Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Enemies: A History of the FBI, by Tim Weiner

Random House, 2012
537 pp
(hardcover ed.)

My many thanks to Random House for sending me a copy of this book and to LibraryThing's early reviewers program as well.  It is an eye-opening, well-researched and intelligently-constructed  history of the FBI in  its role as a "secret intelligence service." The book examines how the Bureau has long been operating outside of the rule of law -- "the foundation on which America was built", and offers its readers a look at the ongoing struggle between national security and civil liberty. Although I may not personally agree with the author's final conclusion, it's still a very well-written book.

It's impossible to give this book the justice it deserves in a short span of time, so I'll only offer a brief rundown.  The Bureau of Investigation was founded during  Teddy Roosevelt's administration; originally Congress had voted down its creation, concerned about the existence of a "central police or spy system in the federal government.”  As would later become a regular pattern between presidents and the FBI,  Roosevelt came up with a way around the decisions of Congress:  he appropriated money from a “special expense fund” to start hiring agents.  There was no formal charter at the time of the Bureau's inception, nor is there one today.   It should come as no surprise that  a major  portion  of this book deals with J. Edgar Hoover, since in effect, Hoover was the FBI until his death in 1972.  There's also another reason: as part of his research  for this book, Weiner was able to obtain 70,000 plus pages of newly-declassified material, including Hoover's intelligence files, in which J. Edgar noted down his thoughts or reactions to each matter at hand.

Hoover had a definite view regarding America and the preservation of the American government and way of life.   His earliest work was aided largely by legislation enacted during Wilson's adminstration, such as  the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act  of 1918, which afforded  Hoover a great deal of power as the head of the Radical Division of the Justice Department to which he was appointed in 1919.  Answering to A. Mitchell Palmer, by the age of 25, Hoover was already responsible for the roundup of thousands of people he considered to be subversives and potential enemies; he had planned and directed the Palmer raids of 1920.   But in the wake of the raids, he found himself in a defensive position because almost none of the people rounded up warranted arrest and the arrests were made "without warrant  or any process of law." Hoover played it cagey when asked about his involvement,  disavowing any role at all -- learning about the importance of "secrecy and deception" in the process and leaving Palmer to pick up the flak.  He was also very good throughout his career at instilling paranoia about an America under threat of attack from its enemies, both foreign and domestic, and extremely adamant that the Bureau should never be embarrassed.

As  the author states, Enemies is also a record of "break-ins, burglaries, wiretapping and bugging on behalf of the president."  FDR  came to the White House in 1932;  in 1936, after a warning from Hoover that Communists were clearly a major threat not only to the unions and the press of America, but also that they were "boring into the government,"  Hoover received from the President the authorization to investigate and to proceed with intelligence operations "against American enemies."  Nothing was ever written down (except on Hoover's side) and Hoover took FDR at his word,  using FDR's go ahead as the authority to continue this work throughout the rest of his career.  He was now at liberty to use various means at his disposal --  as the author notes, wiretapping (which Hoover believed was legal as long as the fruits of the eavesdropping was not used in court), "bugging and break-ins became a holy trinity for FBI intelligence operations from the 1930s onward."  Hoover was ready to do whatever was necessary "against all enemies, foreign and domestic;" he would later have a vision of himself as the head of a world-wide intelligence agency with total control.  If the Constitution got trampled on in the process, well, let's just say that in protecting the American nation, Hoover was never too concerned about rights or civil liberties.  For him, the President's word was the law and the basis of his continued power.  Hoover disliked Truman, who voiced his concerns about the FBI as an "American Gestapo,"  but in 1950, after the beginning of the Korean War, Truman expanded Hoover's power even more. And when  Truman broke the news that the Soviets had the bomb, Hoover's paranoia seems to have been justified.  The "national security establishment" started expanding and continued to do so into the Eisenhower administration.  Ike's Executive Order 10450 focused on tightening internal security, and it was FBI agents who were put in charge of carrying out this order. The order, beyond anyone associated with communism, denied employment to "homosexuals, drunks, and other social aberrants" who might constitute security risks.  One FBI officer committed suicide, realizing what kind of "false charges" might be brought against him; multiple careers and lives were ruined.  Enemies goes on through the Hoover-era presidents JFK through Nixon,  then examines the FBI and its relationship to the US presidency after J. Edgar's  death, bringing the book up to date with Barack Obama.

