G-Man/J. Edgar Hoover – Articles


“What an Uncensored Letter to MLK Reveals,” New York Times Magazine, November 11, 2014

The note is just a single sheet gone yellow with age, typewritten and tightly spaced. It’s rife with typos and misspellings and sprinkled with attempts at emending them. Clearly, some effort went into perfecting the tone, that of a disappointed admirer, appalled by the discovery of “hidious [sic] abnormalities” in someone he once viewed as “a man of character.” The word “evil” makes six appearances in the text, beginning with an accusation: “You are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that.” In the paragraphs that follow, the recipient’s alleged lovers get the worst of it. They are described as “filthy dirty evil companions” and “evil playmates,” all engaged in “dirt, filth, evil and moronic talk.” The effect is at once grotesque and hypnotic, an obsessive’s account of carnal rage and personal betrayal. “What incredible evilness,” the letter proclaims, listing off “sexual orgies,” “adulterous acts” and “immoral conduct.” Near the end, it circles back to its initial target, denouncing him as an “evil, abnormal beast.” Read the rest....

“Band of Burglars,” Slate, January 8, 2014

On Tuesday, one of the biggest unsolved cases in FBI history burst wide open. In a new book, investigative journalist Betty Medsger revealed the identities of the anti-war activists who broke into the FBI's office in Media, Pa., in March 1971 and made off with the agency's secret files.* They were, it turns out, ordinary middle-class people: "a religion professor, a daycare center worker, a graduate student in a health profession, another professor, a social worker, and two people who had dropped out of college to work nearly full-time on building opposition to the war,” Medsger writes. On March 8, 1971, they pried open the FBI office door with a crowbar, stole hundreds of files, and shook the intelligence establishment to its jackboots. Read the rest....

Review, “A Cruel and Shocking Act,” Washington Post, October 25, 2013

The promotional material for Philip Shenon’s rollicking new book, “A Cruel and Shocking Act,” reminds us that three questions have “haunted our nation” for the past 50 years: “Was the President killed by a single gunman? Was Lee Harvey Oswald part of a conspiracy? Did the Warren Commission discover the whole truth of what happened on November 22, 1963?” Shenon does not definitively answer the first two questions; as he acknowledges, we may never have the final word on whatever conspiracy did or did not exist. On the third matter, however, his judgment is unequivocal. The Warren Commission, he writes, was “flawed from the start” because of bureaucratic infighting, political manipulation, destruction of evidence, tight deadlines, understaffing, deception by intelligence agencies and a host of other ills. Rather than attempting to offer the Ultimate Truth of the Kennedy Assassination, Shenon presents a persuasive, deeply researched account of why, 50 years out, that truth still seems so hard to find. Read the rest....

“Counting Crime,” Marquette Law Journal, Fall 2013

When I received the invitation to this conference about a year ago, I was surprised at the fortuitous timing: I was actually sitting at my computer writing about the Wickersham Commission—an unusual moment for such an obscure historical subject. So of course I said yes right away. The other reason that I very much wanted to come here is that, thanks to the work of historian Athan Theoharis, Marquette is one of the country’s great repositories of historical FBI documents. I am currently writing a biography of J. Edgar Hoover, the former FBI director. Anyone who writes about this subject owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Professor Theoharis, whom you’ll be hearing from later on today. Read the rest.  ...

“It’s Not About Your Cat Photos,” Slate, June 20, 2013

Since last week’s revelations about the NSA, skeptics have questioned whether expansive intelligence powers might really lead to civil liberties abuses. From a historical perspective, there’s no need to ask: Such abuses have occurred many, many times. Over the past century, American intelligence agencies have performed some amazing feats, outing Soviet infiltrators, hunting down terrorists, and keeping the homeland reasonably safe from its enemies. They have also used their powers to spy on millions of people engaged in legitimate political activity, and to go after critics in Congress, the media, and the public at large. Given this track record, it’s worth asking not whether such abuses might again occur, but whether we have sufficient reason to believe that they are not going to happen this time around. Read the rest. ...

