Commentary Magazine

The F.B.I. in Our Open Society, by Harry and Bonaro Overstreet

The Bureau

The F B.I in our Open Society
by Harry and Bonaro Overstreet
Norton 400 pp. $6.95.

In an era when books like Jerome Skolnick's Justice Without Trial, James Q Wilson's Varieties of Police Behavior, and Paul Chevigny's Police Power have systematically analyzed the social functions of law-enforcement agencies, it is nothing short of foolish to believe, as the Overstreets do, that the FBI responds “simply and literally to instructions given it by an appropriate authority” Analyses of which laws are enforced and of how they are enforced, of the political relationships of agencies to other power groups, and of agencies' perceptions of their roles, have become the staples of serious, current attempts to understand the role of law enforcement in our society But in their analysis of the FBI, the Overstreets, relying on secondary sources and making no field inquiries of their own, do not get beyond confidently depicting a world of selfless and dedicated law enforcers conscientiously doing a thankless and complicated task This is the stuff of whimsy, not social analysis The title of their book notwithstanding, the role of federal law enforcement in a democracy is the one subject resolutely avoided in the Overstreets' tendentious attack on J Edgar Hoover's enemies

The Overstreets' technique of relying on Hoover's testimony before Congressional committees and on statements made by his former employers (attorneys-general of the United States) may be sufficient to demolish some of the more ornate fantasies about the FBI spun by Max Lowenthal, Fred J Cook, William Turner, and other critics, it is singularly irrelevant to any analysis of the Bureau's actual function Moreover, the Overstreets are no more accurate than these critics when they turn to defend the Bureau Thus, they condemn the selective quotations which distort the validity of Lowenthal's and Cook's attacks, yet the President's Crime Commission Report of 1967, which they frequently cite as authority for the proposition that the FBI IS a highly competent agency fully aware and respectful of its own limitations, actually condemned the Bureau for lack of cooperation during the 50's with the Justice Department's Organized Crime and Racketeering Section Donald R Cressey's recently published Theft of a Nation amply corroborates the Crime Commission's verdict


This is not the only criticism of the FBI overlooked by the Over-streets with the same methodical selectivity that Cook and Lowenthal seem to have employed Norman Ollestead's Inside the F B I is mentioned, but his belief that the Bureau cannot relate to Negroes, especially when forced to choose between them and Southern police chiefs, is never acknowledged Nor do the Overstreets take note of the common charge that the Bureau has practiced racial and religious discrimination in its hiring, or that Senator Joseph McCarthy used FBI files for his investigations—indeed, McCarthy's name is never mentioned even though Hoover's admiration for him is a matter of record The closest the authors come to recognizing the existence of criticism is the flat—and undocumented—assertion that Bureau files are always confidentially maintained

Insofar as The FBI in Our Open Society exposes the often intemperate criticisms to be found in Cook and Lowenthal, it performs the minor service of reassuring us that muckraking is a hazardous enterprise, especially when the muck is well-hidden Unfortunately, anti-muckraking is all but useless when it resorts to the same techniques—a naive reliance on self-serving statements and ad hominem attacks on one's opponents Since much of what Mr Hoover says is unprovable and often contradictory (he has, for example, been on all sides of the wiretapping issue), blind faith is as inappropriate a stance as blind condemnation


Thus, although it is quite clear that J Edgar Hoover is not a fascist ogre seeking to clamp a Gestapolike police state upon us, neither is he the Overstreets' ideal type of the law enforcer, scrupulously upholding his sworn duty to carry out the mandates conferred upon him by Congress or by the attorney-general The political infighting for power between Hoover and certain attorneys-general, Robert F Kennedy among them, has been too well-documented to be doubted seriously Hoover is a shrewd, perhaps even brilliant man who has certain beliefs about the meaning of the elusive term “national security” and about the role of the FBI in protecting it He has acted on those beliefs, has attempted to convince others (especially Congress) of the essential validity of his aims, and has used his authority to seek broad social acceptance of his positions on certain crucial matters, notably that of Communism in American life