Even though the FBI had many successes, there were also  many mistakes throughout its history.  Weiner also spends some time on critical errors that he believes led up the events of 9/11.   For example, the deep rift between the CIA and the FBI, going to back to Hoover's hatred of Bill Donovan, led to a respective refusal to share crucial intelligence information.  Information was out there, but it was just in many pieces and in many hands, sometimes even overlooked. In many cases, the FBI's right hand had no clue what its left hand was doing.   Informants were not taken seriously, there was a lack of translators; the list goes on and on. Other contributing factors in the Bureau's poor handling of intelligence are the "individual experts" who had "no institutional knowledge" --  the 56 field offices of the FBI worked as agencies unto themselves in isolation, FBI agents also rarely talked to the analysts, and  bureaucratic oversight was often nonexistent or very poor.   Also, in 2000, the computer capabilities of the FBI were so bad that the a normal teenager had more computing power. Add to all of the above political friendships and poor judgment in appointments that hampered, rather than helped the FBI as an intelligence service, and you've got a very costly (in terms of lives)  situation than cannot afford to stand uncorrected.   Things have changed now, according to the author, and he discusses some of what's new with the FBI since the appointment of Mueller as director.

There's a great deal more than what I've outlined here, since I'm trying to be as brief as possible. Throughout the book, woven in and around the FBI's history, Weiner examines the tension that has existed between our civil liberties as guaranteed by the Constitution and the expanded powers of the government during a time of national crisis that may cost citizens some of their Constitutional rights.   It's also a look at how democracy works in a modern surveillance state where we've become "inured to the gaze of closed-circuit cameras, the gloved hands of airport guards, and the phalanx of cops and guardsmen in combat gear."  According to the author, we may not necessarily love Big Brother, but he's "part of the family now." He also notes that the FBI's manual of operations vis-a-vis counterterrorism is a sign that the government is trying to strike a balance between liberty and security, but yet the FBI continues to work without a charter.

Personally, I liked this book, although I do have reservations about Weiner's faith in the present FBI and the present government where our civil liberties are concerned.   Enemies is  incredibly interesting, fleshing out bits and pieces of history with which I'm already familiar, and it offers anyone remotely interested in the topics he covers a great deal of fodder for further reading.  It's very reader friendly, and despite some reviews I've read about it being snooze material, it will grab the attention of anyone who's interested.  What you won't find here are any juicy pieces of speculation about Hoover and his sex life, which is just as well -- it's all hearsay anyway and it's also irrelevant.  I also think Weiner might be looking through his rose-colored glasses  -- an FBI manual of operations is all well and good, but  time and again, and he shows it himself, when push comes to shove in a matter of national security, the government can exercise greater powers that don't always mesh with our constitutional rights. 

for more on this book, professionally speaking, read the reviews from The LA Times and the New York Times, and don't miss NPR's interview with Tim Weiner.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, by Paul French

Penguin, 2012
(first published by Penguin Australia, 2011)
259 pp
(hardcover ed)

[note: for a more visual approach to this book, don't miss the author's website.]

Part history, part cold-case mystery, Midnight in Peking began literally as a footnote the author happened to read in a biography of Edgar Snow,  an American journalist and author who may likely have been the first western journalist to interview Mao Zedong. As the author notes in his "The Writing of Midnight in Peking," a brief piece added to the book after the main story, mention was made of Snow's wife Helen, who was nervous due to the discovery of the body of young Pamela Werner not too far from where the Snows lived.  The footnote also indicated that Pamela's father was a former British consul in China, and that the murder of Pamela had remained unsolved.  With only these few facts to go on, and an inability to stop thinking about Pamela Webster, French started tracking down the long-forgotten story.   By chance, one day at the National Archives at Kew, French came across an uncatalogued file in one of several boxes of "random correspondence sent from Peking  during the years 1941-45," where he realized that he'd discovered details of the private investigation made by Pamela's father, E.T.C. Werner, who'd tried to solve the case on his own after authorities failed to do so. As it turns out, Werner's inquiries would provide a key that would unlock what may have really happened that fateful night back in January of 1937.  While the mystery of who may have killed Pamela Werner unfolds in this book, the author also unravels Peking's social and political history, which  helps to place into context the events surrounding  and following her untimely death.  

