Publisher: St. Martin’s Paperbacks
Cover: SIPA Press Copyright
reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 11/19/2003
Summary: Highly recommended. History of the FBI.
In brief, this is a history of the politics of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Most Americans do not realize that up until the 20th Century, federal law enforcement consisted of the U. S. Marshals and the U. S. Customs Service. It is no mere coincidence that the federal in law enforcement came into its own after the national income tax law. In 1913, the states ratified the 16th Amendment, which gave Congress the authority to enact an income tax. Five years earlier, the U. S. Department of Justice employed a “special agent force” to “investigate bankruptcy frauds, antitrust crimes, violations of the neutrality laws and peonage”. This group evolved into the FBI. (They were called Special Agents because they were appointed to investigate “special crimes”).
Ronald Kessler’s The Bureau starts at the beginnings (1909) and takes us all the way to the current Director of the FBI, Robert S. Mueller III (2003). It is an excellent piece of work. Kessler manages, wittingly or unwittingly, to show us the bureaucracy and the agency.
The bureaucracy of the FBI was built by its second Director, J. Edgar Hoover who took over from William J. Flynn in December, 1924. Aside from instituting rock-solid requirements of integrity and honesty in the FBI, Hoover introduced the standardized form for interview reports. He established meticulous protocols for the use of FBI files. Kessler covers all these bureaucratic developments as a backdrop for what the FBI pretended it was and was in fact becoming.
After the Palmer Raids in 1920, the subsequent watershed moment in the history of the FBI was the Lindbergh kidnaping in 1932. Agents in the FBI were finally allowed to carry firearms. It is from this point that you get the sense that the FBI bureaucracy and the FBI as an agency were two different entities. A year after the Lindbergh kidnaping, the Kansas City Massacre occurred in which four lawmen were killed transporting Frank “Jelly” Nash back to prison. Hoover threw the FBI into the case and got quick results. Between 1933 and 1945, the number of people working in the FBI increased from 755 to 11,802. By the 1960s, Hoover’s FBI bureaucracy was at fundamental odds with what the FBI could not avoid becoming-the nation’s top law enforcement agency. It had to respond to real law enforcement goals rather than merely perch on the law enforcement efforts of local agencies as it did in the Lindbergh case. Hoover, being the showman he was, understood the difference, though preferring the smoke and mirrors approach to notoriety. His secret files on politicians, including Presidents, guaranteed the FBI’s annual budget.
Aside from covering the pivotal events in the history of the FBI, Kessler provides background detail on CIA and FBI spies apprehended by the FBI. However, Kessler is at his best when discussing the leadership of the agency. He effectively dismisses author Anthony Summers’s story (Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover) of Hoover as a cross-dresser. He goes over the abuses of Judge Williams Sessions during Sessions’ tenure as FBI Director and provides, in the telling, an excellent contrast to the tenure of Judge William Webster who headed the FBI shortly after the Watergate scandal. Kessler’s most effective analysis however is his look at Director Louis J. Freeh, who was appointed by President Clinton upon recommendation from Rudolph Giuliani.
As Director of the FBI, Freeh missed the entire point of the FBI as a federal law enforcement agency. As an FBI agent working at headquarters, Freeh developed a hatred for the bureaucracy. For people working in a bureaucracy, animosity toward the paper-shuffling and multi-tiered decision levels is a heathy sign of commitment. In a director of the bureaucracy, animosity toward the process can be disastrous. Freeh managed to demonstrate the point rather quickly. More importantly, he never made the leap from his attitudes as a “brick agent” to manager of an investigative agency. Kessler quotes the former Special Agent in Charge of the Chicago FBI Office, Larry Collins, as saying, “Louis never grasped that the FBI is about more than investigations. It is about law enforcement.” Even Sessions, despite an overwhelming plethora of inaptitude, was smart enough not think he could be both Director of the FBI and a FBI case agent. Freeh jumped into the Atlanta, Centennial Olympic Park bombing case and the Los Alamos, Wen Ho Lee investigation among other case agent things-ultimately to the detriment of the FBI.
The author ends his book with an Epilogue discussing the FBI in the aftermath of 9/11. Here, Kessler does not do as well. In the end he calls for doubling the size of the FBI.
In the FBI’s handing of events leading up to 9/11, Kessler succinctly argues that “‘Connecting the dots’ became the phrase of choice to describe what the intelligence and law enforcement communities should have been doing before 9/11 so that roughly three thousand people would not have died. To generations brought up on TV and computers, it all sounded so simple.” Well, not only did it sound simple, it was simple. What caused it not to happen were the very factors Kessler spent 515 pages describing-a federal law enforcement agency in which management was structured to safeguard the image of the agency rather than get a job done. Doubling the size of the agency would only mean doubling the number of people used to polish the FBI apple. No, Kessler’s conclusion is without merit. His assessment of the new FBI Director and the direction the FBI seems to be going is correct. Read the book. It’s an education.