Documents uncovered from the late FBI director's secret files reveal for the first time the shocking extent of FBI activities in collecting and using derogatory information about prominent Americans and political groups. Historian Athan Theoharis charges that Hoover was an "indirect blackmailer," exploiting the FBI's resources to serve the political interests of the White House and to advance his own political and moral agenda. None of the documents in five separate secret files was intended ever to be disclosed; Mr. Theoharis procured them after intensive research in FBI files using the Freedom of Information Act. The memoranda, letters, telephone transcriptions, and other materials printed here detail a wide range of excesses and include Hoover's providing information about political adversaries to the Johnson and Nixon White Houses; John F. Kennedy's affair with Washington gossip columnist Inga Arvad; FBI monitoring of Supreme Court clerks and staff; the tracking of Adlai Stevenson by the FBI as a homosexual; Hoover's interest in the drinking and sexual habits of congressmen; an anonymous letter attacking Martin Luther King, Jr., composed and sent to Dr. King by the FBI; and much more. Mr. Theoharis describes Hoover's ingenious Do Not File system as well as the FBI's Sex Deviate program and Obscene File.
In the aftermath of 9/11, and in response to complaints about the nation's intelligence gathering (which might have prevented the terrorist attack), the Bush administration granted expanded powers of surveillance to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency. The aim was to enable these agencies to uncover terrorist plots before they could be executed. In short, the agencies were to become more pro-active in preventing criminal actions, rather than simply investigating them after the fact. This expanded authority necessarily rekindled a perennial debate in American history: the proper balance between national security and civil liberties, between the government's need to know and its citizens' right to basic freedoms of privacy and thought. In this provocative essay, the foremost historian of the FBI considers the record of the past to assess the results of the broadened powers of the present. Surveying the experience of World War II and the cold war, and comparing them with present-day activities, Athan Theoharis concludes that Americans may feel marginally safer, but at a dangerous cost to their freedoms and to the tenor of our political dialogue.