TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Many secrets about the history and practices of the FBI are no longer secret. More than 70,000 pages of documents have recently been declassified, and they are the foundation of the new book "Enemies: A History of the FBI." My guest is the author, Tim Weiner.
He describes the book as a record of illegal arrests and detentions, break-ins, burglaries, wiretapping and bugging on behalf of presidents. He doesn't focus on the FBI's war on gangsters; he's interested in how the FBI has handled the war against terrorists, spies, anarchists and assassins; and how FBI directors, presidents and attorneys general have used and abused their powers in the name of national security.
Weiner won a National Book Award for his 2007 book "Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA." He covered the CIA for the New York Times and won a 1988 Pulitzer Prize for his Philadelphia Inquirer series about the Pentagon's black budget for secret projects.
Tim Weiner, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You had access to zillions of documents. Give us a sense of the newly released documents that you had access to for your new book.
TIM WEINER: Well, the first set came to my hands four years ago, just after my last book, "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA" came out. I got a call from a lawyer in Washington who said: I've just gotten my hands on the fruits of a Freedom of Information Act request that's 26 years old, for J. Edgar Hoover's intelligence files. Would you like them? And after a stunned silence, I said yes, yes, and went over to his office and got a hand truck with four bankers' boxes of J. Edgar Hoover's intelligence files.
GROSS: Wait a minute. Are these the files that he had told his secretary, his very longtime secretary, never to let anybody ever, ever see?
WEINER: These are not the official and confidential files. His secretary, Helen Gandy, only got through burning A through C of those folders, and some were preserved. No, these are the files - the running file that he kept on intelligence operations, starting in 1945 and ending with his death in 1972.
Reading them is like looking over his shoulder and listening to him talk out loud about the threats America faced, how the FBI was going to confront them, and his fury.
GROSS: What are one or two of the most revelatory documents that you read?
WEINER: Hoover had a terrible premonition after World War II, that the United States was going to be attacked, that New York or Washington was going to be attacked by suicidal, kamikaze airplanes, by dirty bombs of cobalt-60 or another radioactive material. And he never lost this fear. It stayed with him for 25 years, 'til his death.
It was a premonition, if you will, of the 9/11 attacks. He never forgot Pearl Harbor.
GROSS: And how do you think that influenced the kind of covert operations that he ran?
WEINER: Hoover is the inventor of the modern American national security state. Every fingerprint file, every DNA record, every iris recorded through biometrics, every government dossier on every citizen and every alien in this country owes its life to him. And we live in his shadow, though he's been gone for 40 years.
As they always told the FBI agents at the academy when they were training, an institution is the length and shadow of a man.
GROSS: When Hoover started working in intelligence in the early 1900s, it was a period where there were bombings that were attributed to anarchists, and Hoover really thought that the government was under attack, that the American people were under attack by anarchists.
And early - you say early in his intelligence career, he learned the mechanics of mass arrest and detention. What were his earliest plans for mass arrest and detention - what were the reasons behind it?
WEINER: The Communist Party of the United States was created in Chicago, Labor Day, 1919. Hoover had five agents from the Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department there in Chicago, infiltrating the newly born Communist Party. From the day forward, he planned a nationwide dragnet of mass arrests to round up subversives, round up communists, round up Russian aliens as if he were quarantining carriers of typhoid.
On New Year's Day 1920 - remember Hoover is 25 years old on that day. He sent out the arrest orders from his position, which was the head of the Radical Division of the Justice Department. And over the next few days, at least 6,000 - probably more like 10,000 - people were arrested across the country and detained.
When the dust cleared, maybe one in 10 was found guilty of a deportable offense, which included advocating anarchy, advocating the overthrow of the government. These were thought crimes. And Hoover denied, at the time and for the next 50 years until his death, that he had been the intellectual author of the Red Raids.
He came under attack, as did the attorney general, Mitchell Palmer, who himself had been the target of an assassin's bomb that narrowly missed killing him - and for that matter, the Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was coming down the street to his home in Washington that day.
