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When it comes to intelligence, everybody, be they democracies, dictatorships, or in between, wants it all. That includes the intelligence agencies–who treasure data as the wellspring of their effectiveness, influence, and leverage–and the presidents and prime ministers at the top of the heap—who are supposedly looking out for Joe Sixpack and his rights.
No leader relishes the potential political cost of having presided over the “Next Pearl Harbor”. So Western intelligence services have gotten themselves on a hopeless treadmill, where their mission is defined as the forensically and legally dubious task of preventing attacks (as opposed to the constitutionally unambiguous and straightforward job of investigating actual crimes i.e. the aftermath of attacks, and identifying and punishing their perpetrators).
The thirst, in particular, for blanket surveillance is such a powerful imperative that in the United States circumventing constitutional limits on domestic intelligence gathering has become a science, a dark art, and a religion, complete with its own enduring churches and priesthood.
So it’s not surprising that the kneejerk reaction to the Charlie Hebdo murders is not, “Hmmm, it is very difficult to stop small, ad hoc one-off terrorist attacks (now consecrated as the “lone wolf” menace) before they happen, so maybe we should concentrate on reducing the threat by improving relations with the Muslim world”; it’s “More intensive surveillance is needed.”
Trouble is, attacks keep happening, and the only solution they can propose is “We’ll find that needle by piling more hay on the stack.”
This is not a recent phenomenon, as can be gleaned from Tim Weiner’s FBI history, Enemies. Weiner’s account of Hoover and the Bureau’s almost century-long war to develop, protect, and expand its surveillance privileges offers an important insight into the priorities of intelligence services worldwide.
Anti-imperialists, liberals, leftists, comsymps, useful idiots, whatever who took pleasure in Weiner’s epic hatchet job on the CIA, Legacy of Ashes, will find scant solace in Enemies.
Weiner is cautiously laudatory when it comes to J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover was, in Weiner’s view, a determined, resourceful, and effective manager who shielded the FBI and got things done.
The FBI needed shielding because one of its core identities was not “Investigation” i.e. looking into things after a crime was committed; it was “Intelligence”, that is to say gathering information pre-crime in order to prevent execution of crimes. As such, Weiner regards the FBI as the template for the modern American intelligence directorate.
The Founding Fathers, unfortunately, were not fans of pre-emptive information collection targeting American citizens, and cluttered up the Constitution with restrictions on unreasonable search & seizure and whatnot. For the FBI to poke its nose deep into the dark corners of American life—which is something that virtually every 20th century president was eager for it to do—required serial rape of the Constitution.
As long as the assault was discrete enough not to disturb the neighbors—and did not lead to public exposure, nasty news articles, setbacks in the courts, and political difficulties with the White House, all of which Hoover abhorred under the omnibus term “embarrassing the Bureau”—the FBI had a relatively free hand. When intrusive, Constitution-brandishing Attorneys General got into the act, or Congress roused itself to exercise its oversight privileges, Hoover employed a variety of cynical countermeasures, according to Weiner.
For instance, when one of FDR’s AGs demanded that Hoover abolish his “Custodial Detention“ list of communist sympathizers to be detained in the case of national emergency, Hoover simply renamed it the “Security Index“ and preserved and enlarged it. Sensitive documents describing FBI shenanigans were extracted from the Bureau’s paper trail and secreted in the paradoxically named “Do Not File” file. When Hoover was scheduled to appear before a Congressional committee, he would temporary discontinue warrantless wiretaps so he could testify that the FBI was doing none of that nosirree.
When push came to shove, Hoover could always rely on the fact that American presidents were, to a man, too scared to reform the FBI. Scared, not just because of the tittle-tattle Hoover preserved in his notorious files; scared because they couldn’t tolerate the security and political risks of a neutered, law-abiding FBI.
It would be nice to say that the United States would do just fine, thank you, with an FBI that respected the constitution. Unfortunately, all that can be said is that the U.S. would have been different, not necessarily better. As Weiner points out in his book, America’s “Old Left” was riddled with Soviet agents, assets, and agendas.
Soviet subversion is a rather awkward subject for the Left, given the (hotly contested, closely parsed, sometimes ambiguous, but indicative) documentation on American spies, agents of influence, and assets that worked for the USSR’s intelligence agencies that has emerged since the fall of the Soviet Union. Judging by Weiner’s account, a good number of McCarthy’s witch hunts contained a kernel of truth to them, thanks to the tittle-tattle Hoover had gleaned from the Venona intercepts and elsewhere, and fed to him.
