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Book Review: Enemies: A History of the FBI by Tim Weiner

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Enemies: A History of the FBI by Tim Weiner tells the 100-year history of the famous American government institution. Fittingly, Mr. Weiner is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a former New York Times reporter who wrote largely about American security.

The book is divided into four parts: Spies and Saboteurs, World War, Cold War and War on Terror. Each part spotlights on the main focus of the FBI during those times.

This is a fascinating book and an excellent treatment of what basically amounts to domestic spying. Mr. Weiner invokes the words of the Founding Fathers, that we must be vigilant but not compromise our civil liberties in the process. In this treatment, with each President of either major party, this compromise is constantly tested, with J. Edgar Hoover playing a major role.

The portraits of men in power are one of the most disturbing aspects in this book. Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, LBJ, Hoover and more are all complex people who, once in the seat of power, dismiss their former beliefs in the notion that they are above the law (Nixon stated that if a President does “something” it’s not illegal and every other President has agreed with him so far).

Even Obama, a Constitutional scholar, signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows for unspecified military imprisonment, without trial, of any American citizen “who was a part of or substantially supported Al Qaeda, the Taliban or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.” Obama did pledge that he would not use this power, but what about the next guy (or gal)?

Hoover is so blinded by his hatred of Communists that he justifies all his unconstitutional acts (throwing Americans in jail, spying, etc.) by that logic. Even the Civil Rights movement was a target, not because Hoover was racist, but because he believed the Communist Party was behind it. But Hoover wouldn’t do anything to embarrass the Bureau (which allows for a lot).

Being an organization with no formal charter from Congress, an organization the basic funding of which is still somewhat secret since the days Theodore Roosevelt created a “Bureau of Investigation” contrary to the wishes of Congress, the FBI had much to prove. Being secretive is no recipe for success as the reader finds out; concentrating on secret intelligence operations, the author tells of many failures and tales of stunning incompetence that occurred despite the secrecy, lawlessness and powerful friends in high places.

But Enemies is not an all-out criticism of the FBI, Mr. Weiner does point out how the FBI changed under Director Robert Mueller, who believed in doing the right thing and even offered to resign (with other senior members) if the Bush  administration wouldn’t stop illegal domestic spying after 9/11. The administration stopped and Mueller has set a new tone for the FBI.

The eye-opening account of the state of information technology (IT) state of the FBI was a shock. Unlike what movies and TV has us believe, up until recently the FBI’s IT department was sorely lacking. Agents didn’t have email, couldn’t contact agents in other offices or share information. That is one issue which the FBI struggled with since day one – lots of data but little information. An FBI agent “could not perform a Google search or send e-mails outside their offices” – not in 1980, but in 2000!

Another aspect of the information provided which was difficult to comprehend was the lack of cooperation with other intelligence services and sometimes within the Bureau itself. It was disheartening to read how past directors have misjudged their mission, making the White House their main enemy while the agents investigating Al Qaeda misinterpreted a directive from the Department of Justice to share evidence. An agent trying to get a search warrant for Zacarias Moussaoui, the 20th hijacker, didn’t receive it because the FBI apparently “did not have a dog in this fight”. That was on the afternoon of 10 September, 2001.

Enemies is an immensely interesting read, depressing at times but with all the makings of a first-rate thriller. At times I had to put the book down because it is so full of information and at times because it was simply too hard to believe what I was reading. I always respected the work the FBI does and this book just heightened my admiration to the agents and the leadership that is taking the institution in a new, more constitutional, direction.

Buy this book in paper or electronic (Kindle) format.

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