On January 8, 1937,  Pamela Werner's  body was discovered near the city's Fox Tower. Although there was little blood at the scene, Pamela had been severely beaten & cut, and her internal organs had been removed.  The motive was not rape -- there was no evidence of sexual assault, nor was there any evidence that her death was the result of a robbery, since she was wearing a very expensive watch when she was found.  The night before, Pamela  had failed to return home, and her father had been out looking for her into the wee hours of the morning.  After going home to get some rest,  Werner was back out again on the streets looking for her as the  day dawned.  He started at the edge of the Legation Quarter, followed the Tatar Wall toward the Fox Tower, and seeing a crowd gathering, went to see what was happening. It was then he discovered that everyone was standing around a corpse, who as fate would have it, turned out to be his missing daughter. 

Pamela's death was no ordinary murder case -- au contraire -- it was a very high-profile investigation since Werner had been a British diplomat up until some twenty-plus years earlier when he was recalled to London and his career had come to an end.   His wife had died under mysterious circumstances when Pamela was five; since that time, he and his daughter had been living in a neighborhood just outside the Legation Quarter. Werner had a reputation as an outsider and recluse, preferring his books and scholarship to the company of others in the expat community inside the Quarter.  He was widely disliked, especially by the British consul, which tended to complicate the investigation into Pamela's murder.   The inquiries into Pamela's death proceeded immediately, but it was hampered from the outset.  The two chief investigators, Colonel Han Shih-ching,  of the Peking Bureau of Public Safety South East Section,  and DCI Richard Dennis, brought in  from Tientsin’s British Concession as an envoy to monitor the investigation, found their hands increasingly tied.  Many witnesses refused to say anything or just vanished; others who might have had connections were never questioned.  They received a number of fake confessions, and  some native Chinese believed that her death was the work of "fox spirits."  Han had no authority inside the Legation Quarter, and when Dennis requested permission to conduct searches there, he was turned down -- it seems that the Administrative Commission of the Diplomatic Quarter, the British Legation and the current British consul felt that a "search of Chinese Peking would be sufficient."  Han pursued enquiries in an area near the legation known as "The Badlands," a veritable district of iniquity,   home to other another class of foreigners, many of them White Russians serving as pimps, prostitutes, owners of gambling dens, and other shady goings on.   It was a  place where " peroxide-blonde White Russians past their prime raised their sketched-on eyebrows and offered ‘business’ to the semi-comatose, the paralytic, the close to broke."  And it was also where Pamela was likely murdered before being dumped at the Fox Tower.

But with the Japanese moving closer to Peking, some scant nine miles away, the city became "obsessed with its own survival," in the face of daily assassinations, and among other things,  a "guerrila war...being fought on the streets of the city."  Leads in Pamela's case were growing scarce; links DCI Dennis had  made between possible suspects couldn't be linked directly to her murder, and in July, 1937, the Japanese finally entered Peking,  ending the official search for Pamela's killer.  Unofficially, Pamela's father never let go of the case; he hired his own eyes and ears, emptying his bank account, but ultimately he did get answers.  It is Werner's story and his conclusions that really grab the reader's attention, woven in and among the social and political history of Peking up through the Japanese occupation. 

It is very obvious that French has done an immense amount of research, doggedly pursuing police reports, newspaper articles and correspondence to reconstruct this brief episode. He writes that he "rechecked every false scent and misguided trail, every officious injunction from the British authorities" in putting together this book about Pamela's death, in the hopes that  "some sort of justice, however, belated, be awarded her."  At the same time, it is no dry history that has to be slogged through -- his writing brings old Peking alive and gives life to a murder case that began as a mere footnote.  And while the book may not actually read like a fast-paced thriller as some have noted,  the mystery of who killed Pamela Werner, and especially her father's dogged determination to find her killer are enough to keep anyone from setting it down for any length of time.  This book goes well beyond the usual "true-crime" sort of novel to become a compelling read in terms of a crime, a city, and the devotion of a father to his daughter.  

Highly recommended.