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Tim Weiner has won the Pulitzer Prize for his national security reporting and the National Book Award for his best-selling Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. His new book, Enemies: A History of the FBI, examines the Bureau from a fresh angle: as a domestic and international intelligence agency. In its pages, Weiner chronicles the efforts of a Bureau whose relentless focus is not the usual criminal suspects but spies, assassins, anarchists and terrorists.

How accurate is the FBI’s image?

People think FBI agents are saintly lawmen with superhuman powers or a malevolent proto-Gestapo. Neither of those notions is true. For most of the past hundred years, the Bureau has had as its first and foremost mission secret intelligence against terrorists and spies. Anybody can find a stolen car or solve a bank robbery. It takes an intelligence agency to do counter-terrorism. A secret police is an anathema in a democracy, but the FBI’s powers make it America’s closest counterpart.

Why do we have a domestic intelligence agency?

Because we’re a superpower. Teddy Roosevelt invented the FBI [then called the Bureau of Investigation] in 1908. From the moment he started to extend America’s power, he knew enemies would push back. Roosevelt wanted to stop anarchists, who, like al Qaeda, existed only to destroy. He wanted to stop plutocrats, who he called “the great malefactors,” from corrupting Congress. Under Roosevelt, laws were established regulating interstate commerce, food and drugs and the great malefactors. How do you enforce them? Thus was born the FBI.

Has the United States faced any real threat of overthrow?

Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon both thought that the forces opposing the war in Vietnam were capable of overthrowing our government. After 9/11, we feared another attack. Did these threats materialize? No. Were they real? Fear is real. Living in continual fear will cause you to err on the side of security at the cost of liberty.

How political is the FBI?

An organization’s politics reflects its members’ backgrounds. The FBI that J. Edgar Hoover created, the FBI that he left behind and the FBI that survived for years after Hoover died was 99.4 percent white, 100 percent male, heavily Catholic and Mormon. The politics of people who joined the FBI was predominantly conservative—in the best sense, of wanting to conserve traditional values, and conservative in the less wonderful sense of resisting change. The FBI remains overwhelmingly white and male, but it is not as white and as male as it was before. You’ve got some women, black people, Asians, Arabic speakers.

Have we always had the Bureau that we deserve?

No. The Bureau’s history is replete with egregious violations of common law and common sense. Particularly in Hoover’s day, the FBI was at the fringe of and sometimes beyond the law. Only in recent years, thanks in good part to Director Robert Mueller, has the Bureau managed the difficult balancing act of calibrating our national security and our civil liberties.

Are FBI directors above the law?

Hoover in his heyday was the law; presidents gave him that authority. When the Supreme Court in 1939 said you couldn’t bug without a warrant, FDR told Hoover, in essence, “To hell with the Supreme Court.” Since Hoover’s death, no director has felt above the law. His immediate successor, L. Patrick Gray, lost his job and was indicted— the charges were dropped—for conspiring to violate Americans’ civil rights. That’s quite a fall.

What’s your personal take on J. Edgar Hoover?

He was one of the four or five most important figures in the American government of the 20th century. He was, as his intelligence chief, William Sullivan, put it, a hater, and once he hated someone or something, he hated all his life. Hoover’s mortal enemies were people like Felix Frankfurter, a Supreme Court justice; Roger Baldwin, head of the ACLU; W.E.B. Du Bois, this country’s first really great civil rights leader; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. People think of this as racism or personal animus, that Hoover hated blacks or he hated Jews, or he hated liberals. I think it’s a lot more complicated. Hoover was an ideologue, and ideology is an enemy of good intelligence. He was funny, sarcastic and often petulant. His mind was narrow but very deep. He understood intelligence and its power, but not its limits.

Such as when he bugged Dr. King?

Yes, but let’s remember who authorized those bugs: Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Hoover had convinced Bobby Kennedy and his brother, the president, that King’s adviser, Stanley Levinson, was a Communist and that the civil rights movement was a cat’s-paw of international Communism.

Has the post-Hoover FBI ever overstepped its power?

When the Bureau oversteps, the courts or the press pull it back. Sometimes the FBI itself restores the balance. After 9/11, George W. Bush created an electronic eavesdropping system. Mueller told the president, this program is illegal; unless you trim it to within the confines of the law, I will resign, the attorney general will resign and his deputy and the four deputies after him will resign.

What about times when the Bureau was overzealous?

From 1956 to 1971, the FBI ran COINTELPRO, for “counterintelligence programs.” They were poison pen campaigns, libels and defamations against everybody from Communists to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Has the FBI erred more recently?

During the 1990s, the FBI under Louis Freeh spent three times the money and manpower investigating Chinese campaign contributions that it did investigating terrorism. It’s a terrible thing to say, but that is one proximate cause for the success of the 9/11 attacks.

What do you consider examples of the Bureau at its best?

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson ordered Hoover to destroy the most violent terrorist organization in this country in the 20th century, the Ku Klux Klan. It probably went against most of the bones in Hoover’s body, but he did as the president ordered. Within three years the Klan was a shadow of itself. After the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103, the FBI traced a fragment of clothing to a shop in Malta and figured out who bought it, tied him to the Libyan intelligence service and figured out where he’d been. And, most importantly, since 9/11 we haven’t been attacked in any serious way.

Should we all ask the Bureau for copies of our files?

Most of what you get will be blacked out.


Originally published in the June 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.