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Tim Weiner (Jessica D.B. Doyle)
Tim Weiner (Jessica D.B. Doyle)

the daily review, Tue., March 20

The FBI struggles to overcome Hoover's toxic legacy Add to ...

Smears, surveillance and skulduggery have lately gripped Parliament Hill. When Public Safely Minister Vic Toews introduced the Protecting Children from Sexual Predators Act, he suggested the law’s opponents stood with the world’s most reprehensible perverts. Political rivals responded by digging dirt, anonymously leaking details of the minister’s divorce file. Somewhere above the fray, state agents salivate at the prospect of legally getting the broad Internet-surveillance powers that they’ve sought for a decade.

Reading Tim Weiner’s excellent Enemies: A History of the FBI while all this was going on in Ottawa, I found myself wondering what the late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover might have thought of all this. Probably something contemptuous of everyone involved – such as, say, “Amateurs. Rank amateurs.” Smears and government surveillance were the favoured tools of the spymaster, who built his brand and his bureaucracy under eight presidents. Rarely stopping to ask any permission to snoop, Hoover was a master of leveraging fear into power.

In 1938, for example, Hoover asked that president Franklin Roosevelt give verbal ascent to broad surveillance powers. “The utmost decree of secrecy is required,” Hoover wrote. “It would seem undesirable to seek any special legislation that would draw attention …”

He must have got his blank cheque: FBI agents went on to perpetrate hundreds of illegal wiretaps and black-bag-job break-ins in the name of national security. Many operations were logged in Hoover’s “Do Not File” files. The enemies lists kept changing – anarchists, Bolsheviks, fascists, Soviets, Klansmen, Black Panthers, terrorists – but tried-and-true tactics stayed the same.

Whether one needs to subvert the rule of law in order to save it is a troubling question. Weiner adeptly mines Washington’s archives to tell the story of the FBI as a domestic spy agency. The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter last chronicled the growing pains of the Central Intelligence Agency in 2007’s Legacy of Ashes.

The FBI’s crime-fighting exploits – including gangbuster stories from the 1930s – fall by the wayside in this narrative. And Weiner doesn’t care for the salacious. (See Clint Eastwood’s movie if you want dirt on Hoover’s alleged cross-dressing and relationship with FBI assistant director Clyde Tolson.) Enemies does delve into some of the sexual affairs of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, but only to show how Hoover used the information to preserve his fiefdom and continue his vendettas.

Maybe all the shock-doctrine stuff was to be expected. Hoover was a callow Justice Department functionary in 1919-1920, when anarchist bombings killed 34 people on Wall Street and also targeted his boss, the attorney-general. He helped machinate the largest mass arrests in U.S. history – the jailing of up to 10,000 suspects in a weekend – but somehow survived the backlash to become the director of the FBI’s precursor.

He had so mastered the dark arts of state surveillance by the time of his death, in 1972, that even confidant Richard Nixon elegized how he learned at Hoover’s knee.

“He said, ‘You know, about a month or so before I ever go up to testify before the Appropriations Committee, I discontinue all taps … so that when they ask me the question as to whether we area tapping anybody, I can say no,’ ” recalled Tricky Dick in post-Watergate testimony that was kept classified until last year. Having just been caught tapping and burglarizing himself, the disgraced president scarcely concealed his admiration.

A series of forgettable directors followed Hoover, and the FBI lost its intelligence focus. In the 1970s and ’80s, it overlooked the fact that its own senior spies were double agents leaking to the Soviets.

A month before 9/11, a former Marine took over. Robert Mueller III, nicknamed “Bobby Three Sticks,” had made a name for himself in the FBI investigation into whether Libya backed the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103. Yet international-aviation terrorism was only about to get much, much worse after the CIA and FBI tragically failed to share information about known al-Qaeda operatives inside the United States.

Following the Sept. 11, 2001, suicide hijackings, the FBI could have returned to its old dragnet ways, but largely didn’t. In a 2004 act of brinkmanship, Mueller even offered a letter of resignation to president George W. Bush, telling him he would not go along with a warrantless data-mining program that he regarded as illegal. Bush retreated (to a point) and Mueller kept his job.

Over the past century, the FBI has grown from a force of 34 special agents to more than 30,000 employees. It is now part of a patchwork of global agencies whose collective eavesdropping capabilities would have awed Hoover. For democracies, then, the trick is to balance this intelligence-collection with civil liberties, and to craft explicit laws that tell state agents where the lines are.

Weiner ends on a cheerfully optimistic note. Maybe, he suggests, the FBI is finally getting it right, and getting to a place where “principle might prevail,” so that “Americans could be safe both safe and free.”

Colin Freeze writes on security issues for The Globe and Mail.

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