One of life’s little ironies is that, thanks to Hoover, we’ll probably never know if Soviet subversion would ever have seriously threatened the American way of life. Legitimate counter-espionage against the Soviet Union can never be separated from the ideologically-motivated witch hunts against the American Left because the need to evade the constitution to gather intelligence made many of the FBI’s cases legal and evidentiary trainwrecks. It wasn’t just a matter of protecting methods and sources; it was that many of the FBI’s anti-communist cases would simply fall apart the moment they encountered a courtroom since they were largely based on illegal evidence obtained through unwarranted surveillance or flat-out illegal black bag operations. And even when there was enough evidence to make it to court, there was always the problem that the judge might be excessively picky.
The notorious COINTELPRO “neutralization” a.k.a. dirty tricks program—which swelled to eleven major initiatives and over 2000 individual targets, according to Weiner—was originally birthed in the mid -1950s because the courts started to get constitutional cold feet over the wholesale prosecution of communists for subversive activities as defined with excessive generosity under the Smith Act. When he was blocked by the courts and the constitution, Hoover simply took commie-fighting matters into his own hands as investigator, prosecutor, and executioner.
Hoover and the FBI gutted the American Left, be it communist (CPUSA membership dropped from its wartime high of 80,000 to 5,000 under Hoover’s assault), comsymp, or free of Soviet taint, so completely over sixty years—through legal and illegal surveillance; wholesale recruitment of informants; often dodgy legal proceedings; the conduct of due-process-free vigilantism coordinated with local government and business allies to defame and disemploy suspected leftists; non-stop anti-communist propaganda and proselytizing in Washington and throughout the country; codebreaking and counterespionage against Soviet agent networks; and COINTELPRO “neutralization” dirty tricks against left-leaning individuals, organizations, parties, and unions—that anything left of “Liberal” never stood a chance.
To be not quite puckish about it, I would characterize the US post-war period as a legally and morally questionable pre-emptive purge of the discredited Stalinist faction by the ascendant Hoover faction.
For Hoover et. al. no trick was too dirty in the battle against Commies, or people they thought were Commies, or people who might turn Commie…You get the picture, it’s a nice muddle.
I’m too young to have had a dog in the Whitaker Chambers/Alger Hiss fight and would be content to have the case closed with Hiss pegged as a Soviet agent thanks to the Venona, as Weiner does. However, Hiss’s defenders are still able to keep battling on, thanks to plausible allegations that Nixon and the HUAC committee went to the almost unimaginable length of “forging a typewriter” i.e. acquiring a typewriter that exactly resembled the discarded Hiss family machine and perfectly reproduced the characteristics of typed pages of incriminating info held by Chambers and then presenting the spurious machine at Hiss’s trial as his own typewriter.
When the “New Left” rolled around in the 1960s and confronted Hoover with the inexplicable African-American/student/hippie conundrum he did his best to force the “Old Left” template on the diverse and heterodox movement, with limited success.
One of the most interesting chapters in Hoover’s history is the lethal dance that the Kennedy brothers led with Hoover over the issue of Martin Luther King and, in particular, the purported Communist ties of King’s white advisor, Stanley Levison. Levison had apparently broken with communism as an ideology in 1956 over Hungary, before he started working with King.
Cognizant of the epic sh*train that would descend on anybody who irresponsibly alleged that King was acting on the advice of a Soviet agent, today everybody is extremely cautious and circumspect in their verbiage concerning this issue. But not Hoover and the FBI in the 1960s. Hoover was determined to establish Levison’s current communist ties in order to discredit King and the movement, and Robert Kennedy as AG greenlit Hoover to blackbag, wiretap, and bug King, Levison and his associates to the nth degree in an attempt to establish the link. The smoking gun never emerged (Levison did get hauled before a secret session of a Congressional committee, where he denied “now or ever having been” and then took the 5th on all other queries), and the Kennedys did not allow themselves to get buffaloed into turning against King by Hoover and the non-stop stream of anti-King tittle-tattle that the FBI funneled into the Oval Office, and to their allies in Congress and the media.
Well, not completely. Hoover’s campaign had made Levison toxic enough that the Kennedys prevailed on King to break overt ties with him as a condition of White House support for King’s efforts. Levison continued to work with King through a cutout.
And thanks to the Kennedys’ desire to hedge their security and political bets, the FBI did collect enough tapes of King’s bedroom activities in order to produce one of the seamiest COINTELPRO crimes: the attempt to drive King to suicide by sending the tapes and a jeering letter to his home.
And the FBI went on to conduct an illegal, bloody, and successful campaign against the Black Panthers and other militant groups conducted under the program COINTELPRO—BLACK HATE.