It left a lifelong imprint on Hoover. If he was going to attack the enemies of the United States, better that it be done in secret and not under law.
GROSS: Why in secret and not under law?
WEINER: Because to convict people in court, you have to make public your evidence. When you're doing secret intelligence operations, you just have to sabotage and subvert them and steal their secrets. You don't have to produce evidence capable of discovery by the other side. That could embarrass you or get the case thrown out, because you had gone outside the law to enforce the law.
GROSS: Now there were times it was secret but not secret from the president. What did FDR know about his secret plans, about Hoover's secret plans for mass detention?
WEINER: Well, in 1936, the president called Hoover in, and he said he wanted a sweeping view of fascism and communism in this country. There were a lot of fascists in this country in 1936 who thought Hitler was going to win. There were also a lot of communists who believed that Stalin had shown the way to the future, tens of thousands of people in each camp, probably more in the fascist camp.
Hoover redirected the president's attention to the Red Threat. He said the communists are burrowing into the coal industry, they can ruin the distribution of energy in this country, they are burrowing into the shipyards, they can stop the free flow of goods in and out of this country, they are burrowing into the newspaper guild, they can control information that's distributed in this country, and I aim to stop them.
There's only one record of this conversation, and it's Hoover's. FDR didn't put things on paper when they involved secret intelligence. Hoover explained to President Roosevelt that he had the power to do this under an extremely obscure, 20-year-old provision of the Justice Department's budget bill that gave the FBI the power to investigate secret intelligence if it involved the foreign powers of the United States and if the secretary of state so authorized.
The president called in the secretary of state. Hoover explained the situation. We can't say exactly on the radio what the secretary said, but he said, in effect, go ahead and investigate the sons of bitches. Hoover did.
GROSS: At its peak, how large was Hoover's security index?
WEINER: Well, it ran, at its peak, to 20-plus-thousand people.
GROSS: And on that list, how many would you guess were actually communists? Because that was his goal, to root out the communists, yeah.
WEINER: Most of them were card carriers or had committed thought crimes advocating the alteration or abolition of the American government.
GROSS: And at any point were, like, anti-war protestors in the Vietnam era added to that list? Were they on that list?
WEINER: Yeah, later on. Hoover saw the civil rights movement from the 1950s onward and the anti-war movement from the '60s onward, as presenting the greatest threats to the stability of the American government since the Civil War. These people were enemies of the state, and in particular, Martin Luther King was an enemy of the state. And Hoover aimed to watch over them. And if they twitched in the wrong direction, the hammer would come down.
GROSS: Yeah, you make it seem like one of the main reasons why Hoover was so intent on bugging King - I mean planting bugs in his hotel rooms and bedrooms - that one of the major reasons he was interested in doing that is he thought that the communists were using the civil rights movement, and the civil rights movement was the pawn of the communists, and therefore the civil rights movement had to be carefully monitored. What made him think that?
WEINER: The fact - and it is a fact, although it's an uncomfortable fact - that Martin Luther King's most prominent white advisor, ghostwriter of books, writer of speeches, legal counselor, confidante, was a man named Stanley Levison, who had been, at least up until the time he joined ranks with Martin Luther King in 1957, a secret member of the communist underground in the United States.
GROSS: Did President Kennedy or Attorney General Robert Kennedy sign off on any of the bugging that Hoover did on King?
WEINER: Absolutely. Bobby Kennedy authorized it in writing, although he denied it all his life. Hoover had come to President Kennedy and to Bobby Kennedy and said look, this man Levinson, King's adviser, is a communist. He's a secret communist, he's an underground communist, and he's using Martin Luther King as a cat's paw. Well, when you put it that way, there wasn't gainsaying Edgar Hoover, not if you were John Kennedy, and not if you were Bobby Kennedy, the attorney general, his putative boss. And so they said yes.
You know, what was the alternative, fire J. Edgar Hoover? I don't think the president could have made that stick.
