J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI’s War on Americans’ Civil Liberties

‘Enemies: A History of the FBI’ explores almost a century of the agency’s domestic spying in a fast-paced and exciting narrative, says Ben Jacobs.

Many books about the FBI focus on J. Edgar Hoover’s psychology, from his mother issues to his alleged predilection for dressing in drag. Enemies: A History of the FBI, by Tim Weiner, is not one of these. There is no racy gossip about Hoover or exciting tidbits about famed Depression-era gangsters like John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd whom Hoover and the bureau helped catch. Instead, Weiner’s history has an exciting and fast-paced narrative that focuses on the bureau’s perennial enemy, the Fourth Amendment, and civil liberties generally. Weiner plumbs the inherent conflict in spying on citizens to protect democracy, and explores nearly a century of domestic intelligence gathering—from the agency’s thorough infiltration of the American left during the Cold War to its failures prior to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In the course of this narrative, Weiner reveals FBI exploits and excesses that will shock, surprise, and occasionally amuse.

Spying on the Supreme Court

While Hoover’s most egregious abuses of power are associated with the civil-rights era, as early as the mid-1930s the FBI may have been wiretapping the Supreme Court. Weiner reports, “Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes suspected that Hoover had wired the conference room where the justices met to decide cases.” The wiretapping was in connection with a bureau investigation into alleged leaking of Supreme Court decisions, during which the home phone of one of the high court’s clerks was tapped. But if Hoover could bug the innermost sanctum of the Supreme Court, nothing was sacred for the FBI.

The FBI and Newsweek’s Joint Counterintelligence

The newsmagazine was once featured in an FBI mission. With the blessing of Vincent Astor, who owned Newsweek from 1937 to 1959, a double agent opened the offices of a front company called the Diesel Research Corporation, funded by German intelligence, in the building that the magazine occupied at the time in midtown Manhattan. The offices were extensively bugged with “hidden microphones and cameras.” The result of the operation was to shut down an entire German intelligence network in the United States.

The FBI’s ‘Who’s Who of Homosexuals in America’

On the eve of the 1960 presidential election, when Cold War tensions were at one of their highest points, President Eisenhower and Hoover spent an entire meeting of the National Security Council discussing the gravest threat to the United States—gays. Two code breakers at the National Security Agency, rumored to be gay lovers, had defected to the Soviets. The logical conclusion for Eisenhower and Hoover was to link communism and homosexuality. While Eisenhower had promulgated an executive order banning gays from government service at the beginning of his term, he now directed Hoover to create a centralized “list of homosexuals” to prevent gays from being hired to government positions in the future.

Congressional Sex Palace in the Dominican Republic

Rafael Trujillo was the heavy-handed military dictator of the Dominican Republic in 1961. While Trujillo was a staunch anticommunist, he also was deeply corrupt, bribing numerous American elected officials and maintaining a friendly relationship with the Mafia. His crimes, including committing murder on American soil, had become too much for the U.S. to tolerate. But as the FBI gathered intelligence for an eventual coup, it became clear that Trujillo was bribing elected officials not just with money but also with sex. He had set up a “love nest” that the U.S. ambassador, a former FBI agent, described as “totally wired. There were two-way mirrors. There was a supply of whatever one wanted in the way of your desire. A number of our Congressmen made use of that and were photographed and taped.”

J. Edgar Hoover as an Interior Designer

Soon after taking office as president, Richard Nixon, along with Attorney General John Mitchell and then-White House counsel John Ehrlichman, was invited to Hoover’s house for dinner. While the discussion was of “FBI operations against domestic radicals and foreigners,” many of which were of dubious legality, the décor was far more eye-catching. Hoover’s living room was “dingy, almost seedy” and “its walls covered with old glossies of Hoover with dead movie stars.” The basement had a “wet bar decorated with pin-up drawings of half-naked women.” But most exotic was Hoover’s dining room, “lit with lava lamps glowing purple, green, yellow, and red.”

Hoover and the Pentagon Papers

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The Nixon White House created its unit of “Plumbers,” the secret group responsible for the Watergate break-in, because of Hoover’s refusal to investigate Daniel Ellsberg for leaking the Pentagon Papers. The FBI director didn’t have political motivations for his refusal. Instead, it was because Ellsberg’s father-in-law, Louis Marx, was a wealthy manufacturer who was a major donor to a charity run by Hoover. This meant he was officially listed as a “friend of the FBI.” Even though Marx was willing to testify against his son-in-law, Hoover nixed the idea of the FBI interviewing him, and fired the chief of the bureau’s Intelligence Division, who decided to plow ahead regardless.

Nixon, Terrorism, and the Psychic

In the aftermath of the cold-blooded murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Nixon undertook “the first full-scale effort by the American government to address the threat” of terrorism, the President’s Cabinet Committee on Terrorism. However, Nixon’s fears of terrorist attack were not fueled by Black September but by a newspaper psychic. Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, brought the prophecies of Jeane Dixon to the president’s attention. Dixon foretold “a Palestinian attack on a Jewish target.” This was even cited by Nixon in a conversation with Henry Kissinger in which he shared his angst, which he attributed to Dixon, whom the president described as “this soothsayer.”

Deep Throat

While the revelation in 2005 that Mark Felt, the former No. 2 at the FBI, was the famous source “Deep Throat” garnered massive headlines, Weiner makes clear that Felt’s motives weren’t entirely altruistic, and that he wasn’t acting alone. Felt actually was the leader of a faction in the FBI that resented Nixon’s appointment of an outsider, Justice Department official Pat Gray, to run the bureau after Hoover’s death rather than Felt himself. The White House had knowledge of Felt’s role in the leaks, but Gray could not bring himself to do anything about it—as Felt actually was running the bureau. Watergate would bring Nixon down, and “the information, almost all of it, had its source in the work of the FBI.”

Failure to Thwart the 1993 WTC Bombing

The FBI had the names and identities of nearly every plotter involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing almost a year in advance. The bureau, however, dropped the confidential informant, Emad Salem, who had insinuated himself into the plot. It backed away from Salem, for fear that he was also working for Egyptian intelligence. As a result, even though the FBI could have prevented the bombing—which killed six people and injured more than 1,000—months before, it did not. Afterward, Salem was outraged, demanding to speak to the head of the FBI. “The information I supplied, it was expensive and valuable enough to save the country’s ass from this bomb,” said Salem. “How many disasters would be created if the World Trade Centers collapse out of some stupid assholes trying to play Muslims?” Although Salem would later aid in catching the perpetrators, the bureau's inability to act on his intelligence earlier marked one of its greatest failures.