Books

Intelligence and Stupidity in the FBI

Tim Weiner's 'Enemies' chronicles the fumbling agency Hoover built and 40 years of consequences.

By Crawford Kilian, 4 Jul 2012, TheTyee.ca

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J. Edgar Hoover: 'Intelligence specialist, stupid man.'

Related

  • Enemies: A History of the FBI
  • Tim Weiner
  • Random House (2012)

Intelligence is the ability to connect what you know with what you also know, and thereby to learn something you didn't know. By this definition, stupidity is not ignorance. Stupidity is the failure (or refusal) to learn from what you already know.

Tim Weiner, who wrote a harsh history of the CIA in 2008, has now turned his attention to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). It is an institutional history, but it inevitably becomes a biography of J. Edgar Hoover, with 40 years of post-mortem consequences.

Training its agents in the 1930s and 40s, the FBI described itself as "the greatest institution ever devised by a human mind." Recruits learned Emerson's observation that "an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man."

Hoover was a specialist in intelligence, and also a very stupid man. The agency he built inherited his stupidity. Worse yet, his long shadow effectively stupefied his country and its leaders, who still operate on his terms. So does Canada.

Hoover was a bright boy growing up in the early 1900s in a Washington, D.C. civil-service family. The U.S. capital was a southern city, and Hoover appears never to have questioned its ingrained racism. In a time of enormous immigration, he didn't like immigrants, and still less their radical socialist ideas.

A trained lawyer, he also failed to connect the concept of law with the concept of order. The original "Bureau of Investigation" in the Attorney General's Justice Department was created against the wishes of Congress, which correctly feared it could become a secret police agency like those of the Czar and Kaiser. But the Attorney General created it anyway, using his own funds, and young Hoover was soon on board.

When the U.S. entered the First World War in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson -- a former university president -- improvised a proto-fascist regime under which criticism of the war could get you jailed or deported. Hoover helped carry out this policy, failing to connect it with the constitutional right to freedom of speech and assembly.

The regime carried on after the war as the Russian revolution won interest and support among American radicals. Attorney General Palmer, who had dreams of succeeding Wilson, authorized the totally illegal arrest, imprisonment and deportation of thousands of people. But the 1920 "Palmer raids" were designed and carried out by Hoover, then just 25 years old. He was soon in charge of the Bureau.

'Enormous knowledge and a narrow mind'

Communism became Hoover's obsession. He saw reds everywhere, and he learned a lot about them. But as Weiner says, he had "enormous knowledge and a narrow mind." It seems never to have occurred to him to inquire into why communism attracted so much support. (In the 31 years between 1918 and 1949, it gained power over a billion people from Berlin to Beijing.) It was simply evil and a threat to "the American way of life."

Illegal means were therefore justified in defending that way of life: wiretapping, burglaries known as "black bag jobs," and the gathering of information on citizens under almost any pretext. As the FBI took form in the 1920s, Hoover often ran into trouble with his political masters. He simply ignored their orders to quit prying into the lives of people he disapproved of.

In the process, he created "Do Not File" dossiers on countless Americans. These were in effect concealed from government oversight, and they included many politicians and celebrities.

Other files, Weiner tells us, formed a list of American citizens Hoover considered deserving of "custodial detention" in any national emergency. One attorney general got wind of it and ordered him to abolish it; Hoover just renamed it the Security Index and kept adding to it.

Juicy gossip for FDR

Hoover fed juicy gossip to Franklin Delano Roosevelt about his enemies. FDR found them politically useful as he fought to implement his New Deal. Later presidents might not like Hoover or his methods, but he was politically unassailable. And like FDR, they often relied on his illegally obtained information to gain political advantages over their enemies.

During the Second World War Hoover extended the FBI's reach to the whole Western Hemisphere, fighting Nazi and Japanese spies in Latin America. But it was not a success: his military-age white American male agents were too obviously just pretending to be businessmen in Rio. Even so, Hoover still dreamed of making the FBI a worldwide intelligence operation, and bitterly opposed first the wartime OSS and the postwar CIA.

Hoover's turf wars were by definition wilfully stupid. He refused to put what he knew together with what other agencies knew. But by the Cold War stupidity was in the bureau's DNA, along with the reliance on burglary and illegal wiretaps.

So was Hoover's relentless anti-communism. Weiner says Hoover began planning his postwar Cold War as early as 1943, and by 1950 his Security Index included 12,000 people. In an emergency, Hoover proposed suspending habeas corpus and throwing those people into military stockades, secret prisons and concentration camps. Congress secretly paid for six such camps in the 1950s; news broadcasts during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 said they would likely be used if war broke out with the Soviets.

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