Though they fail to examine the effect of Hoover's beliefs on the conduct of his Bureau, the Over-streets indirectly do raise some interesting problems in their defense of him The liberal Left, in its quest for scapegoats, has fastened undue attention on the FBI After all, at the beginning of World War II, as the authors point out, the greatest violation of civil liberties was perpetrated not by the Bureau secretly but by the the military overtly “The darkest injustice of the war period in this country was indubitably that practiced against the West Coast Japanese That was an Army operation, and, significantly, Hoover opposed it” Although their explanation for Hoover's stand is not reassuring (“No security purpose was, to [Hoover's] mind, served by the wholesale uprooting of our Japanese population”), his position on this question cannot be ignored

Yet it seems to be very important for the Left to convince others, though not necessarily itself, that Hoover is a fascist In the service of this necessity Hoover's style (his perspiring-hand phobia, his priggishness) and the Bureau's incredible “squareness” are often confused with those functions it actually performs, and which do not always correspond with its manners Some of Hoover's more outlandish pronouncements do engender general disquiet, but his prissiness should offset rather than stimulate fears that we are all having our phones tapped and are about to be hauled out of our beds at night Ironically, the only known night raids in recent times occurred in 1962 when the Bureau, on orders of then Attorney-General Robert Kennedy, raided newspapermen's homes to get some information about the steel price rise


The fascination of the Left—and, for that matter, the Right too—with the FBI lies in its being not “un-American” but rather, as Walter Goodman has noted about the House Un-American Activities Committee, all too American If anyone bothered to study the personal qualities of the average special agent, he would probably discover an unusually high quotient of Midwest provincialism, xenophobia, and chauvinism, the Bureau is staffed with men who yearn for urban peace, for the simple pleasures of a Tsarist Russia or a Chiangist China, and who cannot quite understand the political and social revolutions of our time Like most small-town Americans, FBI men believe that snooping is a perfectly acceptable form of social activity, especially if your neighbor is up to no good, and most especially if he makes strange political noises

Of course, we cannot ignore the great potential for harm inherent in Babbitry in the guise of law enforcement Huey Long once said that fascism, if it comes to America, will come in the guise of Americanism The FBI represents a dangerous streak of authoritarianism in American life, but it would take a great deal—and neither a world war nor a cold war, it should be remembered, was enough—to convert that into totalitarianism J Edgar Hoover, like Joe McCarthy, has preferred to fish in small ponds of troubled waters and has eschewed any grand designs for oceanic whale-hunting One shudders to think what the FBI would have been like had it been headed by a true ideologue like Allen Dulles The type of person the Bureau attracts is far less dangerous than those Harvard Ph D's, their minds aflame with political theory, who prefer to work for the “swinging” CIA

Not that the FBI IS not in need of reform But reform has always, and necessarily, been a slow process, changes in the Bureau occur not so much with the enactment of new laws (as the Overstreets argue), and not in accordance with the Bureau's own malevolent inclinations (as its critics believe), but in response to society's changing concerns When the Ku Klux Klan became worrisome in the 20's, the FBI acted because strong political and public pressure forced it to (not, as the Overstreets ridiculously maintain, because the Klan threatened to violate Louisiana's constitutional right to a republican form of government) As the “Communist menace” recedes and the dangers of organized crime increase, Bureau resources will be shifted accordingly Of course, the shift may well be delayed by Mr Hoover's perceptions and by “organizational lag,” but it will come

Although The FBI in Our Open Society seems to have been written principally to refute Fred J Cook's The FBI Nobody Knows, and therefore tells us virtually nothing about the Bureau's function, it does modestly serve to limit the range of valid criticism And it also offers the occasion to observe that in this time of deep-rooted questioning, we should be frying other institutional fishes The FBI need no longer rate a high priority on our list of social devils, at the moment, it is a strictly second-rate danger

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