I’m a longtime Watergate obsessive, so with these books on the FBI, I flipped to the index first. Straight to the entry for “Felt, Mark,” subcategory “as Deep Throat.” The parallels to the FBI then and now aren’t perfect, but they sure are thought-provoking.
I read during a politically toxic June, for instance: The Watergate break-in took place 45 years ago, June 17, 1972. And Bob Woodward got his first Watergate scoop — thanks to Felt, then the FBI’s associate director. Today former director James Comey is the bureau’s leaker. Trump fired his FBI director, who was overseeing an investigation into his team’s Russia ties; Nixon ordered the firing of Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor looking into the Watergate burglary. For a time it appeared that White House tapes may once again be involved.
All of this made my curiosity about the investigative agency feel sublimely timely.
“Enemies: A History of the FBI” (Random House, 2012) got me started. Tim Weiner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer on national security, begins in 1908 when Teddy Roosevelt proposed a national police force. The rationale? The assassination of President McKinley by an anarchist. Congress said no: A democracy shouldn’t have a secret police. The Rough Rider simply ran roughshod, splitting off DOJ funds on the QT to set up a 38-man force. To this day, says Weiner, the FBI has no official charter.
The bureau only came into its own in the 1920s and 30s, as it captured John Dillinger, Al Capone, and their ilk. J. Edgar Hoover thus spun the image of the heroic, straight-arrow G-man which, later, would smash against his maniacal, tawdry surveillance of Martin Luther King and 1960s activists. Indeed, Hoover ruled by fiat for 48 years, through 10 presidencies and 16 attorneys general.
Nixon’s White House tapes suggest that he feared Hoover could “bring down the temple’’ by releasing damaging material about him. That never came to pass as the FBI legend died a month before the Watergate break-in.
Nixon picked “political stooge” L. Patrick Gray to replace Hoover. Then Felt, who felt Hoover had anointed him successor, started leaking FBI-generated intelligence to Woodward. As Weiner said of Watergate, “Without the FBI, the reporters would have been lost.”
Of course, the FBI’s history isn’t only domestic. “The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War in the Age of Global Terror” (Little, Brown, 2011) refers to the terror-activity spreadsheet the bureau has given the president daily since 9/11. Author Garret M. Graff, former editor-in-chief of Washingtonian Magazine, covers Robert Mueller’s 12-year tenure, as this former Marine and prosecutor converts the FBI into an international investigator, ranging from “Indianapolis to Islamabad.”
And now Mueller’s in the headlines, as the special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US elections. Graff portrays a tough, nonpartisan stickler, famous for his work pace, which runs with “the energy of the sun,” says one official, and hates obfuscating “Jell-O words,” says another.
Betty Medsger’s “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI” (Knopf, 2014) exposes another long-held FBI-related secret from the 1970s. On the night of March 8, 1971 — as much of the nation sat distracted by the Ali-Frazier Fight of the Century — eight burglars broke into the bureau’s office in Media, Pa. They called themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI and sought proof it was acting illegally, from wiretapping to blackmailing.
Four decades later, Medsger reveals their names (the leader was a Haverford physics professor). The group wasn’t sure which files might hold evidence — so they took all of them. Smoking guns abounded, it turned out, and the FBI’s image was stained forever. And how’d these burglars pull off something this audacious? Because Felt, then chief of bureau inspections, had nixed the office’s request for more security.
Years later, Mueller would call the older, questionable FBI tactics “wrong and anti-democratic,” as the San Francisco Examiner’s Seth Rosenfeld reported. He’s the author of “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), based on 250,000 FBI documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Hoover swore vengeance on the University of California at Berkeley when, in 1959, it required prospective students to write on essay topics, including “the dangers to a democracy [posed by] a national police organization, like the FBI, which operates secretly and is unresponsive to criticism.” Later, as campus protests escalated, the FBI launched a “sophisticated vigilante operation against domestic enemies.” Ronald Reagan helped them when governor, primed by his earlier days at the Screen Actors Guild, where he was an FBI informant. Felt would later be convicted for overseeing the FBI’s illegal break-ins against the Weather Underground and Black Panthers. In 1980, President Reagan pardoned Felt.
But it’s ever the same the American story, right? Security vies with freedom; the press is only as good as its sources; and we watch to see whether the constitutional holds.
Katharine Whittemore is senior writer at Amherst College. She can be reached at Katharine.firstname.lastname@example.org.