Federal Player of the Week

Exploring the FBI's role in American history

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Partnership for Public Service
Monday, March 15, 2010; 2:47 PM

As the FBI's official historian, John Fox has a mandate to chronicle the colorful and often dramatic history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for the bureau and the public at large.

Fox delves into details of the bureau's past, delivers lectures to public and internal audiences, and provides assistance and information to scholars, researchers, museums and libraries.

"My job is to help the FBI and the public understand the historical context of what we are doing today, where we have come from and what challenges we may face in the future," Fox said.

As the nation's premier law enforcement agency, the FBI has played a prominent role in American history and popular culture for more than 100 years. The bureau has been involved in the capture of famous bank robbers like John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson, the hunt for fugitives Bonnie and Clyde, the fight against the mobsters such as Al Capone and John Gotti.

In addition to chasing down countless spies, politicians and terrorists, the FBI also keeps secret files of famous Americans and moments in history. These files include the harassment of Dr. Martin Luther King, spying on anti-war groups in the late 1960s and 1970s, illegal break-ins, and recent misuse of surveillance powers to collect private information on American citizens without court approval.

Fox said he believes "the overall story and trajectory of the FBI has been positive," but noted there have been missteps that cannot be ignored.

"We do have some big issues that have emerged where we made mistakes," Fox said. "These must be learning experiences so they don't happen again. We try not to gloss over that."

Working in the public affairs department, Fox actively participated in the FBI's 100th anniversary celebration in 2008 and co-wrote a centennial history of the bureau. This work chronicled the birth of the FBI in 1908, and it's role during Prohibition, the New Deal, World War II, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, Watergate and the current post-9/11 era.

Fox also consulted in 2008 with the Newseum on its exhibition, "G-Men and Journalists," , and "Spy Catchers; Fighting Espionage: From the Rosenbergs to Hanssen." The G-Men and Journalists exhibition displayed the Unabomber's Montana cabin and the electric chair in which convicted Lindbergh baby kidnapper Bruno Hauptman was executed.

He has been actively engaged in the dissemination of historical information and narratives via fbi.gov, and written on the intelligence work of the bureau. Fox has routinely spoken to new FBI employees to "give them a feel of what the bureau has gone through and to provide them with a sense of the culture."

Fox said part of his job involves debunking some of the myths surrounding the FBI, particularly those about its first and most powerful director, J. Edgar Hoover. "There have been stories saying Hoover was a cross-dresser that were manufactured out of whole cloth," Fox said.

John Earl Haynes, a resident scholar at the Library of Congress, said Fox serves a crucial function for researchers because of his ability to understand their needs and champion their cause to obtain files that are important for the historical record.

Haynes said Fox also serves an important role internally.

"In general, any large institution benefits from having someone who can make sure policymakers are aware of their institution's own history," Haynes said. Institutional memory is something that institutions are not good at. They tend to build myths about what they did or didn't do, and having an accurate history can be of great benefit."

Michael Lilly, Fox's supervisor, said his colleague is a master of details while possessing the ability to put the activities of the FBI into historical context. Lilly said Fox is able to recount the popular history, write research papers, answer questions from people engaged in arcane research and offer insightful analysis needed by top bureau officials.

"He is not only able to tell the facts, but he can describe how the bureau has evolved and reshaped itself to meet changing threats," said Lilly. "He can tell us where we have been."

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Visit www.ourpublicservice.org for more about the organization's work.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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