A Brief Critical History

By Athan Theoharis. Univ. Press of Kansas. 195 pp. $24.95


The Troubled Past and Uncertain Future of the FBI

By Richard Gid Powers. Free Press. 515 pp. $30

Prior to his death in 1972, there were only two types of books written about J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI: those by admirers marveling at his accomplishments and those by sworn enemies shaking their fists at him. Then another type of book appeared: the critical biography accusing him of homosexuality, transvestitism and a series of civil rights infringements. Although some of these personal allegations were based on the dubious word of a former mental patient with a personal grudge and were unsubstantiated, the media disseminated them widely, and many accepted them as gospel.

Now, at last, serious scholars, with the help of the Freedom of Information Act, can review previously secret FBI records and try to get at the truth. The task is daunting. The FBI was and still is one of the greatest document generators in the U.S. government. Years can be spent in laborious research to get a handle on what really happened. And befogging the history even to this day is the pervasive influence of J. Edgar Hoover, one of the great myth-makers of all time.

Athan Theoharis and Richard Gid Powers are both recognized experts in FBI research, having previously published books on the subject. Their new books, generally speaking, cover the same period: from the creation of the Bureau in 1908 as a minor appendage of the Department of Justice to the present. Neither author is a muckraker or a whitewasher, but their books differ in tone.

Theoharis is the more critical, arguing in The FBI & American Democracy that the Bureau has never lived up to its grandiose reputation. He believes that its fame in tracking and apprehending gangsters, kidnappers and international terrorists has been grossly fictionalized. In particular, its spy-catching prowess is overrated, he says, mentioning its Cold War failure to protect our atomic secrets and the embarrassing cases involving Aldrich Ames, Wen Ho Lee and Robert Hanssen. He condemns as threats to our civil liberties the FBI's use of wiretaps, buggings and break-ins and its tendency to neutralize its critics by disseminating derogatory (and often untrue) information about them, inferring that their political dissent is dangerous subversion.

Broken by Richard Gid Powers is a much longer and more expansive book. Also the author of a well-received biography of Hoover, Powers knows the subject well. In addition to conducting documentary research, he has interviewed scores of special agents and Bureau officials at all levels. As a result, he has developed many personal relationships within the Bureau and become a sort of FBI insider, attending new-agent training classes at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., and being granted access to other FBI facilities.

Whereas Theoharis brings an academic detachment to his work, Powers has a more personal touch. He is more sensitive to the actual street problems of Bureau agents and the external forces at work on them. But despite this close association, his attitude remains profoundly critical. He gives the FBI credit for its past successes but also chronicles an astonishing range of its missteps, political abuses, screwed-up investigations and intelligence failures. Powers offers a glum litany, from the excesses of the anticommunist Palmer raids to the muffed sieges at Waco and Ruby Ridge. In addition, he documents the bitter, self-destructive feuds with Harry Truman, Martin Luther King Jr., the Kennedys, Bill Clinton and others.

Despite his friendly contacts within the organization -- or perhaps because of them -- Powers is pessimistic about the FBI's future. He feels that with the discovery of turncoat spies within its own ranks and its failure to forestall Sept. 11 -- including an inability to either penetrate the ranks of terrorist organizations or cooperate effectively with the rest of the intelligence community -- the FBI has almost proved itself incapable of guarding our domestic security. But on the other hand, he believes that progress has been made under the current director, Robert Mueller, and that the FBI deserves a second chance.

Both books relate in grim detail when, where and how the FBI went wrong. But neither offers a clue as to what we must do to rectify the situation. Perhaps we should recall what President Lincoln said at the close of the bloody Civil War: "The dogmas of our quiet past are inadequate for the problems of our stormy present."

But we cannot just say the FBI is inadequate to the task of fighting terrorism and let it go at that. The problem is simply too urgent. We must make the post-Sept. 11 FBI truly effective by simplifying its mission, reducing its preoccupation with statistical accomplishments in the criminal field and breaking the bonds of parochialism in its worldview. The answer lies in the recruitment of more broadly educated personnel: foreign language speakers and writers rather than accountants, economists and engineers instead of lawyers, and scientists of all types for the FBI Laboratory. Heretical as it may be to say, law enforcement can indeed be one of America's strongest tools against terror -- that is, if it can be done right. *

Joseph L. Schott is a former FBI field agent and director of the Criminal Justice Program at Texas Christian University. He has written several books on American history.

FBI Director Robert Mueller at a news conference on May 29, 2002