Thursday, 5 July 2012

Book review: Enemies: A History of the FBI, Tim Weiner (2012)

You've seen them, the menacing, dark-suited police who turn up at a crime scene and try to take over the investigation, frustrating the detectives of NYPD or LAPD, or wherever. It's usually the FBI trying to muscle in on an investigation because of its "national significance". They're the other bad guys of popular folklore. They populate our collective imagination. But the reality appears to hold more secrets than you might have suspected, and Tim Weiner's book is aimed at the shadiest of the FBI's activities, where it gets involved in secret intelligence.

From its beginnings, in 1908, the FBI has tried to function as a counteracting force against the "enemies" of the US. In those early days before WWI the enemy was terrorists and anarchists and Communists, and these forces continued to preoccupy FBI heads after the war too. Most famous of those men was J. Edgar Hoover, who served as chief from 1924, and whose obsession with Communism throughout his tenure - which continued until 1972, freakishly - makes him come out looking pretty bad in this book; far worse-looking than last year's movie warrants. Because of the length of his tenure Weiner's book actually fits into two parts. Once Hoover has gone the FBI has to pick itself up in the aftermath of the disgrace the legendary director brought upon it, and recoup.

The last sections of the book deal mainly with Islamic terrorism, and so these are the most interesting sections for the contemporary reader. The book is factual but episodic, in any case. The narrative glue that Hoover provided in the parts dealing with his tenure, once gone, is not substituted by anything else, so the later parts of the book are more confusing. They're also a bit repetitive. The problems that the FBI faced during these years - lack of funding, siloing of information between agencies, poor relationships with politicians - morph into a collective warning against unpreparedness. It's hard to gauge the relevance of such dour pronouncements from interested parties, which is the kind of analysis that Weiner should have provided. In many cases, because Weiner's interest is in the FBI's intelligence function, documents will remain classified and out of his reach, and with them the truth. It appears unproblematic however to say that the FBI failed to anticipate the real extent of Islamic terrorism during the 1990s.

Part of the continuity issue is resolved for the general reader because Weiner deals with real events he or she will probably be familiar with, like the Lockerbie plane bombing, the bombing of the US embassy in Kenya, and the first World Trade Centre bombing. The US's Islamic enemies have been troubling presidents since Reagan, and possibly there's another book for Weiner to write dealing just with this part of our recent history, just as there's probably another book for someone to write about terrorism in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Maybe someone has already written these books; I'll try to find out.

A theme that continues throughout the book is the balance that politicians and law-enforcement needs to strike between protection of civil liberties and the maintenance of national security. Under Hoover, the balance was clearly way out of whack. With the rise of Islamic terrorism, the issue nowadays gels around the extent to which we allow surveillance of private communications. The question which must be asked, in the light of Weiner's revelations about Hoover's habit of profiling suspects who might pose a threat to security, is to what extent this kind of thing still takes place now. And, is it warranted? This is a question Weiner doesn't fully answer, although it's clear that post-9/11 George W. Bush tilted the balance in favour of harsher security measures than Clinton had done. Which begs the question: if Clinton had been more vigilant would that episode have been nipped in the bud?

Because the book talks about these issues, it is recommended reading for anyone who enjoys spy movies (anyone, really). Weiner has also written a book about the CIA, which I'm reading now. That agency was established after WWII - again, to fight Communism - and once again there's a problem for Truman, as there had been for those leaders who set up the FBI, to decide whether a "Gestapo-like" agency has any place in the fabric of American society. Doubts harboured by these individuals give the reader optimism. Actions like the World Trade Centre bombings remove a lot of those doubts. Back and forth the pendulum swings, but often the public is unaware of its movement because the agencies that participate in such intelligence-gathering and counter-terrorism are so secretive. Weiner's books go some way toward drawing back the covers on their operations.

One question that is not addressed is why the US has been subject to so many violent attacks and other, simlar countries have not. There's also the issue of presidential assassinations. Countries such as Canada and Australia have similar systems of governance yet they have remained immune to such attacks. One reason for this might be that in other countries there are political options for people whose worldviews clash with the mainstream. In Australia, for example, the Labor Party has been a major force in the public sphere since the beginning of the 20th Century; from around the time the FBI was established, in fact. There's a book in this question, too.

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