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

Enemies by Tim Weiner
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's review
Feb 20, 2012

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bookshelves: espionage, non-fiction, history, politics
Read in February, 2012

I read the kindle editon of this book.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was founded by President Theodore Roosevelt in the early years of the twentieth century, though it didn't get its current name until the Presidency of his cousin Franklin Delano Rooosevelt (FDR). From the 1920s until his death in the early 1970s, it was led by J. Edgar Hoover.

Weiner's history of the FBI focuses on its role in countering espionage, subversion, and terrorism (or what its leaders deemed to fall into these categories). Very little attention is devoted to organized crime or other more ordinary criminal activities.

J. Edgar Hoover rose to prominence for his role in deporting various sorts of leftists in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. One lesson Hoover learned from this experience was to avoid court cases and focus on gathering intelligence and harassing his enemies with extra-legal means, such as causing conflict within the ranks.

Under FDR, Hoover gained de facto if illegal freedom to use wire taps and burglarize left-wing and right-wing organizations deemed subversive (Hoover was more enthusiastic about moving against the left-wing groups) and the diplomatic posts of other nations.

Hoover had a negative attitude towards the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Weiner argues that although this was partly due to Hoover's 1895 birth and residence in Washington D. C., a southern city in a social sense, it was mainly because one of Martin Luther King's main associates had been a Communist Party member. President Lyndon Baines Johnson did succeed in cajoling Hoover into successfully using against the Klan the same techniques of wiretapping, recruting informant, and sowing conflict that the FBI had used against the Communist Party.

The FBI was less successful in persuing the Weather Underground and Puerto Ricans using terrorism in an attempt to gain independence. Starting in the late 1960s, Hoover became less amenable to White House pressure to use his favorite techniques against political enemies of the President, causing Richard Nixon no end of consternation. The FBI in general and Mark Felt in particular was the major media source on the Watergate scandal. The repercussions of Watergate, including the exposure of the illegal means used by the FBI, resulted in a considerable reduction in counterintelligence and counter-terrorism operations, a change which persisted into the 1990s.

From the mid-1970s until about 2001, the FBI and American intelligence organizations in general suffered from a number of undiscovered double agents in their midst. Aside from the Soviet Union and its Russian successor, the Chinese and the Cubans appear to have run successful operations against the United States. FBI leadership was uneven during this period, with a low point under director Sessions. Louis Freeh, the director during most of the Clinton administration, had a poor relationship with the White House during most of this period, reaching a low point during the Monica Lewinsky episode and subsequent impeachment trial.

During the 1990s and even after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the FBI was hampered by poor organization and bad computer systems in using the knowledge it collectively held. The increase in information recieved by the FBI,from such electronic survelliance organizations such as the National Security Agency as well as the Central Intelligence Agency, in some ways made things worse by providing many more false leads. At the same time there was conflict within the government, and later outside of government after the news leaked, about some of the means by which information was collected, including electronic survillance without court warrant, and torture. The FBI, CIA, and the military did improve in their identification and killing of terrorists, though contraversy about the means used continues.

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