GROSS: What are some of the other new things you learned about Hoover's attempts to destroy Martin Luther King?
WEINER: That he had a reason, beyond racism, that he wasn't a monster. What he did was understandable in the context of the times.
GROSS: In the context of what he believed.
WEINER: That's right. And when it came down to bugging bedrooms, well, you know, you had to be careful not to get caught, but there wasn't anything to stop him. He decided, up to a point - which came later, in the 1960s - where the boundaries of the law were when it came to black-bag jobs, break-ins, bugging, surveillance, the constitutionally questionable gathering of secret intelligence on America's enemies real and imagined.
GROSS: Hoover's FBI intelligence chief, Bill Sullivan, was running his own program against Martin Luther King. He had a package of the King sex tapes, and he had - he sent copies of those tapes to Martin Luther King with a letter. Who was the letter supposed to be from?
WEINER: It was a poison pen letter. It was a hate letter. It wasn't from anyone in particular. But Martin Luther King and his wife would certainly know the source of the tapes, that it had to be the FBI. And the poison pen letter, which was written on a sterile typewriter, read: King, look into your heart. It said the American people would know you for what you are, an evil, abnormal beast. There is only one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.
GROSS: Do you have any idea what impact that package had on King?
WEINER: He tried to ignore it. He must have known that the FBI was spreading versions of transcripts of this around Washington. They were trying to get King knocked off from his perch as the Nobel Peace Prize recipient. And they sent it to colleges to keep him off campus. They sent it around Washington. They were trying to defame him. King stood firm, although at what cost we don't know, what psychological cost.
It certainly must have had an impact on Coretta King. She opened the package.
GROSS: One of the things that was very interesting to me was reading about the kind of secret relationship that FDR had with Hoover. And there's a point where, like, Hoover proposes to FDR that he basically take over everything, take over...
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GROSS: You know, list the things he wanted to take over.
WEINER: The world, the world of American intelligence. Let's go back to Pearl Harbor, OK. American intelligence was fragmented. It really didn't exist at the time. The Army knew some things, but it didn't tell the Navy. The Navy knew some things, but it didn't tell the Army. The FBI knew some things, but it didn't tell the Army or the Navy.
And the terrible thing is that FDR wanted it that way. He didn't want a Gestapo. He didn't want a secret police. He did want secret intelligence very much. He was a connoisseur of secret intelligence. But when the United States got into World War II, there was no American intelligence service.
And Hoover proposed that he become the American intelligence czar, that the FBI take over all foreign intelligence, all domestic intelligence, that it create what he called, you know, a worldwide intelligence system and that he would run it. FDR didn't want that. Neither did Harry Truman.
Truman told Hoover and his White House representatives, to their faces, that he wanted no Gestapo. He didn't want a KGB in the United States. And he was afraid that that was what Hoover was setting up.
GROSS: But Hoover told Truman that FDR had given him a lot of secret powers...
GROSS: ...without telling Truman about the limits that FDR put on those secret powers. What were the powers that FDR had given Hoover that Hoover wanted to continue with Truman?
WEINER: Hoover did not want any limits on him. He wanted no charter. He wanted no rules imposed by outsiders. He wanted the FBI to, as the secretary of state had said under Roosevelt, investigate the so-and-so's. And he believed that the Soviet Union was trying to steal America's atomic secrets, to burrow into the State Department, the Pentagon, the FBI and the White House, and he was right. And Harry Truman didn't like that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Tim Weiner, and after writing an award-winning book about the CIA, he's written a book about the history of the FBI, it's called "Enemies." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more about the history of the FBI. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Tim Weiner, and his new book is called "Enemies: A History of the FBI." His previous book was a history of the CIA. You know a lot of secrets.
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GROSS: So FDR gave Hoover secret orders and secret powers, which helped Hoover revive illegal wiretapping. What are some of those secret powers that FDR gave to Hoover, and what did FDR intend that they be used for?
