for others.

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