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Broken: The Troubled Past and Uncertain Future of the FBI – Review

by: Powers, Richard Gid

Publisher: Free Press: Simon & Schuster, Inc

Copyright: 2004

Cover: Eric Fuentecilla

Type: Hardcover

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 1/28/2005

Summary: Expertly defines issues in federal law enforcement.

We reviewed Richard Gid Powers’ SECRECY AND POWER: THE LIFE OF J. EDGAR HOOVER in February 2001. In some ways, BROKEN can be compared to SECRECY AND POWER. The most important comparison is the comfort level one has in reading Powers’ facts and figures. It’s obvious that he did thorough research for BROKEN. But SECRECY AND POWER was about an individual; BROKEN is about an institution. In the former, Powers was able to cut-through the poplar conceptions and mis-conceptions regarding his subject. In BROKEN, the assessment can not be so clear cut. The events leading up to 9/11 permeates this book.

In BROKEN, Powers almost starts at the beginning to examine the whole concept of federal law enforcement. It is his handling of this topic that really draws you into the book though, when he tries, he falls short of addressing the issues he raises. Throughout, he comes back to the distinction between the three cornerstones upon which the coercive power of government are built: policing, investigating, and information gathering or intelligence. Until the start of the twentieth century, the Federal government had few policing powers: U. S. Customs on the borders and the U.S. Marshals in federal territories. Investigative powers resided equally in the individual Federal departments, including the U. S. Justice Department and the Interior Department. Powers takes up the thread that launched the FBI from the 1902 Oregon and California federal lands scandal.

In October 1902, twelve people said that they had “carved out strawberry farms in Township 11-7 on the high slopes of Mount Jefferson.” Under the Forest Reservation Act of 1897 which designated some lands as federal property, the farmers filed claim for compensation in the Eugene District Land Office. It was a swindle. The compensation was by means of “lie lands” scrip, which allowed them to exchange the forest reserves lands for other public lands on an acre for acre basis. Some limber companies and politicians had found a way to make quick money. The Interior Department sent out its special agents to conduct an investigation. Eventually, President Theodore Roosevelt, Attorney General Philander C. Knox, and Interior Secretary Ethan Allan Hitchcock became concerned that Oregon’s senators and congressmen were intervening whenever the names of Interior Department officials popped up in the investigations. It was the Oregon and California federal lands scandal that convinced some of the need for a strong U. S. Department of Justice.

The Judiciary Act of 1789 created the post of attorney general. There was no U. S. Department of Justice until July 1, 1870 when Congress turned the post of attorney general into the legal arm of the government. A year later, “the chair of the House Appropriations Committee asked Attorney General Amos T. Akerman if ‘he could use special appropriations for detective purposes’”. The reason for the request were laws passed in 1870 and 1871 to combat the Ku Klux Klan. Thus began the long road of federal law enforcement expansion. It was far from easy or a slam-dunk. National politicians (congressmen and senators), befitting their roles as democratic representatives, were slow to hand over investigative powers to the national government. Subsequent administrations after Theodore Roosevelt thought there were other reasons as well. The Oregon and California federal lands scandal highlighted what could happen when political corruption went unchecked and bringing the wrong-doers to justice relied upon a flavor-of-the-moment assortment of investigative authorities.

By recounting this history, Powers identifies all the issues that would come up consistently during the twentieth century whenever federal law enforcement came up as a topic in congress. By March 16, 1909 when a “Special Agent Force” was established in Justice (the Bureau of Investigations of the Department of Justice), “the progressive spirit of idealism and reform” pushing for a federal investigative agency was reaching its zenith. Powers details the congressional fight that sought to keep federal investigative authority spread-out among the various departments (chiefly, the Secret Service) and President Roosevelt’s determine effort to achieve the opposite. Roosevelt prevailed because he was speaking with one voice, pursuing one objective. Congress on the other hand was seemingly split between those opposing a stronger federal investigative arm because they themselves did not want to be scrutinized by federal law enforcement and those who were genuinely concerned about potential civil liberties abuse. The author gives the impression, valid or not, that Roosevelt prevailed by focusing on the self-interest aspects of the opposition.