WEINER: FDR knew that at some point, the United States was going to have to get into World War II. Hitler was rising. The Japanese had been rising. The United States was not prepared for war. FDR wanted intelligence on his enemies, and he leaned on Hoover to get it.
For example, there was a very brilliant scheme of the Third Reich to defeat Roosevelt in 1940 and to get an anti-interventionist elected from the right wing of the Republican Party who didn't want to go to war against Hitler. And they had an elaborate money-laundering scheme in this country to recruit agents, to get money into their hands and to finance the far right.
GROSS: So FDR really wanted Hoover to use wire-tapping to root out Hitler sympathizers in the United States who might actually work to attack the United States. Is that the kind of thing he was looking for?
WEINER: That's how it started in the '30s and the '40s, before the war began.
GROSS: But once Hoover had these powers, he used them in ways that I would imagine FDR would not have approved of. You talk about how he started bugging people affiliated with the Supreme Court, people in government, people who he perceived as his personal enemies.
WEINER: I think that one of the things that the FBI secret files do is to call for a revaluation of FDR as a liberal Democrat. He was a juggler. He was perfectly capable of saying one thing to the right and one thing to the left and not letting them know what his left hand was doing when his right hand was shaking their hands.
And he was perfectly willing to lie and cheat if it would help win the war. And he thought Hoover was marvelous. He reveled in secret intelligence on his friends and his enemies. He did not like it when, you know, secret information came out about his allies in government. Hoover took down FDR's favorite assistant secretary of state for Latin America when Hoover busted him for being a homosexual.
GROSS: So did Hoover kind of make a lifelong practice of using his wiretapping to spy on people he perceived as his enemies in government?
WEINER: Well, that's correct, but he also was very well-attuned to what presidents wanted to hear. President Eisenhower wanted to hear about the communist threat. President Johnson wanted to know about the Ku Klux Klan, and despite his lifelong predilection for opposing integration, Hoover did as the president ordered. He was very sensitive to the needs of presidents.
GROSS: Hoover actually opposed integration?
WEINER: Well, he said that the problem in the South in the '60s was not the segregationists but, as he put it, the integrationists.
GROSS: Tim Weiner will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Enemies: A History of the FBI." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Tim Weiner, the author of the new book, "Enemies: A History of the FBI." It's based on 70,000 recently declassified documents, many of which revealed illegal arrests, detentions and wiretapping of American citizens. Weiner's previous book, which was "The History of the CIA," won a National Book Award. He covered the Pentagon for The New York Times.
So we've talked a little bit about, you know, the enemies list that Hoover maintained for decades. He also had a list of homosexuals. And the list grew to, I think you said, like 300,000?
WEINER: No, the files grew to 300,000 pages. They've all been destroyed now.
GROSS: Wow. I was hearing files. Right yeah. yeah. OK. Those were all destroyed?
WEINER: Yes. Hoover's war on gays in the government dates back to at least 1937, and it lasted all his life.
GROSS: Why was he - to the extent that you can tell - why was he so intent on destroying homosexuals and making sure that they couldn't teach, they couldn't serve in government?
WEINER: He conflated - and he was not alone - communism with homosexuality. Both communists and homosexuals had secret, coded language that they spoke to each other in. They had clandestine lives. They met in clandestine places. They had secrets. And in, you know, certain cases, such as the British spy ring that penetrated the Pentagon and the CIA in the '40s and early '50s, they were both communists and homosexuals.
Hoover didn't see a dime's worth of difference there. They were one and the same. This was hammered into him when the FBI dealt with one of the most famous informants in the history of American government, Whittaker Chambers, who helped bring down secret Soviet espionage rings in this country. He was a well-known writer at Time magazine - writer and editor. Chambers was a secret homosexual and a secret communist. Hoover saw a nexus there, and he never let that thought go.
GROSS: And President Eisenhower issued an order in 1953 banning homosexuals from government service. Who took the initiative on that? Was it Hoover or Eisenhower?
