Steve Smits's Reviews > Enemies: A History of the FBI

Enemies by Tim Weiner
Rate this book
Clear rating

M 50x66
's review
Jun 03, 2012

really liked it
Read in June, 2012

Our republic has faced external and internal threats since nearly its beginning. A critical challenge for our system of government in dealing with these real or perceived threats is whether we can address them while maintaining the individual liberties guaranteed by the constitution -- liberties which without question impede the range of responses government may use to respond.

Sadly, we fail time after time. From the Alien and Seditions laws of the 1790's to imprisonment of dissenters in WWI and internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII to today's electronic invasions of privacy in the war on terror, we have been largely incapable of holding true to our ideals.

Nowhere is this shown more clearly than in the history of the FBI. Tim Weiner's incredibly well-researched book describes the abuses of the FBI in its efforts to deal with foreign and domestic enemies. While the notion of FBI misdeeds is familiar to us, the details are shocking. Warrantless wiretaps, bugging, break-ins were not the actions of rogue agents, they were standard practices and pervasive in use from the begining of the agency one hundred years ago.

The willingness to use such techniques and their extent is related to J. Edgar Hoover's obsession with communist and other left wing parties, but to focus only on him is to miss a major theme of Weiner's story. Many, many political leaders were aware of Hoover's approach and sanctioned it openly or tacitly. Surely the powerful political influence developed by Hoover over his long tenure inhibited presidents and attorneys general from taking the principled position they should have, and admittedly some of the enemies were indeed threats, but those are lame excuses in view of their oaths to uphold the constitution. (One of the few admirable incidents was the resistance of the current director, Robert Mueller, and then attorney general Ashcroft to Bush's/Cheney's efforts to grossly violate the privacy of individual Americans under the Patriot Act's electronic surveillance provisions.)

As unsettling as presidents' toleration of Hoover's illegalities is the fact that some, especially Johnson and Nixon, seemed to relish hearing the "dirt" Hoover collected on their political opponents and others.

The consequences of this long era of misconduct are reverbating today. After the Watergate episode in which the FBI, below the level of director L. Patrick Gray, resisted the White House effort to cover up the break-in, the agency went through a series of ineffective directors with the exception of Mueller who seems to have scruples. The insularity and bureaucratic rivalry with other intelligence agencies that was so important to Hoover, seems to have persisted until the pre-September 11 years when the lack of sharing of intelligence blinded us to the major danger of radical Islamists. One hopes that this shortsightness is very much diminished now.

Some of the threats over time were real, e.g. Soviet espionage efforts to get nuclear secrets. Some were important, e.g. the violent actions of the KKK against civil rights activists in the 1960's. Other threats were more imagined, e.g. the communist party USA or thousands of Japanese-Americans in 1942. Whether real or imagined, the disturbing message of Weiner's history is that our government does not seem able to resist resorting to extreme tactics that clearly violate the constitution. Adhering to the safeguards contained in the constitution would and do inhibit the effectivness of law enforcement and counter espionage actions, but that is the price we must pay if we are to preserve on a larger scale our unique and precious civil liberties.

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Enemies.
Sign In »

No comments have been added yet.