Drawing on thousands of pages of recently declassified documents and oral histories, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Weiner (Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, 2008, etc.) delivers an authoritative and often frightening history of what has been, in effect, America's secret police.
The history of the FBI is easily divided into two periods: the J. Edgar Hoover period and after. In 1924, before he was 30, Hoover took over a tiny, tawdry Bureau and built it into a fearsome empire he ruled as a personal fiefdom until his death in 1972. The Bureau under Hoover did as it pleased and answered to no one. Illegal wiretapping, bugging, black-bag jobs—the organization did it all in the service of Hoover's relentless pursuit of communist subversives real and imaginary. In the process he assembled files of devastating information on thousands of Americans from the presidents on down. Much of this scurrilous information was obtained on the direct orders of presidents and attorneys general, and was supplied to them for their own uses. After Hoover's death, these abuses were reined in, but the Bureau has since endured a series of flawed directors who have proven unable to bring order to its sprawling and insular chaos or overcome a culture of rigidity and bureaucratic ineptitude. Weiner focuses on the FBI's activities investigating and attempting to prevent subversion and terrorism and writes little about the Bureau's pursuit of gangsters and white-collar criminals, which has taken up far fewer resources than the public supposes. A major theme is the difference between investigations intended to support criminal prosecutions and those intended to disrupt potential subversive activity. The former require strict adherence to constitutional safeguards; the latter, however necessary they seemed at the time, have all too often trampled on civil liberties. Striking an appropriate balance between liberty and security remains an ongoing challenge for the FBI. Weiner contributes much new, troubling and thoroughly substantiated information to any serious consideration of that issue.
A sober, monumental and unflinchingly critical account of a problematic institution.