WEINER: Oh, it was certainly Hoover who brought this threat, as it were, to the president's attention. I mean, Dwight Eisenhower was in the military all his life. He could not have been unaware that, you know, there was a tradition of homosexuality in the military. But he also thought that it was an enormous security threat, and he authorized, through executive order, a formal ban on homosexuals in government service. Now, of course, the $64,000 question was: Did Hoover do this because he was a repressed homosexual closet case, and he was using his rage to destroy homosexuals?
GROSS: Thank you for asking that because I was about to...
WEINER: And the answer is...
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GROSS: I was about to ask that. And it's certainly the case that the movie "J. Edgar" kind of makes.
WEINER: This is a myth. It's been around since 1937, since Hoover went after homosexuals and government. It was - gasoline was poured on the embers of this by Bill Donovan, Hoover's mortal enemy in government. It's been around forever. Now, what do we know that this? Hoover never married. He never had an adult relationship with a woman, other than his mother, whom he lived with until he was 43, the day she died. Hoover was also inseparable from his number two man at the FBI, Clyde Tolson.
Now, the evidence - if you can call it that - that Hoover was a secret homosexual rests almost entirely with an account by a British journalist who's only witness is a convicted perjurer. The evidence on the other side is strong. Hoover never loved anyone, except his dogs. He was married to the FBI. And the idea that he was a secret homosexual who, you know, wore tutus for fun is a myth. Unfortunately, that's the only thing anybody seems to know about him today.
GROSS: Putting the tutus aside for a second...
GROSS: ...why isn't it possible that he was a really closeted homosexual who couldn't admit it to himself and therefore couldn't have a homosexual relationship, but was inseparable from Clyde Tolson in what you describe may have very well have been a sexless marriage?
WEINER: Well, that's one of his biographer's definitions. That may be close to the truth, but - and they did, you know, go on the road together and it's possible that, you know, somewhere in a hotel in San Diego there's evidence of this, but I doubt it. If you look at the man and you listen to people who knew him and worked with him, it's almost inconceivable for this man to have had a secret life. His entire life was devoted to the uncovering and collection of secrets on other people, including their sex lives. Could he have carried off a double life like that? When you read his work, when you listen to his tapes, when you investigate the great investigator, there's no there there.
GROSS: But no, a part of it would be not so much that he had a double life, but that he did allow himself to have a personal life because he couldn't accept his own homosexual orientation. That would be one of the arguments.
WEINER: Interesting theory. Interesting theory, but I will leave it to Hollywood, because it has no place in history. None.
GROSS: My guest is Tim Weiner, author of the new book "Enemies: A History of the FBI." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Tim Weiner, author of the new book "Enemies: A History of the FBI." His book is about the FBI's secret operations, targeting alleged communists, anarchists, civil rights leaders, leftists and homosexuals.
So one of the things I found interesting in the book is Senator Joe McCarthy, who, you know, led a lot of the witch hunts in the '50s against communists. And McCarthy was the head of a Senate investigative committee that went after people he thought were communists.
WEINER: That's right.
GROSS: At some point, Hoover tries to stop him. I mean, Hoover, who is like Mr. Anti-Communist, thinks McCarthy's going too far. Like, what was that point, and how did Hoover try to stop him?
WEINER: Hoover had a very effectively liaison program with Congress and with McCarthy. And where he cut McCarthy off, which is the point at which McCarthy fell, was when he believed - correctly - that McCarthy was doing more damage to the anti-communists cause than he was to the communists.
McCarthy was a drunk. He was, he never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Where he relied on FBI files to steady his hand, he was often accurate. Where he did not, he missed. And there comes a point in 1953 where he starts going after the CIA and the Army, which led to the famous Army-McCarthy hearings, the great broadcast event of its day, in fact, the first television news event carried live in the 1950s. And Eisenhower - President Eisenhower and Hoover agreed that McCarthy must be stopped, and he was.
GROSS: Hoover had been supplying McCarthy with secret...
WEINER: Early on.
GROSS: ...with secret documents from the FBI.
So did Hoover cut him from those documents?
