This really isn’t Ronald Kessler’s 1,518th book on the bureaucrats, spies and special agents of our nation’s capital. It just feels that way. A onetime reporter for this newspaper — he sat beside Carl Bernstein during the Watergate years, which is just so cool — Kessler has been cranking out these general interest, middlebrow books for so long I doubt there is a bookshelf in Washington that doesn’t have a Kessler on it. Come on, I bet you can name a few yourself:
“Inside the White House”
“Inside the CIA”
“Escape from the CIA”
“Inside the Agriculture Department”
“Inside a Large Trash Bin Outside the Agriculture Department”
“Escape From a Large Trash Bin Outside the Agriculture Department.”
Okay, I made up those last three. Let’s just say that Kessler is a reliable writing machine, producing a new book every year or so that features solid original reporting, punchy, workmanlike prose and a fresh headline or two, usually of the salacious variety. He’s been doing this so long that, were he a musical group, one would think it time for a greatest-hits compilation. Well, voila! That’s pretty much what his latest offering, “Secrets of the FBI,’’ amounts to.
This is a strange book — not an awful one, mind you, just a trifle odd. With no introduction to provide context, Kessler opens with a section on the FBI team responsible for legal break-ins and buggings, then circles back to J. Edgar Hoover, spends a few pages exploring (and discounting) those moldy old cross-dressing canards, then ambles through five decades of random cases and Bureau lore, the more lurid the better. There is new reporting here — FBI Director Robert Mueller gives Kessler a sitdown or two — but a good deal of this material appears shaken out of old notebooks or recycled from other Kessler books, especially “The FBI’’ and “The Bureau.’’ (No, there wasn’t an “Escape from the FBI’’; I checked.)
I hate to slight a writer for commercial ambitions. I mean, every author, including this one, wants to sell. But Kessler’s last book, “In the President’s Secret Service,” did pretty well, and one senses the publisher’s taste for another bestseller. You can almost hear the pitch: Ron, come on, just do the FBI one more time, but only the really juicy stuff. The marketing materials promise that “Secrets’’ “will be filled with revelations about the Bureau and Page Six tidbits, just like those that made ‘In the President’s Secret Service’ so successful.’’
Revelations? Okay. There’s a nice section on what Kessler bills as the untold story of how the Russian spy Robert Hanssen was caught; that probably qualifies. More representative, though, is a chapter called “Threesomes’’ that recapitulates the 1970s-era Elizabeth Ray scandal — the news here is Capitol Hill’s purported appetite for the ménage àtrois — and tosses in a quarter-century-old tale about an unnamed young lady who supposedly had sex with groups of men in the upper reaches of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. “Attic Girl,’’ Kessler says she was “affectionately’’ named. Then it’s on to a 1980s-era tale of a CIA mole who frequented sex clubs. Not too sure what any of this has to do with, you know, the FBI — they made the arrests, I guess — but hey, sex sells. Maybe these would be Page Six bites on a slow day.
I don’t mean to be too hard on Kessler. There are things here I hadn’t read, or appreciated; the book is especially good on how antiquated FBI computers were during the 1990s, and takes some fresh potshots at Louis Freeh, the Luddite director at the time. If you haven’t read Kessler’s other books, the recycled material may come as news to you. He appears scrupulous in disclosing where else these stories may have appeared, noting that a mole-in-a-sex-club bit, for instance, comes from interviews done all the way back in 1987. But seriously, how does one justify an entire chapter regurgitating the downfall of Director William Sessions and his intrusive wife, Alice, shown the door 20 years back? An oldie but a goodie, I suppose.
One does appreciate that Kessler, unlike some authors, takes the time to track down and interview retired FBI agents and administrators, and gets them on the record to boot, no easy task. There are tidbits here that probably do qualify as “secrets.’’ But there’s a lot of padding too: sections on Mark “Deep Throat’’ Felt, the Ruby Ridge shootings and FBI profilers, even a long set-piece tour of the FBI’s Quantico, Va., training ground, which can’t be too secret if it was portrayed 20 years ago in “Silence of the Lambs.’’
None of this is to say that “Secrets of the FBI’’ is not a gossipy, easy-to-gobble book; it is. In places it almost reads like “The FBI for Dummies.’’ (“When it comes to integrity, standards should not be compromised,” Kessler notes of Bureau recruiting practices. Whew. Good to know.) Based on his track record, Kessler has certainly earned the right to jog a victory lap here. But that’s what makes the book disappointing. He’s better than this. Isn’t he?
THE SECRETS OF THE FBI
By Ronald Kessler
Crown. 296 pp. $26