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Seriously, Read a Book!

Thoughts on books, often interpreted through the high-brow prism of cartoon (read: Archer) references. Wait! I had something for this...

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Enemies: A History of the FBI

Enemies: A History of the FBI - Tim Weiner

"A free people must have both security and liberty. They are warring forces, yet we cannot have one without the other."

When William Webster became Director of the FBI in 1978, he was shocked to find that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, spawned from the Bureau of Investigation (BOI) in 1935, was without a legal framework for its activities and operations. Author Tim Weiner describes:

"The Bureau had no charter—a legal birth certificate from Congress spelling out its role. It had never had one. It still does not."

Weiner's Enemies is a whirlwind history of how such an entity came to be and how, limited only by the "president's oath to take care that the laws are faithfully executed," its boundaries and missions have stretched and pulled and become what they are today. The author further specifies his goal as honing in on the history of the FBI's secret intelligence operations, describing the book (in part) as "a record of illegal arrests and detentions, break-ins, burglaries, wiretapping, and bugging on behalf of the president."


Most of what I found lacking in the book lay outside of Weiner’s intended scope. So, I only have myself to blame for the long list of events about which I want to know so much more. In all fairness, those details and anecdotes would have rendered an already hefty book into an unwieldy tome. You can’t have it all I suppose.


American Machiavelli

There's a reason that a good chunk of FBI history reads much like a biography of its famed first director, J. Edgar Hoover. Since I already got most of my Archer-referencing J. Edna Hoover ya-yas out reading The Puppetmaster: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover earlier this year, I’m gonna shy away from commenting much on the man himself. However, it's clear that without Hoover, there simply is no history of this breed of federal activity.

"He was a founding father of American intelligence and the architect of the modern surveillance state. Every fingerprint on file, every byte of biographic and biometric data in the computer banks of the government, owes its origins to him."

J Edgar Hoover


Got a problem with that? Well, yeah! Duh. In a government that purportedly relies on a system of checks and balances, this kind of power (which, of course, is a function of information) is not meant to be left on the shoulders of one man without some serious supervision. And Hoover had the cunning necessary to keep that consolidated power. If you’re including his years as Director of the BOI, then Hoover’s reign starts with Calvin Coolidge in 1924 and closes during the Nixon Administration in 1972.


Legalizing Spycraft

The Espionage Act of 1917 was a game changer such that when Hoover became the chief of the Justice Department’s Radical Division in 1919, anyone in possession of information that could harm the nation (basically, anything with “disloyal ideas”) could be tossed in the slammer. You had your anarchists, socialists, and, of course, the good old Communist conspiracy, all of which the Justice Department wanted to quash, and thought J. Edgar was the man to do it.


To no great surprise, things got out of hand pretty quickly as espionage set its sights on senators at the whim of the attorney general.

“The Bureau of Investigation had been created as an instrument of law. It was turning into an illegal weapon of political warfare.”

The transition from BOI to FBI in 1935, however, was not inconsequential. Under Franklin D. Roosevelt, a wartime president (in case you forgot about a little thing called WWII), Hoover was first charged with tackling cases that crossed state boundaries- gangster wars, Prohibition. You know, stuff that had Hoover holding tommy guns for documentaries like You Can’t Get Away With It (below) in 1936.


J Edgar Hoover 1936


Those criminal justice elements, and raids on political meetings, private homes, bookstores and bedrooms, however, didn’t give Hoover the kind of wiggle room he felt he needed to compete with the experienced foreign espionage services of the Soviets, Germans or Japanese. Enter, the Smith Act of 1940 which "included the toughest federal restrictions on free speech in American history: it outlawed words and thoughts aimed at overthrowing the government, and it made membership in any organization with that intent a federal crime."


Wartime, Wiretaps and Turf Wars

Though Hoover had a hefty load on his plate under FDR, World War II required new arms of intelligence, and Roosevelt appointed William “Wild Bill” Donovan spymaster for the Office of Secret Services (which was, itself, a secret). Hoover was never big on sharing, and, thus, was not a fan of Wild Bill (considered the “intellectual father” of the CIA).


Wild Bill Donovan


Thus began decades of painfully uncoordinated branches of American secret intelligence. Hoover was ever-aware of the lay of the land, and how best to manipulate higher-ups to get necessary approval. Weiner points out that: “if we don’t do this people will die” has withstood the test of time as a one-liner with a record of garnering quick signatures.


When the going was good, Hoover was first in line to take the credit. When Nazi saboteurs, including George Dasch (below) were captured in 1942, Edgar was sure to get a letter to the Oval Office ASAP boasting of how the FBI had effectively stopped the Third Reich from invading American soil (not bothering to mention that Dasch, in fact, turned himself in).


George Dasch mug shot 1942


And, in a vast oversimplification of affairs, let’s just say that when FDR passed and Truman took office, Hoover tried to treat Truman like a gullible babysitter, claiming FDR totally would have let him watch TV after 9pm, or, you know, run a black bag job or two.


From the Red Scare to the War on Terror

I was born in 1984, so names like Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kaczynski, and David Koresh come to mind when I think of FBI takedowns of yesteryear.


McVeigh Kaczynski Koresh Covers


Then I remember hearing a little something something about some McCarthy fellow who dominated the small screen for a while, getting to watch Invasion of the Body Snatchers in high school history class, and Boris and Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle, and it comes back to me that the threat of Communism was kind of a big deal.


Sen Joseph McCarthy alerts public to the Red Menace aka Mayor Brunton


This would be the part of the book where I leaned heavily on Wikipedia to give me a bit more context on a hit parade of names that came up in a mix of Bureau espionage achievements and embarrassments. You know, the type of stuff that would have Ronald Reagan joking into the microphone during soundcheck:

“My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever.”

Even as the targets of secret intelligence operations and the faces of terror shifted from the likes of Aldrich Ames and Alger Hiss , to the Blind Sheik (below) and Osama Bin Laden , there remained one constant, critical threat to the American way of life.


The Blind Sheik


I think FBI Director Robert S. Mueller (from 2001 to 2013) summed it up best:

“We did not have a management system in place to assure that we were following the law.” 

The Rules of Engagement

Weiner does get into the detail of how changes in technology and personnel (not to mention geopolitics) altered/continues to alter the elusive balance between security and freedom. He does a pretty damn good job of it too, so, you know, read the book, because it's interesting and intricate stuff.


Some rules have become a bit more clear. You know, like the fact that “if invited in, law enforcement can enter your home without a warrant.” (citation, Cyril Figgis). And, once that happens, well I'll let Agent Hawley say it:


If invited in, law enforcement can enter your home without a warrant


[Oh, come on! Did you really expect me to do this entire review without at least one Archer reference?]