WEINER: Yup. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And that made it hard for McCarthy to present anything resembling evidence?
WEINER: Well, you know, you can do this two ways. You can do it with a scalpel or a blunderbuss. And when McCarthy swung and missed, he fell. And Hoover wanted to see him go. He was happy to see him go.
GROSS: So let's look at President Nixon and Hoover. Tell us one of the things that you think is most interesting that you learned about their secret relationship.
WEINER: It was deep. It was built on mutual respect and dependency. And then it broke down. And it breaks down during the last year and a half or so of Hoover's life, around the time that Nixon turns on the White House tapes and starts bugging himself. Nixon wants his enemies destroyed - all of them. Hoover is no longer willing to do his dirty work for him - his black bag jobs, his breaking and entering, his bugging. Nixon becomes increasingly frustrated with this, and he sets up his own bucket shop: the Plumbers. Six weeks after Hoover dies, they get caught breaking into the Watergate.
GROSS: How much secret bugging had Nixon ordered Hoover to do?
WEINER: A tremendous amount, some of which is still coming to light. Nixon gets into office, Hoover tells him when he still president-elect, look, Johnson recorded everybody on Dictabelts, and you better be careful what you say in the White House because it's bugged two ways: The phones are bugged and the rooms can be bugged by the military, by the White House Communications Agency. Those are the people that carry around the football, you know, the nuclear codes. The president can never be out of contact with the center of government, so they keep them connected. This is way before cell phones or sat phones or anything like that. They have the state-of-the-art communications.
And Nixon goes, really? Interesting. Hoover, when Nixon takes office early on, says, look, there are all these communists running around Washington, and some of them are in the press. They're foreign correspondents. We think this one British correspondent is a Soviet or a Czech agent. Really, says Nixon. That's fascinating. What are you going to do about it? And Hoover says, well, we can wiretap the bejesus out of them, Mr. President. And Nixon goes, well, that's catnip. That's great. Nixon goes, do it, you know, get 'em. And Hoover starts out - this is very, you know, for months, five months into the Nixon presidency - bugging both White House officials on the National Security Council and the press to stop the leaks.
GROSS: And Kissinger's obsessed with leaks, too, and he also has Hoover bugging people.
WEINER: These wiretaps were authorized and controlled by Henry Kissinger in his capacity as head of the National Security Council. They wiretapped his aides. They wiretapped the press, and as Nixon later said Henry groveled in it. He reveled in it. He wallowed in it. Because this is - you know, how can you resist?
WEINER: Unfortunately, the taps never caught anybody leaking.
GROSS: It surprised me that at some point Hoover thinks Nixon's going too far, and Hoover tries to put the brakes on Nixon.
WEINER: That's right. And this leads to tension.
GROSS: What was it that Nixon wanted that Hoover thought was going too far?
WEINER: It's the Pentagon papers. The Pentagon papers, as your listeners of a certain age will remember, was the secret history of the Vietnam War that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara commissioned in the Johnson years. It ran to 17 volumes, and it essentially said that, you know, we kept pushing on into the big muddy, even though we weren't going to win the war. It was a political war, not a military battle.
These papers walk out of the Pentagon, out of probably the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington. Nixon knows within days that it's a former Pentagon officer named Daniel Ellsberg who's done it, and by God, he wants Ellsberg destroyed and tried, and he wants the evidence. You know, he wants to break into the Brookings Institution, firebomb it, send a fake, you know, fire team in there and blow the safe, as he said.
Hoover doesn't want to do this for a lot of reasons, one of which they're going to get caught. Second is that Ellsberg's father-in-law is a friend of his who gives a lot of toys to the FBI. His name happens to be Marx, M-A-R-X - not Groucho, not Karl, but Louis Marx. And Hoover won't do it. Nixon goes ballistic, and that's when the Plumbers are created to do the work that J. Edgar Hoover wouldn't do.
GROSS: So you point out that there are three times when the FBI found evidence that could've been impeachable evidence for - against a president. There was Watergate against Nixon, Iran-Contra against Reagan, and, you know, Monica Lewinsky, if you want to see that as an impeachable offense.