“Somewhere, J. Edgar Hoover Is Smiling,” Slate, June 7, 2013

On March 8, 1971, a handful of activists broke into the FBI’s field office in Media, Penn., and made off with a stack of incriminating documents. Over the next several months, they began to publish what they had learned. In the pre-Internet age, this often meant reprinting the FBI records in the alternative press, though papers such as the Washington Post and New York Times also picked them up. Like Glenn Greenwald’s recent revelations about the NSA, the discoveries from the Media break-in sparked widespread public outrage—and turned out to be one of the biggest scoops in intelligence history. The program they exposed was called COINTELPRO (short for “counterintelligence program”), known today as the most notorious of the many notorious secret operations authorized by former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Read the rest....

“Unanswered Questions about Watergate,” Slate, April 22, 2013

The title of Robert Redford’s new documentary, which aired on the Discovery Channel last night, is All the President’s Men Revisited. At times, it seems more like All the President’s Men Repeated. Though created to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Watergate, the first half of the film contains little that could not be found in Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 political thriller starring Redford and Dustin Hoffman. You know the story: A pair of scrappy young reporters named Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein stick to their guns when nobody else will, and their reporting helps to bring down a president. This is, to be sure, a terrific story. No matter how many times you’ve heard it before, there is something gripping about watching Nixon’s slow, painful descent into national disgrace. Read the rest....

“Behind the Bureau,” The Nation, September 20, 2012

J. Edgar Hoover died forty years ago, at the reasonably ripe age of 77. The timing of his death—a heart attack on May 1, 1972—turned out to be a blessing and a curse for his historical legacy. Had he lived a few months longer, he could have become mired in Watergate and been tarnished by the downfall of his longtime ally Richard Nixon. A few years beyond that and he might have been hauled before the Church Committee to answer for the civil liberties abuses committed during his thirty-seven-year tenure at the FBI. His death spared him the experience of seeing the bureau maligned, denounced and partially dismantled in the 1970s. But it also made him a poster boy—often rightly, sometimes wrongly—for all that had gone wrong in American intelligence policy since the ugly days of the Palmer raids in the wake of World War I. Read the rest....

“Deep Throat, Watergate, and the Institutional Politics of the FBI,” Journal of Policy History, Spring 2012

On May 31, 2005, former FBI associate director W. Mark Felt revealed that he was “Deep Throat,” the shadowy high official whose leaks to the Washington Post helped to provoke the Watergate crisis and topple the Nixon presidency. Felt’s confession ended one of the capital’s longest-running guessing games; the hushed phone calls and parking-garage trysts of All the President’s Men , co-author Bob Woodward confirmed, were based on encounters with Felt. Media outlets framed the revelation as a drama of individual derring-do, assigning Felt the role of noble whistleblower or despicable traitor, liberal ally or conservative nemesis. As a result, they missed an opportunity to reconsider the larger story of Watergate, perhaps the most mythologized political scandal of the twentieth century. This article argues that Felt’s actions—and, by extension, Watergate itself—must be understood in the context of a long-standing institutional conflict between the Nixon administration and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Read the rest....

“The Real J. Edgar,” The Nation, November 30, 2011

Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar brings humanity to its subject, depicting a tortured love relationship between J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson, his second-in-command at the FBI. When it comes to politics, though, the film reverts to stereotype. According to J. Edgar, Hoover remained in power for forty-eight years primarily because he “had the files” on his political enemies. In this well-worn view, Hoover was a lone operator, manipulating American politics from a shady perch in his artfully darkened back room. Read the rest....

“Internal Affairs,” Slate, November 10, 2011

In one of the climactic moments of the new film J. Edgar, a thirtysomething J. Edgar Hoover reveals his plans to take a wife. The scene unfolds in a New York hotel suite, where Hoover has reserved adjoining rooms with Clyde Tolson, his second-in-command at the FBI. Tolson responds with rage to his boss’s news, throwing a temper tantrum at odds with his typically polished demeanor. The argument soon escalates into a fistfight, then into the film’s single most sexual moment: a bloody kiss between the director and associate director of the FBI. Read the rest....