In the matter of King, one could say that the good guys won but it’s harder to say that the system worked. To shortcircuit Hoover, the Kennedys blithely disregarded the constitution, parsed the illegal tapes themselves, and made the call in favor of King as a matter of executive discretion.
Another anecdote that illustrates some of the complications surrounding Hoover is the “Mississippi Burning” case. Those of us who get our potted civil rights history from the movies probably vaguely recall that it the righteous Bobby Kennedy who ordered the FBI down to Mississippi to search for the three murdered civil rights workers in 1964. But after JFK had been assassinated and LBJ had taken office, Bobby Kennedy was a non-factor, disliked, distrusted, and sidelined by LBJ and Hoover.
Hoover was no fan of civil rights or “integrationists” and had no interest in committing the FBI to the case. But Lyndon Johnson had other ideas and decided to act on a proposal from the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division (brought to the White House by RFK) and prevail on his good buddy Edgar to unleash the FBI. Weiner quotes from the POTUS/Seat of Government (Hoover’s rather sinister moniker for FBI HQ) confab recorded in the LBJ telephone tapes:
“If I have to send in troops…it could be awfully dangerous. I’m having these demands for 5,000 soldiers…To send in a bunch of Army people, divisions, is just a mistake. But I’ve got ample FBI people…I want you to have the same kind of intelligence that you have on the communists.” [p.244]
LBJ’s insistence carried the day, and Hoover flooded Mississippi with Bureau agent ready to apply the lessons of the war on communist subversion to the KKK. $30,000 paid to the appropriate informant yielded the three bodies, buried in an earthen dam. Another quarter million dollars—“worth about $1.75 million dollars today, far greater than any FBI informant ever before had received”–delivered the names of the nearly 20 men who had conspired to murder Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner.
Hoover acquired a taste for the work, at Johnson’s urging, and rolled out COINTELPRO—WHITE HATE as a sort of bizarre bookend to his subsequent BLACK HATE assault on the civil rights movement.
WHITE HATE intensified rapidly in the fall of 1964. It involved all the techniques developed in the FBI’s long-running attack on the Left. Once a week during the fall of 1964, FBI agents interrogated all known members of the White Knights of the KKK, blaming other Klansmen for being snitches and naming names, sowing deep suspicion among Klan members…The FBI dangled small fortunes before potential KKK informers, offered outright bribes to Klansmen who could serve as double agents inside state and local police forces, planted bugs and wiretaps in Klaverns, carried out black-bag jobs to steal membership lists and (on at least one occasion) dynamite caches…”There would be a Klan meeting with ten people there, and six of them would be reporting back the next day,” said the FBI’s Joseph J. Rucci, Jr…I remember we would send them post cards…I remember one in particular showed a Klansman and someone peeking up a sheet and it would say…’I wonder who is peeking under your sheet tonight.’” [247-8]
Liberals who mourn the undeserved reaming the Trotskyite, resolutely anti-Soviet, pro-desegregation and anti-war American Socialist Workers Party endured at the hands of the FBI (the Bureau spent $1.6 million dollars recruiting informants, who served by the dozens on the ASWP’s executive committees, and engaged in dirty tricks to discredit the party and split the overall anti-war movement) presumably have some difficulty condemning the employment of identical practices against the equally legal, much more unpleasant, and otherwise impregnable to law enforcement KKK.
The contemporary figure that Hoover most closely resembles, in my opinion, is Dick Cheney and his “99% solution” i.e. his willingness, nay enthusiasm, to do the dirty, legally, illegally, or otherwise even if there is only a 1% chance that the justifying threat is genuine.
But as can be seen from the non-stop gyrations that the NSA—which, in the age of digital communications, has largely seized the intercept and surveillance mantle from the FBI—undertakes to obscure and obfuscate the extent and illegality of its data collection efforts against US citizens, and its compulsion to evade, redefine or, thanks to the boon of a presidential order, flat out ignore the constitutional limits on its activities, the imperative to “have it all” “by any means necessary” still seems to be the defining characteristic of America’s intelligence apparatus.
So consider the U.S. intelligence operation Stasi-light. It tirelessly aspires to full-spectrum information dominance, regardless of what the constitution and the occasional liberal-minded attorney generals and judges have to say. It shares its indiscriminate intelligence-gathering and covert-operations imperative with the main power centers of American governance: the U.S. executive branch, the politicians, and the military. And it is shielded by the idea, encouraged by the security state and reinforced by the occurrence of bloody incidents, that we can’t just wait for the bad guys to strike.
Peter Lee edits China Matters.