Raghu's Reviews > Enemies: A History of the FBI

Enemies by Tim Weiner
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's review
May 09, 2012

really liked it
Read from April 20 to May 09, 2012

Tim Weiner's book is a comprehensive history of the FBI from its inception till today. As I finished reading it, the feeling was one of admiration for the author's exhaustive research, a real understanding of what the FBI is all about and disbelief and fear at all that transpires in our country in the name of national security and politics. Contrary to most of our understanding, the FBI is not a police force but a secretive intelligence organization. The book shows how over the years, especially during the long reign of 50 years by J.Edgar Hoover at the helm, the FBI has been used by Presidents in their political warfare and how the organization has mostly operated outside the law with the connivance of Presidents like FDR, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and George.W.Bush. It has fought against communists, civil rights activists, terrorists, spies, opponents of incumbent presidents and so on.

Much of the book is about J.Edgar Hoover as he ruled over the FBI as head for fifty years till death in 1972. The author summarizes Hoover as follows: " ...born in the 19th century segregated city of DC, in his world, blacks knew their place: they were servants, valets and shoeshine boys. He presided over an Anglo-Saxon America and he aimed to preserve and defend it... He hated liberalism, blacks, Jews - he had a long list of hates...he connected communism with homosexuality and believed that homosexuals were susceptible to foreign intelligence services..."
The crusade that Hoover carried on against the so-called infiltration of communists in government has marked similarities with the way we have seen the various administrations since 2001 have carried on in the 'war on terror'. In Hoover's time, the FBI ran background checks on more than two million government employees, launch deep investigations into the personal lives and political beliefs of 14000 of them. At the end, they would find no Soviet spies in the govt! Like now, the FBI then employed wiretapping without authorization and searches without warrants.

The section on the US intelligence helping carry out the assassination of Trujillo, the dcitator of the Dominican Republic shows many of the US senators and US embassy staff in that country receiving money and sexual services in return for doing the dictator's bidding. It is sickening to read about the level of corruption and brings to mind the current (2012) crisis with the US secret service being involved with prostitution in Colombia during President Obama's visit.

The most glaring feature that stands out from the book is the repeated violation of law by many Presidents from FDR to George.W.Bush in authorizing the FBI to perform unlawful actions, as if they, by virtue of being the President, are above the law. The other thing that stands out is the repeated blunders of the FBI and the CIA in their handling of intelligence information. One understands that the agencies get thousands of leads and it is hard to follow up on all of them. But the FBI seems to constantly not follow up on important information that they already have gathered. Often, there have been data and leads to prevent a terrorist act but it was unattended to because of bureaucratic oversight or non-cooperation between the CIA and FBI. The author puts it succinctly as follows: ..'the FBI had individual experts but no institutional knowledge. Its 56 field offices worked in isolation. Agents rarely talked to analysts. The terrorism task forces across the country rarely talked to the HQ. And often the Director was at loggerheads with the White House..' (for eg, Bill Clinton and L.J.Freeh). Elsewhere the author writes on it in beautiful language as '..the FBI agents at the dawn of the Internet Age lived in a sixty-four kilobyte world...'.
On the composition of the FBI till the beginning of the 21st century, the author says, "...the FBI had been a man's world - usually men of Irish or Italian heritage schooled by Jesuits and raised in a closed culture of police and priests...'

Some other revelations are shocking. Lyndon Johnson had illegally used the FBI to spy on the Nixon campaign during the 1968 elections. But even worse was the fact that Nixon had torpedoed Johnson's peace talks with the communists in Vietnam in 1968 by asking the South Vietnam dictator not to make a peace deal with LBJ and Humphrey. He asked the dictator to wait till he himself was elected and then get a better deal. It didn't seem to bother Nixon that many young Americans would die in the meanwhile unnecessarily.
Other things of interest are the FBI agent George Piro's interrogation of Saddam Hussein in captivity. On being asked about his WMDs, Saddam says, "..it has been a long running bluff, a decption intended to keep the Iranians, the Israelis and the US at bay. By God, if I had them, I would have used them in the fight against the US..."
Also, during the early 1940s, a fake map which purported to indicate a Nazi plot for a new world order and take the war into the US and South America surfaced. It was circulated to FDR and the FBI and they bought into it completely. Actually, it was a ploy by the British intelligence to help draw the US into the war. They were the creators of the map but it remained a secret for decades after.

The book is a great read and everyone interested in civil liberties in our democracy must read it to get a composite picture of how the democracy functions in reality. According to the constitution, it is the FBI's primary duty to protect the rights of the citizens above all. The author says that the FBI failed in doing it all through the 20th century; however, under the current head Bob Mueller it is finally doing it. That is good to know.


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