WEINER: Well, Congress did.
GROSS: OK. Yes - for President Clinton. When you stand back and see those three things as a kind of pattern, what does that say to you?
WEINER: That the rule of law will eventually out. That it's impossible to keep secrets in the American political system, and, you know, presidents can lie up to a point, but they will get caught. And you think they would've learned this during Watergate, that you can't run around breaking the laws or lying to grand juries or obstructing justice and get away with it, because the Bureau is an incredible investigative power, and there is nothing they can't do with a warrant.
There's no place they can't investigate, up to and including the chambers, wastebaskets, deleted computer files of the White House and the president himself. The evidence that led to Bill Clinton's impeachment was taken by two FBI agents and the White House physician in the White House from President Clinton's arm. It was a blood sample. There is no limit to what the FBI can do.
GROSS: I've been focusing on the Hoover era of the FBI, but your book goes past that. And just a couple of questions, one or two questions about the George W. Bush era. You talk about some of the boundaries that were crossed in terms of getting intelligence. What do you see as the biggest transgression of the law in how the Bush administration tried to work with the FBI to gather intelligence on Americans?
WEINER: There is an incredibly dramatic moment in 2004 where the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller - Robert S. Mueller III, or Bobby "Three Sticks," as his agents call him - who took office, let's remember, a week before 9/11, confronts the president of the United States in the Oval Office over the White House's secret eavesdropping program that has transgressed its boundaries and overstepped the law and the Constitution.
Through its data mining tactics, through its eavesdropping technologies, they've gone beyond what even the secret court that oversees eavesdropping will authorize. They're going to get in trouble - deep, deep trouble. And Mueller tells the president, in the Oval Office, face to face, with a handwritten letter of resignation in his breast pocket that either the program is curtailed and brought within the law or he, the head of the FBI, will resign, as will the entire command structure of the Justice Department, from the attorney general down.
And President Bush says, according to his memoirs: What are you talking about? What program? What problems? What legal issues? And Mueller looks at him with a very steely gaze and says: I think you know what we're talking about, Mr. President. And at that point, it's a crime to lie to the FBI. It's punishable by five years in prison. And that's where we were.
We were - the president had chalks on his spikes at that moment. He was at the line, and about to cross it. And he says, Bush says in his memoir: Visions of the Saturday night massacre during Watergate dance in his head when, you know, two attorneys general and the command structure of the FBI resigned rather than cover up for the president.
Mueller wins. Bush eventually backs down, and that is a triumph of the rule of law. And that's what the FBI does and should stand for. The great dilemma for Mueller and for the American people is: How do you do secret intelligence operations within the rule of law? Secret intelligence operations require stealing other people's secrets, breaking into their houses, tapping their telephones, reading their email.
How do you do that within the rule of law? We've got a secret court set up in this country called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that meets in secret at the top of the Justice Department's roof. And they were set up to authorize this kind of thing after Watergate. You either work with the rule of law - if you don't, and if you're protecting American national security in the country and you lose your freedoms in the process, you fight the war on terror and you lose your freedoms, you've lost.
GROSS: So after writing this history of the FBI, have you asked for your FBI dossier through the Freedom of Information Act?
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WEINER: I'm not willing to wait 26 years to get it, unlike the Hoover files that were given to me. But I think it'll be short. You know, I think it will largely touch on the issues that came up while I was covering the CIA. I know there are some leak investigations in there. But, you know, I've...
GROSS: To see who leaked to you when you were a reporter for the New York Times.
WEINER: That's right. That's right. But, you know, I've never had a legal problem with anything I've written. You know, this is a great country. Despite everything, we still have freedom of information. We still have freedom of the press. And it's very hard to keep a secret in this country, particularly if it deals with transgressions of the law. The truth will out, and this is one reason why people in government rarely use emails anymore...
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WEINER: ...so that there won't be another set of Nixon tapes, you know, on the Bush presidency or the Obama presidency.
