Last year’s film about J. Edgar Hoover spent about 21 / 2 hours dancing around the issue of whether the former FBI director was an uncompromising crime fighter or a cross-dressing closet homosexual. In his new book, “Enemies,” New York Times reporter Tim Weiner dismisses half a century of innuendo about Hoover in slightly more than half a page. Spoiler alert: The dishi-est story ever to come out of the bureau probably isn’t true.

“The one thing everyone seems to know about Hoover is that he had a sexual relationship with his constant companion Clyde Tolson,” Weiner writes early in the book. “The idea was imprinted in the public mind long ago, in a book by a British journalist that included indelible descriptions of Hoover in drag. . . . The allegation rests on third-hand hearsay from highly unreliable sources. Not a shred of evidence supports the notion that Hoover ever had sex with Tolson or any other human being.”

Hoover had no time for intimacy, Weiner suggests, because he was married to the FBI. And the devotion with which he viewed his job cut both ways. While it strengthened the FBI in its early days, it almost led to the bureau’s undoing when it became clear that the FBI had broken the law for decades in pursuit of communists, spies and terrorists.

Rumors about the FBI and its dirty tricks have been circulating for years. “Enemies” seeks to set the record straight on everything from the FBI providing Sen. Joseph McCarthy with secret reports to help him root communists out of the masonry to the bureau’s surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. throughout the 1960s. Few would be surprised to learn that President Richard Nixon and Hoover had a meeting of the minds. Less well known was Hoover’s decision to end the black-bag jobs he had been doing for the president and how that led to their eventual falling out. (Six weeks after Hoover died, Nixon’s “plumbers” were caught breaking into Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate.)

Weiner coaxes readers through the long history of the FBI to make a larger, more important point: that today’s counter terrorism campaigns echo earlier efforts to collar saboteurs and spies and terrorists. And the bureau’s overreaching then is mirrored by its occasional overreaching now.

’Enemies: A History of the FBI’ by Tim Weiner (Random House)

Consider the FBI’s efforts to bring in members of the Weather Underground in the late ’60s and early ’70s. A young FBI agent named Bill Dyson, on his first tour of duty in Chicago, was assigned to a wiretap. “They put him on the four-to-midnight shift listening to members of the Students for Democratic Society,” Weiner writes. As Dyson listened, the SDS members became increasingly strident. The earphones were on when the group decided to adopt a more violent course. He heard them become the Weathermen and then, eventually, the Weather Underground.

According to Weiner, by the early ’70s the Weather Underground had carried out 38 bombings, and the FBI hadn’t solved any of them. “A group barely one hundred strong — with a core of a dozen decision takers and bomb makers — began to drive the government of the United States half mad with fear,” Weiner writes. The FBI decided to take drastic measures. It put up warrantless wiretaps. It stole mail. It was willing to do anything, he writes. The young FBI agent watched the bureau ramp up with growing concern. “Dyson had questions about the rule of law: ‘Can I put an informant in a college classroom? Or even on the campus? Can I penetrate any college organization? What can I do?’ And nobody had any rules or regulations. There was nothing.” The questions are the very same ones the FBI and the New York Police Department are asking themselves today with regard to surveillance of Muslim communities.

What makes “Enemies” so compelling is that it draws heavily on previously unavailable intelligence files. A source of Weiner’s gave him tens of thousands of pages of FBI documents released as part of a 26-year-old Freedom of Information Act request. Weiner uses them, and previously unheard oral histories, to set the record straight about the bureau’s conduct both in times of war and in times of peace. The FOIA documents didn’t include the confidential information that Hoover kept in a “do not file” folder in his desk, but they did contain something almost more interesting: the running files he kept on intelligence operations from 1945 to his death in 1972.

“Enemies” becomes a kind of time capsule: Weiner brings together the files, oral histories and newly discovered notes in Hoover’s own fountain-pen handwriting to reveal the FBI director in the moment, as events were unfolding. The combination provides new insight into Hoover and what motivated him. The bureau’s files on homosexuals, for example, were voluminous. Weiner writes that the FBI had collected some 30,000 pages on possible homosexuals in the government. Reading Hoover’s margin notes, Weiner suggests this had less to do with Hoover’s homophobia than with a real belief that where one found a homosexual, one also discovered a communist. It isn’t clear that Hoover had decided which came first.

“The connection seemed self-evident to him,” Weiner writes. “Homosexuality and communism were causes for instant dismissal from American government service — and most other categories of employment. Communists and homosexuals both had clandestine and compartmented lives. . . . Hoover believed, as did his peers, that both were uniquely susceptible to sexual entrapment and blackmail by foreign intelligence services.”

Weiner makes clear that the FBI has come perilously close to becoming an Eastern European-style secret police force on more than one occasion. But the book also gives ample evidence that the bureau broke the law for decades out of a genuine desire to keep the nation safe. “Enemies” is more than a definitive history of the FBI. Weiner, who won a National Book Award for his history of the CIA, “Legacy of Ashes,” is really writing about the basic tension between civil liberties and national security in this country. By carefully laying out how FBI directors, presidents and attorneys general have used and abused their power in the past, he seems to suggest how we might prevent them from doing so in the future.

Dina Temple-Raston is NPR’s counter-terrorism correspondent and the author of four books, including “The Jihad Next Door,” about terrorism and being Muslim in America after the 9/11 attacks.


A History of the FBI

By Tim Weiner

Random House. 537 pp. $30