TOPICS > Politics

Directing the FBI

July 30, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: The role and the power of the FBI director has changed over the years, shaped by events and by the personality of the man holding the job. Along the way, the reputation of the agency itself has changed as well. We get a longer look now at the job and the men who have filled it. With us are NewsHour regulars presidential historian Michael Beschloss, and journalist and author Haynes Johnson. Joining them tonight is Richard Powers, a history professor at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. He’s the author of “Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover.” Haynes, what kind of FBI is Mr. Mueller going to be inheriting?

HAYNES JOHNSON: Troubled. What you heard in that set-up piece was extraordinary: Culture of deceit, lies, intellectual arrogance, out of control, antiquated equipment. But more than that, this is an enormously central, important agency in American life. It is the one national police force, and if you don’t have trust in that, the old cliché about trust is the coin of the realm, that’s what you’re really talking about. And the interesting thing is that after all of the exposes of Hoover’s era in the FBI, we are back to the same point now: Can you trust the FBI? Is it workable? Is it too big? Are they covering up? It’s a huge problem of management to take hold and seize and change the culture of the organization.

GWEN IFILL: And you think trust is an open question right now.

HAYNES JOHNSON: It is with the public. You heard the Senators saying the same thing. In fact, he acknowledges, Mr. Mueller, that that is a problem too.

GWEN IFILL: What’s your take on that, Michael?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It’s one of the best places to look at if you’re concerned about things like civil liberties because all of us want to make sure that we’re protected against things like global crime and espionage from hostile powers and terrorism in this country. But at the same time to do that, the FBI has in the past sometimes done things that we would find a little bit overboard, excessive use of federal power, putting people under surveillance, wire tapping, things that really begin to steal our liberty. So it’s the one place you look at if you want to look at that terrifically fascinating question that goes all through American history, which is: How much of our freedom do we surrender to the federal government in order to get a broader kind of protection?

GWEN IFILL: Professor Powers, over the years, the FBI has either been considered to be the heroic G-men of the movies or as they are now and as they were during the years following J. Edgar Hoover’s time, as being a very dubious kind of organization. Where does it run historically?

RICHARD POWERS: If you look at the founding of the FBI, you’ll discover that it was intended originally to combat crimes against the United States. And among those were violations of civil liberties, very high level political corruption, economic crimes, and then almost immediately it began to veer from that path under J. Edgar Hoover, its emphasis became crimes against individuals, crimes against property and, of course, pursuit of subversives and radicals.

Since Hoover’s death in 1972, the FBI has been undergoing a long and very successful process of reform. I would really have to disagree with those baleful views of today’s FBI I think that while there have been failings, they have really been pulled out of context — that Louis Freeh is going to go down in history as on the balance a very successful FBI Director, that he’s made a tremendous contribution to the performance of the FBI; that the FBI– while of course it needs to be improved– is not an institution today that is in drastic need of reform.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Professor Powers, let me ask you to dial back a moment to J. Edgar Hoover who you alluded to. Did his stewardship of the FBI Leave the kind of mark that you’re describing that Louis Freeh will leave or did he leave a more negative mark on the agency?

RICHARD POWERS: It’s really almost impossible to mitigate the damage that J. Edgar Hoover did to the FBI And really to national law enforcement. The FBI is supposed to concentrate on the highest level crimes against the United States. Under Louis Freeh those are defined as international crimes against the United States that would be foreign counterintelligence, terrorism, the highest level economic crimes, secondarily criminal organizations but under Hoover it veered into the pursuit of gangsters, car thieves, kidnappers — really providing entertainment for the media, entertainment for the public but left some of the most important crimes against the United States essentially undetected.

GWEN IFILL: And Michael, Hoover also left the impression of someone who chased after civil rights activists and protesters of the Vietnam War. Is that something which continues to resonate?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think we’re all… The FBI will probably forever be laboring under the shadow of Hoover. And every FBI Director is going to have to show that he is not one more J. Edgar Hoover. But in Hoover’s case not only did he want publicity — as Professor [Powers] was saying — and get involved in these high profile events like the capture of John Dillinger and all these others that was his way of getting power for the FBI because he felt that if the public saw these things, if they saw the show with Ephram Zimbalist, Jr., the FBI on television, saw this sort of heroic idea that the FBI was almost single handedly protecting our liberties, then the FBI would get more power.

The other way he did it notoriously was to gather files on political figures and Presidents with a kind of tacit blackmail. If I could throw in one belief story, I was an intern in the Senate in 1972 when J. Edgar Hoover died. And I attended his memorial service in the Capitol Rotunda. The reason for that was tickets were sent to the members of the Senate. My Senate Adlai Stevenson in Illinois thought Hoover was a big threat to civil liberties. Our office thought that the way they would thumb their nose at Hoover would be to send the most junior person in this office to this service, which was myself working the Xerox machine. But there were a lot of Senators who were afraid of Hoover. They were very much present.

