Beyond Tomorrow's Headlines
FBI By Sanford J. Ungar Little, Brown and Company, 660 pp., $14.95
By the end of Act IV, after Inspector Erskine had solved that Sunday's kidnapping or smashed last week's interstate car-theft ring, many of The FBI's 40 million viewers turned the set off and rested peacefully. They had just received another hour of reassurance that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was still as effective as the G-Men who rounded up Dillinger, Floyd, Nelson and Barrow. Sure, some realized that the cases for the show were selected from the choicest FBI files--probably pre-selected to make sure that the epilogue didn't have the fugitives escaping on some illegal wire-tap charge or rubber-hose beating. But what we didn't know is that the FBI never let the script-writers have the last word. After the writers created the dialogue, the script was delivered to the Los Angeles Field Office of the FBI where it was checked for content and accuracy. From there the script went to headquarters in Washington, and agents from the bureau's Crime Records division edited the manuscript and even sent it back to Hollywood for rewrite if the FBI came out looking too violent or too soft.
The making of the FBI is simply one of several thousand revelations that Sanford J. Ungar '66 presents in his 670-page book, FBI. Beginning with its founding in the 1920's, Ungar presents not just a history, but a sociology of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The real worth of the FBI, however, lies in Ungar's good fortune; he is the first writer to enter the monolith without being censored upon leaving. The result is the first assessment of the bureau's 50-year history--and the man who must be considered synonomous with those years, its director, J. Edgar Hoover--that can claim some degree of objectivity. Other journalists have asked for the bureau's assistance in writing about the FBI and the man that many agents continue to call "the Director" despite Hoover's death four years ago. But unless they happened to have been friends with Hoover or came from newspapers that were friendly to the FBI, they gained no access to personnel and were frozen out from the files. As if this pre-selection process was not enough, Hoover insisted that all material written with FBI assistance be thoroughly scrutinized by FBI agents before publication, like those scripts for The FBI. These safety procedures, Hoover claimed, were vital to national security. These restraints led to two types of accounts of the FBI. One set of books was like Clay T. Whitehead's The FBI Story, a glowing document that the FBI still uses for public relations. The other narratives were written in the paranoid, Mark-Lane style of journalism. These works painted the FBI as a demon bureaucracy and usually smacked more of fiction than reportage.
Circumstances aided Ungar, a former Crimson editor, who took leave from his Washington Post staff duties to work full-time on a study of the FBI. The new FBI director Clarence Kelley, installed just three months before, saw nothing wrong with granting Ungar personal interviews and nearly total access to the personnel he needed to write a comprehensive work. Ungar took full advantage of that privilege and has gotten the most out of the hundreds of interviews he has conducted. Through the very effective technique of mass interviewing with the understanding that the sources' names would not be published, Ungar has tapped views on subjects never before aired. His book is an objective analysis of the accomplishments of the FBI and a thorough scrutiny of Hoover's impact on the bureau.
Ungar's picture of Hoover's snow-balling aggrandizement of power shows that the director's staying power derived from far more than his ability to blackmail those in higher office. Ungar traces the growth of Hoover's reputation as a top-notch law enforcement official and is careful to give him his due for FBI achievements that were within its charter. Ungar is more concerned with how one organization, with thousands of agents and a $500 million budget, can respond so automatically to the whims of its director. There are lengthy discussions about Hoover's fanatical desire to destroy the New Left, and his seeming inability to recognize the civil rights of virtually anyone in any group to the left of the John Birch Society. Ungar is at his most graphic when he details Hoover's determination to stamp out left-wing opposition over his half-century tenure:
Hoover was hardly a scholar, nor was he a particularly literate man. He had made an early effort to "understand" the radical forces in the country, holding long arguments in his Justice Department Office, for example, with Emma Goldman and others he had deported during the Palmer Raid era. But he soon abandoned any such dialogue and effort to understand and turned to the attack.
Ungar's reformist bias leads him to emphasize the transgressions of the Hoover regime: its blatant disregard of privacy through illegal wiretapping and surveillance; its history of domestic surveillance, including the successful endeavors to stop sabotage during World War II; and the bureau's gratuitous entries into foreign espionage. In his most documented chapters Ungar details the outrageous violations made under the name of COINTELPRO, the counter intelligence program, to harass left-wing groups. Still, Ungar did not embark on this mammoth project with a master design. He wasn't out to prove that the FBI has been a source of evil throughout the Twentieth Century. And he didn't try to prove conspiracy theories in which Hoover-as-homosexual was out to take over the country at any time.
Ungar also provides an analysis of the FBI's performance on its own terms. Near the end of the necessarily long work, he blasts the FBI for not performing its chartered tasks well. Ungar claims that the bureau has done little to combat organized crime. He also notes how the FBI has failed to halt growing white collar crime. The Agency remains no threat to embezzlers, government swindlers, and stock manipulators. And then, in what is probably the most searing blow for the bureau, Ungar attacks the organization for failing to thwart increasing domestic terrorism. He describes an intelligence organization that is curiously incapable of penetrating the radical underground, that needs 19 months to track down a kidnapped heiress in California.
Above all, Ungar is a reporter and he is subject to all the problems and trade-offs that face reporters when they deal with sources who need protection. In the FBI's case, these trade-offs are magnified. Ungar walks into an organization with a history of secrecy and silence, through 50 years shut tight to all investigative reporters. He starts asking questions and gets almost nothing but candid answers in return. Only a truly robot-like reporter comes out of that situation un-compromised, and Ungar is not a robot. His thankfulness manifests itself in overly-gracious characterizations of the low level agents who risked so much to open up to him. The eight agents whom Ungar profiles rapidly in a seven-page section are all cut out of a likeable if not loveable mode. Ungar seems especially enamoured with the younger agents--members of the "Berrigan 1000" group who were hired after the Fathers Berrigan were accused of plotting to kidnap government officials and blow up buildings. Although we expect these recruits to be of a Young-Americans-for-Freedom stripe, they emerge in Ungar's description as "loose and free-thinking agents" who do not react to events "on the basis of knee-jerk instincts."
So as not to appear the apologist, a cautious Ungar presents an almost gratuitously ugly picture of Kelley--as if to say, 'My integrity hasn't been compromised by the director's willingness to open the doors.' He gives two theories about Kelley, each of which the director is likely to find uncomplimentary. One paints Kelley as "Simple Clarence" totally capitulating to the "old-guard, old shoe" types and the "unswerving Hooverites." The other is "Kelley as Machiavellian" which depicts the director as manipulating his staff to get his own way. The problem with this type of theorizing is that time, not conjecture, will indicate what type of administrator the newcomer Kelley is. In a few years, perhaps when the FBI is not still haunted by the original Director, Ungar may be able to make a more honest assessment of Kelley.
A last problem with the book is curely circumstantial. While Ungar dug deeper and deeper into the FBI, coming up with heretofore unprinted information, he didn't count on Senate Select Committees beating him to the punch. As Ungar said in an interview here last month, it's frustrating to watch all these disclosures appear daily, especially revelations about COINTELPRO that he was the first to unearth. "I wanted to write something that would last beyond tomorrow's headlines," Ungar said. With this well-organized barrage, unloaded with an analysis that day-to-day journalists can't stop to churn out, he certainly has.