Vol. 15 No.6 (June 2005), pp.552-555
THE FBI AND AMERICAN DEMOCRACY: A BRIEF CRITICAL HISTORY, by Athan G. Theoharis. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2004. 224pp. Cloth. $24.95. ISBN: 0-7006-1345-5.
“The FBI and American Democracy” – an oxymoron? Even ardent supporters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation admit that the Bureau’s history includes many examples of suppression of democratic activities such as the exercise of free speech or the “right to associate” with leftist or racial justice activists. The usual explanation for this troubling history is that the FBI was created and controlled by the ultimate g-man, J. Edgar Hoover, whose capacity to snoop and blackmail even the most powerful politicians is legendary. Considering that there is already such a detailed literature about Hoover personally (Powers 1987) and the FBI generally (see the annotated bibliography compiled by Theoharis, et al. 1999), the most welcome new work on the Bureau would probably be an examination of the Bureau’s powers as they may shed light on today’s crucial debate: how to respond to terrorism while simultaneously retaining fundamental democratic institutions. After all, if security imperatives cause Americans to abandon their democratic principles, we will have won the war but killed the nation.
This is not that book, but it is a start. Athan Theoharis presents a detailed history of the FBI’s malfeasance in matters of civil rights, glossing over the question of whether security threats justified these responses (even though they were tacitly approved by Presidents and Congress) or whether they were the outcome of Hoover’s personal ideology and his capacity to create and direct this powerful agency so as to advance that ideology. Other explanations are possible, of course, but Theoharis does not explore them in depth. Instead, this book is remarkable chiefly for the data and methodology of the study and the detailed history they produce. Theoharis adds to his list of publications on the FBI (such as CHASING SPIES: HOW THE FBI FAILED IN COUNTERINTELLIGENCE BUT PROMOTED THE POLITICS OF MCCARTHYISM IN THE COLD WAR YEARS, a title which presents the same thesis as this book,) by painstakingly piecing together records and files from the presidential libraries of five presidents and reports from all congressional hearings and inquiries into the FBI since 1975, including the Church Committee hearings. The result is often eye-popping. The book “highlights how the creation of a secret federal police force could threaten a democratic society” (p.32) and how Congress and the executive have been prevented from controlling that agency.
Created in 1908, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was initially formed to investigate violations of federal [*553] anti-trust, postal and banking laws and criminal acts directed at the federal government. In1936, the threat to U.S security from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union led to a sharp increase in agents and appropriations. Later, due to the Cold War, the Bureau’s scope of powers and size grew considerably again. Today, as the United States grapples with the “War on Terrorism,” the FBI’s powers have increased even more, particularly with the passing of the 2001 USA Patriot Act. Although many people believe that the seemingly unconstitutional powers granted by the Patriot Act are something new to this country, Theoharis shows that the FBI has been engaged in warrantless wiretapping and domestic spying for decades. In ten chapters that chronologically march through American history of the twentieth century, he details (though unfortunately does not footnote) the FBI’s programs and tactics.
Although this review cannot begin to mention all the various examples of domestic intelligence activities that the book covers, two stories are particularly instructive, not only for understanding how the FBI has carried out its “domestic spying” mission in the past, but also to illuminate the origins of contemporary political dilemmas. The stories involve the division of espionage powers between the State Department and the FBI and how the FBI came to control all domestic intelligence activities, and the history of how the FBI has conducted wiretapping.
Theoharis finds the origins of the FBI’s domestic espionage powers in President Roosevelt’s response to World War II. Prior to 1939, the State Department had controlled espionage activities, including any spying on American citizens suspected of working with foreign powers. That department could request FBI assistance, but FBI activity could be triggered and directed only through State Department request. J. Edgar Hoover appealed to Frank Murphy, Attorney General under Roosevelt, to convince the President to lift the State Department’s power over FBI investigations. In a secret directive, Roosevelt did so, and “FBI officials soon parlayed their trumping of the State Department into an exclusive FBI monopoly” to monitor “subversive activities” related to security threats from abroad, and also to investigate and suppress any activities of American citizens who criticized foreign policy, “as well as radical labor leaders who could disrupt military production” (p.48). The war against Nazism became a war against home-grown dissent, and the FBI was given complete control over it. Hoover expanded his surveillance powers by enlisting such groups as the American Legion to provide constant spying on political activities everywhere in the nation, and by instituting a Custodial Detention list of persons who should be “watched carefully” because they were anticipated to be subversive and potentially detainable. When a subsequent Attorney General, Francis Biddle, attempted to rein in the Bureau, ordering Hoover to discontinue the Detention program because it had “no statutory justification,” the action paradoxically “had the unanticipated consequence of undermining the ability of Attorneys General to oversee the FBI” (p.55). Hoover simply continued his activities while keeping all the files secret, a practice that deepened and expanded in ensuing decades. Thus, [*554] accountability to any other government agency was prevented, and the results of this sad history are apparent today.