GWEN IFILL: Haynes, J. Edgar Hoover obviously left a big mark on this bureau. Maybe Freeh will too as Professor Powers suggested. Does the FBI have to be a strong director?

HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes, of course it does. Any institution that is big and important and central to American security and fairness and law and honor and all that has to have someone who can take hold and is respected from all the people within. I thought what Michael said earlier about this, the thread of American history though, it really is true that the enduring dilemma of our country is, can we have a society that is strong enough to preserve our liberties but not too strong to take them away from us? That’s the dilemma. Under Hoover — can I add another story to what Michael said?


HAYNES JOHNSON: You cannot imagine– you were around then and Michael too– when Hoover was in power — the fear that was exercised from Presidents of the United States on because of his files — the idea that he could blackmail people and literally John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, the mafia, Judith Exner, all of this. In my case covering civil rights in that period in the late ’50s and through the ’60s, the FBI helped me a lot tagging Ku Klux Klan members and I would knock on the door in the middle of the night, hello Mr. Ku Klux Klan members I’m here to get a story. But also they would leave things on the desk for me to try to destroy (Martin Luther) King. With wire-taps and so forth. It was a vicious… And the power and the fear that he wielded. That’s a very hard legacy to undo.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Powers, is that kind of unchecked power still a concern? There were a lot of questions during the Senate confirmation hearing about Mr. Mueller’s potential for accountability to the Senate. Do you think there’s still concern or reason for concern about the ability of power to go unchecked at the FBI?

RICHARD POWERS: There has to be continual concern about that. As a matter of fact, Louis Freeh, in his speeches to FBI agents and to new trainees at the FBI Academy, continually uses the example of the Nazi regime in Germany where the police and the judiciary were corrupted and did not adhere to their professional ethics and to their personal standards of morality. So even though I feel that he has instilled a higher sense of ethics than existed in the FBI, certainly of J. Edgar Hoover, it’s something that you have to continually keep your eye on. Police forces are notoriously subject to corruption. They are subject to waves of scandals. Some people have even put a kind of a business cycle on it of every 20 years or so, another major law enforcement scandal. But certainly that has to be a major concern and it really has to be the top priority of a director is to maintain a sense of ethics in his organization.

GWEN IFILL: We’re making a leap here from J. Edgar Hoover straight to Louis Freeh. What about in between? Have we seen the kinds of problems that the Senate is questioning now with other — Haynes?

HAYNES JOHNSON: Not so much the corruption at all. But the problem has been a director that takes hold and is in power long enough tenure to establish the new mark on the agency. We’ve had a lot of different directors. I think that’s one of the problems. Whether Louis Freeh goes down a great director or not, I could tell you many people who don’t think he was. That’s a whole other matter not to be debated here. But the idea of coming in now and establishing the professional integrity and esteem of the agents around the country, that’s critical.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: The other thing is that, you know, there was… There were a few good things about Hoover amazingly enough. I mean horrible things he did, beginning with pursuing Martin Luther King. But on the other side he stood up to FDR during World War II and said don’t intern the Japanese. There’s no need to do this. And he did the same to Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon had something called the Houston plan which would have allowed a President unbelievable power over American lives. So as much as Bill Clinton, for instance, is to this day, I’m sure, deeply angry at Louis Freeh for giving him a lot of trouble through Whitewater and especially during the Monica Lewinsky scandal in a way it’s healthy because the scariest thing of all would be an FBI Director who is totally subservient to a President and his political purposes.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Powers, what have we learned from these past years from the FBI that can be applied to the new challenges about domestic and international terrorism, for instance?

RICHARD POWERS: Well, if you want to focus on the domestic and foreign terrorism, it can be that those investigations can quickly be deflected in pursuit of relatively powerless and relatively innocuous offenders because the systems that support international terrorism are so difficult to combat, and you’ll have to devote enormous amount of man hours, enormous amounts of time and money without getting immediate results. So there is a tendency that has to be resisted to go after quick and easy solutions instead of getting at the head of the enemy.

GWEN IFILL: Do you think that what Mr. Mueller’s big challenge is — to not go after the quick and easy solutions?

RICHARD POWERS: That’s part of it. I think what we want in the FBI Is an organization that certainly strikes fear into the hearts of petty offenders: bank robbers, kidnappers and so forth. But I’d like to see an FBI that strikes fear into the hearts of crooked senators, crooked representatives and crooked CEO’s of major corporations. Those are the people that really have to be investigated by an organization that really lets the chips fall where they may and pursues targets no matter how powerful they are.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. Thank you all very much for joining us.