CHASING SPIES by Athan Theoharis


How the FBI Failed in Counterintelligence but Promoted the Politics of McCarthyism in the Cold War Years
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The author of J. Edgar Hoover, Sex, and Crime (1995) turns his attention here to the FBI chief’s political attitudes, making him look like Don Quixote: correct somehow, but ultimately chasing windmills.

Theoharis (History/Marquette Univ.) argues that although Hoover was incompetent when it came to catching Soviet spies, his paranoia about the communist threat to America in the middle of the 20th century was valid. There were many Soviet agents operating in the US under Hoover’s watch, the author suggests; Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, who initially reined him in, weren’t eager to start a Red Scare, but they also underestimated the power of spies working in the federal government. Hoover managed to catch wind of espionage through a variety of means, especially the Venona Project, a code-breaking operation that gave the US access to communications between Moscow and its agents. (Theoharis relies on redacted transcripts from the project and recently released KGB records for much of his documentation.) The bureau failed to fully exploit the project’s findings, however, often dithering until real breaks came along. Theoharis argues that the FBI might never have learned of many spies if crucial Soviet operatives hadn’t defected and handed over intelligence information on a silver platter. Moreover, even when the FBI caught the culprits, it often failed to convict them in court because the bureau tended to uncover its information via illegal wiretaps and break-ins. The Rosenbergs were an unusual case: the bureau was able to prosecute them on espionage charges because their co-conspirators testified against them. That these co-conspirators had confessed after being presented with illegally obtained information went conveniently unmentioned in court. Hoover demonstrated that little hard evidence was necessary in the pursuit of domestic communism. The stage was set for a senator from Wisconsin.

A fine debunking of the expertise of law enforcement authorities.

Pub Date: April 5th, 2002
ISBN: 1-56663-420-2
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Ivan Dee/Rowman & Littlefield
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2002


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