Saturday, September 8, 2012

Enemies by Tim Weiner

This history of the FBI is certainly a good book and worth reading, but I just want to say this about that…
by Charlie Leck

You can plug your way through the book (Enemies* by Tim Wiener) and it will be worth it, but here’s what I think: When you get to the end of J. Edgar Hoover’s life, the book really gets interesting. At that point it is about the FBI that Hoover left behind with all its dependencies on him. It stops functioning and it takes several rebuildings to put it back together. Finally, Wiener lays down the evidence that shows that the FBI should have known what was going to happen on 9-11 – and it could have done something about it if only it would have had a reasonably good system of communications. It did not!

This is not a biography of J. Edgar Hoover, as many have labeled it. It is a history of the agency that Hoover built. After Hoover’s death, the book gets into the growth of the terrorism threat inside the borders of the United States. It explains how unprepared the FBI was to handle these threats – how slow it was to pick up clues and how poorly it communicated threats to the people and institutions that needed to know about them. Hoover had not been a high-tech guy. He shuffled papers and kept massive amounts of file folders near at hand. Computers? Not so much! The FBI was a decade behind the rest of the world when it came to computer communications and technology.

What I’m saying is this: the last two hundred pages of this book are its best pages; yet, the author could not have told this part of the story without explaining the birth of the agency and how it, from infancy on, belonged nearly exclusively to J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover was a control freak. He molded and sculpted the FBI into what he wanted. He thought his system worked well. He saw no reason to wildly pursue higher systems of technology. If he had what he needed to bug residences, offices and hotel rooms – and to tap telephone lines – he had everything he needed.

You read in amazement about how elements in the FBI, in 1999 and 2000, picked up on the fact that terrorists were in flight schools in America, learning to fly 747s and passing on opportunities to learn how to take off or land them. Instructors found this curious! The information was passed on to FBI agents. Agents tried to get their superiors to understand the threat and to take it seriously, but communications within the agency was incredibly bad and nearly broken. The day before 9-11, in 2001, FBI agents were trying to get top level managers at the FBI to understand that something was going to happen – and soon!

Weiner, I think does a commendable job of describing Hoover and bringing him very much alive for the reader. He does an extraordinary job in explaining how the FBI became what it was on 11 September 2001. Perhaps, though, this comment tops the list of all Weiner’s description of the mighty, little man: Hoover’s “knowledge was enormous, though his mind was narrow.”

You’ll also meet Mark Felt (the real “Deep Throat”) in these latter pages of the book and, as I did, you’ll probably come to like him for what he did.

Most interesting to me was Hoover’s ability to use his accumulated information to hold power over Presidents of the U.S.. There were a number of them he disliked fiercely and only a few he respected.

I’d give the book a rating of good and worthy of a read, especially if the subject matter interests you. This is a solid account of history and not a retelling of the g-man stories of another era.

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