GROSS: My guest is Tim Weiner, author of the new book "Enemies: A History of the FBI." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Tim Weiner. His new book "Enemies: A History of the FBI" is about secret operations targeting alleged anarchists, communists, homosexuals, civil rights leaders, leftists and terrorists. The book is based on about 70,000 declassified documents. His research materials also included recordings of J. Edgar Hoover's phone conversations with presidents.
Let's hear a tape of President Johnson with Hoover. And this is after three civil rights workers from the North - Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman - went to the South to work in the civil rights Movement. They were missing, and President Johnson wanted Hoover to use his agents to try to find out what happened and why it happened.
And Hoover's agents found the bodies, and Johnson calls Hoover to thank him for that. Let's hear that tape.
(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDED TELEPHONE CALL)
PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON: Edgar, I wanted to call you last night, but I didn't get to it, and I'm up to Syracuse today. I wanted to congratulate you on a job well done.
J. EDGAR HOOVER: Well, that's awful nice of you, indeed.
JOHNSON: I'm not a bit surprised and I knew you'd do it. And I didn't know how long it'd take, but I knew you'd hang - you'd - you'd bring in results. But I didn't want this opportunity to go by without telling you again how proud I am, again, how glad I am that Uncle Sam's got you working for us. And if you just think that you're going to get off the payroll because you're getting a little older, you're crazy as hell. I don't retire the FBI.
HOOVER: Well, that's very nice of you, Mr. President. I just finished up my physical and passed it 100 percent.
JOHNSON: Well, God bless you. Well, you just - you just take it easy, because this thing is clicking mighty well. Old Dick's on the job, but I wanted you to know personally how - how proud I was of you.
HOOVER: Well, that's very nice of you. You might be interested: The physical examination showed each of these men had been shot.
HOOVER: The two white men had been shot once each, and the colored fellow was shot three times.
HOOVER: And we have the names of the people who did it. Now, to prove it is going to be a little tougher job. The sheriff was in on it. The deputy sheriff was in on it. The justice of the peace was in on it.
HOOVER: And there were seven other men. We have all those names, and as I say, we are concentrating now on developing the evidence. We're going to call a grand jury in possibly the next two weeks concerning the burning of the church and bring before the grand jury these particular 10 men, hoping that one of them may then break. But I think we're going to be able to clean that one up.
The one in Georgia is making very good progress. I've been in touch with the boys down there. I think we're going to have that one cleared up. We know who was - who participated in that, also. It's the Klan in both places.
JOHNSON: Hmm. Hmm.
HOOVER: But I think we'll be able to make a favorable report on breaking those cases within the next month, possibly.
JOHNSON: Well, mighty proud of you. You take it easy, now, and just stay out there till you get damn tired of it, and then come and see me when you get back and I'll buy you lunch.
HOOVER: Oh, that's awful nice of you, Mr. President.
JOHNSON: Thank you, Ed. Thank you.
HOOVER: Thanks and good-bye.
GROSS: That's a recording of President Johnson and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. My guest is Tim Weiner. His new book is called "Enemies: A History of the FBI." Tim, what do you find most interesting about the tape that we just heard?
WEINER: You can hear what a master J. Edgar Hoover is at stroking presidents, at flattering, cajoling, telling them what they want to hear, telling them what they need to know. The president of the United States, LBJ, had put Hoover in a very difficult position because he had ordered Hoover into the civil rights movement on the side of integration, a side with which Hoover was philosophically at war.
And he had told J. Edgar Hoover, and this is a quote from a tape right around that time: "I want you to have the same kind of intelligence that you have on the communists." And Hoover said, yes, sir. Hoover obeyed, and the FBI pursued the Klan, penetrated their ranks, subvert them, and broke them like dry twigs.
GROSS: Tim Weiner, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
WEINER: Terry, it's always a pleasure.
GROSS: Tim Weiner is the author of "Enemies: A History of the FBI." You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org, and you can find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair.
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