In chapter three, Powers presents the first major controversy of federal law enforcement which raised civil liberties infringement issues as an adjunct to federal law enforcement powers. In 1910, Representative James R. Mann of Chicago introduced the “White Slave Traffic Act”, known as the Mann act. Jack Johnson, the African-American who became world heavyweight boxing champion in 1908, was indicted in Chicago in 1910 under the Mann Act. From Powers relating of events, it is rather obvious that Johnson’s indictment of trafficking in prostitution (transporting Lucille Cameron across state lines to act as a prostitute) was heavily influenced by bigotry, politics and a lynch-mob mentality. Attorney General Wickersham questioned the U. S. Attorney in Chicago, Wilkerson, as to whether the Johnson case rose to the level of a federal case. The question came to late. The news media and the white mobs of Chicago had latched onto the case and there was no turning back. Portents of things to come.

From the very beginning of the Oregon and California land scandals, the men-and they were all men-who investigated and brought corruption charges in the case were crowned by the media as heroes. As Powers writes, “…from the start the Bureau was pushed and pulled away from these [antitrust and political corruption] sensitive and difficult investigations of high-level economic and political crimes in favor of low-level crimes against persons and property, and the Johnson case was a particularly egregious example of this.”

In pursuit of its mandate to investigate all crimes against the United States, the Bureau was in conflict with the Secret Service. The Secret Service, up until the start (and during) World War I was grabbing headlines by catching spies. To get into the spy catching game, the Bureau, under the expert guidance of Hinton D. Clabaugh, special agent in charge of the Bureau’s Chicago office, helped to establish the American Protective League in 1917 (APL). The APL achieved two gains for the Bureau. The badge-carrying members of the APL ,on the look-out for German spies and pro-German sympathizers, placed the Bureau in a solid position as national spy-catcher. The APL also solidified the relationship between the Bureau and the American business community. Powers sums these developments up when he writes, “The Bureau was only ten years old in 1918, but that was enough time for disturbing patterns of behavior to have emerged, patterns that would become only more pronounced and more disturbing in the future.”

As stated before, it is Powers’ expansive rendition of how federal law enforcement emerged from the social and political broadcloth of America at the turn of the twentieth-century that draws you into BROKEN. By the time Powers takes up the FBI of J. Edgar Hoover and the “G-Men” era of super-policemen, you know the fundamental issues because he has taken the time to cover them extensively. As he points out, whenever confronted with a challenge to its perceived jurisdiction, the FBI went into a super-policing mode. It was the determined, coordinated response of the FBI that gradually erased the image of law enforcement as an assortment of “keystone cops” of silent movie fame. (It is an image threatening to return. The latest vignette being the March 11th, twenty-six hours crime spree started by Brian Nichols when he killed Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes in Atlanta and then escaped from the courthouse). The fact that the FBI was and remains the best police agency in the world is both its greatest asset and its greatest weakness. It is when Powers attempts to resolve the incongruity of the superb policing capabilities of the FBI with the investigative skills needed for something like the terrorist plot leading up to 9/11 that he stumbles.

In short, Powers says that the FBI failed to develop the capabilities to track a terrorist plot like 9/11 because they were constrained by the will of the American people. On page 404, Powers writes: “After Hoover’s death we [the American people] forced an anti-intelligence culture on it [the FBI], and then over the years the Bureau, out of necessity, began to absorb the politically correct dogmas that were the intellectual underpinnings of the prohibitions against domestic intelligence gathering.” By “politically correct dogmas”, he means racial and cultural profiling as a basis for investigative and intelligence targeting. It is a fallacious argument and a spurious assessment that on the surface absolves managerial responsibility. For instance, in discussing the FBI’s use of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970 (RICO) to bring down the New York Mafia, Powers correctly states that “For the first time, the Bureau had shifted its focus from investigating individual criminals, prosecuting each as soon as it had enough to make a case, and instead had patiently assembled the evidence needed to understand and dismantle an entire criminal organization.” In other words, the FBI shifted from policing the Mafias to investigating them. Was there anything prior to RICO that prevented the FBI from targeting the Mafia as a criminal organization? Prior to 9/11 and elements of the subsequent investigative tools granted by the Patriot Act, what was there to prevent the FBI from investigating domestic or foreign terrorist organizations? To blandly answer “cultural influence” to both questions is to trivialize what the FBI stands for in our democratic society.

Other than this one instance of straying from common sense and logic by blaming everyone for the shortcomings of the FBI, Powers brings to his examination a perception of the issues based on extensive research. It is highly recommended reading.



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