Tyee 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

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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

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.

Hoover was also feeding tidbits to Senator Joe McCarthy, helping him launch a major witch hunt aimed at identifying and punishing communists in the government. And occasionally the FBI went outside the country to arrange the kidnapping of someone like Morton Sobell -- an early example of rendition.

Impressing FBI culture on the country

TV shows like I Was a Communist for the FBI were big hits, and the Hollywood blacklist ruined a whole generation of writers, actors and directors. In effect, Hoover was now impressing FBI culture on the whole country. Plenty of people knew it was wrong, and some knew about his illegal means (including his targets). But protecting the American way of life was an end that justified those means.

Hoover believed that communism was behind everything, and especially behind the civil rights movement. In some ways he was right: Until the 1960s, believers in racial equality found no welcome from the Democrats or Republicans. Some communists did indeed work with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the freedom riders. (Ironically, much of the party's income came from dues-paying members who were FBI informants.)

White supremacist reaction to the movement turned to full-blown terrorism by the early 1960s, with blacks being shot dead on the highways and blown up in churches. Himself thoroughly racist, Hoover didn't want to get the FBI involved. But in one of the book's best passages, Weiner describes a meeting between Hoover and Lyndon Johnson in which the president piled on the flattery to get his help.

Fighting white terrorism in the south didn't really prepare the FBI to fight New Left terrorism in the late 1960s. Meanwhile, Puerto Rican nationalists set off numerous bombs over the years; the FBI never got to those responsible.

The age of dirty tricks

But during that era the FBI also helped install a U.S. puppet government in the Dominican Republic, and started COINTELPRO: a series of counter-intelligence programs whose dirty tricks and disinformation spread confusion and distrust among groups the FBI disapproved of, including civil rights activists and war protesters.

The FBI was glad to see Richard Nixon get elected in 1968 and re-elected in 1972. As a rookie congressman, Nixon had studied anti-communism under Hoover's tutelage. But Nixon's own FBI-style dirty tricks culminated in Watergate (involving at least one ex-FBI agent) and a belated congressional crackdown on wiretaps and black bag jobs.

Hoover's death in 1972 seemed to have ended an era. His successors failed repeatedly to take charge of the agency, whose powers were now sharply limited. With the collapse of communism in the late '80s and early '90s, the FBI seemed to have lost its reason for existence.

But as Weiner shows, the return of domestic terrorism in the 1990s also meant the return of wiretaps and black bags. The FBI was willing, but still limited by Hoover's own personal limits: It had no contacts within the tax resisters and militias, much less the Islamists who were filtering into the U.S. in the early days of al-Quaida. Bizarrely, FBI director Lewis Freeh almost never spoke with president Bill Clinton; he considered Clinton morally lax.

The triumph of institutional stupidity

The disaster of 9-11 stemmed in large part from the FBI's institutional stupidity, its failure to communicate with other agencies and even with its own specialists. Even if it had wanted to, its computer illiteracy meant a lack of databases. Attempts to create an effective FBI computer communications system, Weiner says, have been expensive failures.

And yet its failures, inherited from the man who really built it, led to the triumph of J. Edgar Hoover's stupidity. Just as Woodrow Wilson's wartime regime ignored the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, 21st-century American presidents have done the same. Weiner describes that triumph:

"Under (Vice-President Dick) Cheney's direction, the United States moved to restore the powers of secret intelligence that had flourished for 55 years under J. Edgar Hoover. In public speeches the president, the vice president and the attorney general renewed the spirit of the Red raids. In top secret orders, they revived the techniques of surveillance that the FBI had used in the war on communism."

And that is the surveillance regime Americans continue to live under in the Obama years.

So do we. Canadian imitation of FBI stupidity goes back well over half a century, to the RCMP dossiers on Tommy Douglas, Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker. CSIS exists because of the RCMP's inept imitation of COINTELPRO, with illegal dirty tricks against French separatists and surveillance of campus activists. But CSIS aided in the illegal Canadian governments that have aided that regime with the rendition of Maher Arar to Syria and the security theatre that makes every air journey an exercise in humiliation.

By failing to connect what he knew with what he also knew, J. Edgar Hoover was stupid. So were the politicians who let him get away with it, and even encouraged him.

And so are we, who know we have rights and freedoms, yet allow them to be abused again and again.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Get The Tyee in your inbox

LATEST STORIES

The Barometer

Which topic matters most to you?

Take this week's poll