This story certainly has ominous parallels to the current situation, in which one of the political responses to the horrible events of September 11 is the Patriot Act in its various versions. Another story, that of wiretapping domestic organizations and citizens because of Cold War fears, chronicles how a series of Attorneys General deferred to FBI wishes by issuing secret directives permitting the Bureau to wiretap and search without pre-approved warrants. Theoharis notes that Herbert Brownell, Eisenhower’s Attorney General, “was uneasy about directly authorizing a violation of the Fourth Amendment,” so he would not sign any permissions and would not seek judicial approval of warrants, thus assuring there would be no record of law violation on the part of the Justice Department – which serves to “underscore how legal and constitutional limitations no longer governed administration policy toward the FBI,” says Theoharis (p.68). Today, the Patriot Act openly and explicitly permits some bugging and searches without probable cause and without warrants, though the actions are reviewable in subsequent prosecutions.
Given the history that this book nicely recounts, is it wise to expand the powers of the FBI after 9/11? Actually, it is possible that those powers have been both expanded (through the Patriot Act) and controlled (because the FBI must now answer to the newly-created “Intelligence Czar” who oversees and coordinates anti-terrorism efforts of several federal agencies.) The 2002-2003 joint House-Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation report concluded that the FBI should “strengthen and improve its domestic capability as fully and expeditiously as possible,” while the 9/11 Commission convinced Congress to create the office of a national intelligence director who will be capable of overseeing the FBI along with the CIA, at least in matters related to foreign threats. This book was published before the 9/11 Commission found that infighting between the FBI and CIA had caused vital information to be ignored prior to the attacks and that the FBI’s efforts to expand its domestic counterintelligence activities after 9/11 were “counterproductive” (Commission 2005).
The main thesis of Theoharis’ book is that the FBI has concentrated so much on suppressing political views with which Hoover and his allies disagreed that it has not developed the capacity for conducting competent intelligence gathering about more dangerous threats – most notably, Al Queda. The recommendations of the joint congressional Intelligence Committee appear to be indifferent to the FBI’s history of intelligence failure and civil rights abuse, calling for the expansion of surveillance powers and the adoption of more aggressive tactics, although this approach has been shown by the history of the FBI – and, indeed, by the events of 9/11 itself – to be severely flawed.
Unfortunately, the book does not develop all parts of its thesis. Theoharis masterfully documents the FBI’s history of suppressing political activity but does not demonstrate that a different approach would have improved the mishmash of intelligence that led to September 11. The book includes almost too much [*555] detail regarding the FBI’s abuses of democratic principles, and this is sufficient to make a compelling case for controlling the agency more carefully. But it is only in the Introduction and last section, “The Modern Bureau and Politics of Terrorism,” that the stated thesis of the book is explored. The main point is that, unless the FBI is considerably revamped, civil liberties will continue to be eroded, but better security for the nation will not necessarily result. Theoharis adds that the FBI’s inability to prevent 9/11 was not caused by lack of sufficient authority or an outmoded law enforcement culture; the problem was that agents knew very little about the terrorists and were unable to distinguish them from those simply holding militant Islamicist views. Presumably, if the Bureau had devoted energy to understanding the distinctions, a better outcome might have been possible. But this is merely speculation, the sort of “anticipation” that Theoharis decries in FBI policies. The book’s Introduction and “Modern Bureau and the Politics of Terrorism” sections are almost certainly the most germane to current debates, but they are thin chapters bracketing the painstakingly presented middle sections chronicling decades of abuse of democratic processes.
Overall, this is an excellent piece of scholarship with important implications for current policy debates. But those implications remain contentious in the political arena, and this book does not take a stand on them other than to raise George Santayana’s old caution: those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. 2005. 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT: FINAL REPORT OF THE NATIONAL COMMISSION ON TERRORIST ATTACKS UPON THE UNITED STATES. Washington, DC: Replica Books.
Powers, Richard Gid. 1987. SECRECY AND POWER: THE LIFE OF J. EDGAR HOOVER. New York: Free Press.
Theoharis, Athan G., Tony G. Poveda, Susan Rosenfeld, and Richard Gid Powers (eds). 1999. THE FBI: A COMPREHENSIVE REFERENCE GUIDE. Phoenix: Oryx Press.
© Copyright 2005 by the authors, Jennifer Koleser and Candace McCoy.
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