Recent national events prompted me to download the Audible version of this 2012 FBI history. Mr. Weiner takes us through a very long journey where he says (I’m paraphrasing him here) that the balance between a free society and a just society is a terribly fine one. That opening thought is reiterated time and again when we take a look behind the curtain of America’s version of a secret police. Most of the FBI’s history was authored by J. Edgar Hoover, the man whose name is on the current FBI building in Washington D.C. Hoover was in a unique position. As a D.C. native, Hoover found himself at the helm of a powerful organization at a young age and it was a job he refused to relinquish until death forced his hand at the age of 77. Hoover (and most of the attorneys general and presidents) viewed the FBI as a special entity, one that was permitted to flout the law and the Constitution whenever they wished. Every single president, Democrat or Republican, used the FBI to carry out morally questionable jobs, including “black bag jobs” (burglary), fraud, wiretapping, and coercion against suspected criminals, foreign entities, and political enemies. Some AGs and presidents played the “don’t ask, don’t tell” game with Hoover, preferring to know as little as possible about exactly how Hoover’s teams obtained the intel they did, while others actively participated in overstepping the law to get what they wanted. It’s easy to paint some figures as villains (Nixon and McCarthy in particular), but honest readers will note that the bureau’s immense power has been wielded by every president in ways that are less than morally sound (Roosevelt’s Japanese internment camps and Kennedy’s mafia mistress to name others). Whether it was hunting out socialists, mafiosos, communists, terrorists, or criminals, the early days of the FBI were ones filled with top secret missions that the public and many outside the political elite knew little to nothing about.
Hoover’s methods were certainly heavy handed and manipulative, and it was clear that a national conversation about the role, responsibilities, and boundaries of the FBI was long overdue. The knee jerk reactions to the McCarthy hearings and later Watergate, however, set the stage for the toothless, inept, bloated, and unprepared FBI that grossly overlooked the rise of domestic terrorism and eventually 9/11. The FBI has always had an uneasy relationship with their CIA counterparts and (hopefully) one positive that has come from 9/11 has been a closer working relationship between the two entities. Mr. Weiner details the bureau chiefs relationship with each president, the conflict between getting the necessary intel but staying without the rule of law, and the ways in which the FBI have had to evolve (namely updating the ridiculously outdated computer systems that allowed spies such as Robert Hanssen to steal them blind). It’s a tightrope walk to be sure, and any reader will instantly grasp the difficult confines within which the modern bureau must exist.
A long and oftentimes overly detailed history, Weiner provides a decent foundation for the FBI of today. What is disturbing is that time and again, you see the author placing 21st century hindsight and judgement on 20th century activities, which, however tempting, never provides a solid history or informed commentary. If you listen to the Audible version, the narrator does a hilariously poor job impersonating figures mentioned in the book, particularly presidents. This wouldn’t be a top pick, but it’s a solid choice for extended summer car rides when you have plenty of time on your hands.
Amazon link is here.