Ivan R. Dee, Publisher
ISBN 1 - 56663 - 420 - 2 [alk. Paper]
There seems to be something inbred in police forces and secret services that makes them vulnerable to the temptations of corruption and power. Yet, police aberrations are as much a question of permissive systems as of the weak character of the law enforcers and their controllers. Too often the only investigators of the forces of law and order are the forces of law and order themselves.
        Athan Theoharis, Professor of History at Marquette University and author of a series of books on the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its decades long top boss, J. Edgar Hoover, is a recognized authority on the FBI. The title of his new book, Catching Spies, rings ironical since the work on one level depicts the FBI’s clamorous failures rather than its successes in the counterespionage business.
        Despite expanded authorizations and financing since the 1930s, throughout the Cold War and into the anti-terrorist war, the exposed failures of the gigantic FBI to fulfill its basic mission are at the least appalling. According to Professor Theoharis, the seldom discussed effectiveness of Soviet espionage is not the most crucial issue. The most serious issue concerning American security, he argues, is the failure of the FBI to apprehend and convict Soviet agents.
        During the final years of World War II in 1944-45, known Communists and Communist sympathizers held sensitive jobs in Washington. On the basis of wiretaps, bugs, break-ins and mail openings, the FBI was well informed. It had to know who Party members were, their plans and strategy, and that the Soviet Union was alerted to some major US military secrets.
        The author quotes a speech by Senator Joseph McCarthy on February 9, 1950 that the State Department was “infested with Communists” and that “card-carrying Communists are shaping our foreign policy.” Such charges and the ensuing red scare and the witch hunt conducted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities [HUAC] hunt in the United States were in reality a continuation of conservative charges since the 1930s that Communists had infected New Deal agencies and influenced Democratic Party policies. As a rule the FBI fed inquisitors with secret information, true or false as it may have been, on which their charges were made.
        The so-called Red Scare created and conducted by the FBI and HUAC sharpened and conditioned American domestic politics for decades. No few future political leaders emerged from those internecine battles: future President Richard Nixon was a lawyer on the side of the FBI-HUAC alliance; J. Edgar Hoover was the undisputed head of counterespionage and internal police forces; and Ronald Reagan made his mark as an informer against Communists in Hollywood. The outcome of the political conflict paved the way for subsequent Republican administrations led by the same protagonists.
        The historical fact that the FBI uncovered an infinitesimal part of Soviet espionage operations in the United States provokes Professor Theoharis to pose the question whether the FBI was a match for the KGB. The author concludes that the two major FBI successes, the breaking of the Soviet consular code and exposing Julius Rosenberg as a Soviet spy, were pure luck. On one hand he offers convincing evidence of KGB superiority, while on the other the FBI emerges as a bunch of bumbling amateurs led by political bureaucrats, caught up in a web of secrecy to prevent scrutiny by other branches of government and the press.
        Catching Spies is not a sensational book. For most of the 250 pages of text plus forty pages of notes and index it is tedious reading of details taken from Professor Theoharis’s intensive research of newly available KGB and FBI files. There is no spy story here. Yet, the message rings like a warning today as American security services are again undergoing reorganization.
        The man who probably knows as much as anyone about the FBI depicts it as a reactionary, anti-liberal, undemocratic, and uncontrolled instrument in the service of conservative political power. Instead of catching spies, it made wiretapping, bugs, break-ins and mail openings standard fare in violation of laws and the Constitution. Yet, such information could not be used for the conviction of spies; instead the FBI used much of this information for personal political purposes—fueling the crusade against communism, supporting Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt, and undermining political adversaries.
        Though FBI boss for decades, J. Edgar Hoover’s indifference to the law is astounding. Hoover, Professor Theoharis shows, was able to order wiretapping of individuals [illegally] as respectable as a White House aide or a prominent Washington attorney whose only “crimes” were opposition to the President. Such lawless lawmen led inevitably to the witch hunts of Reds in which the HUAC and the FBI cooperated, one of the low points of American democracy from 1945 to the end of the Cold War. The alliance of McCarthyism and FBI obsession with the Red Menace found its nadir on the social level in the sordid recruitment of informers on college campuses.
         When at the end of the Cold War many restrictions on secret files were eased, a partial record of Soviet espionage and American counterespionage emerged. The decoding of secret Soviet consular correspondence—the Venona Project—has provided wide insights into Soviet intelligence in the United States and the relationship between Soviet agents and American Communists. KGB successes were impressive. Some Americans spied for Moscow or gleaned valuable information from others. Soviet espionage gathered top secret information about the Manhattan atomic bomb project, about U.S.-British strategies for post-war Europe, and even about Washington’s breaking the Soviet code. The KGB succeeded in recruiting several well-placed spies in the State Department.
        Lists of agents and counteragents, information about recruitment and defectors, and a myriad of names, dates, and details might leave the general reader of Catching Spies bedazzled and unable to determine what is important and what is detail. While only a small part of this secret history is known, two things however emerge clearly: the KGB was much more effective than the FBI; the FBI was not only ineffective but was also caught up in a web of domestic political intrigue which sucked up its vital energies and efforts. Spy catching was secondary to its leadership.
        Professor Theoharis’s summation rings as an alarm to anyone preoccupied with the ethics of American police and intelligence services:
        “The motivations of FBI officials may have been patriotic, based on their own political views of the nation’s security interests. Their decisions to leak information to ideologically supportive members of Congress and journalists nonetheless damaged a democratic system of limited government. They were not disinterested professionals; they exploited secrecy to shroud their insubordination and their efforts to influence the political culture and promote … “the cause.” One by-product of this culture of secrecy was that it prevented a critical examination of the FBI’s failure to apprehend and help convict Soviet spies.”