Feature Articles

May 29, 2000

Interview with Athan G. Theoharis

By John William Tuohy

John William Tuohy is a writer who lives in Washingon, D.C.

     Dr. Athan Theoharis, a Professor of History at Marquette University, and an expert in the history of the FBI, has edited a new book for Checkmark Books, a new imprint of Facts on File, called The FBI: A Comprehensive Reference Guide, are available through this site on AMAZON.COM
     With publication of The FBI: a Comprehensive Reference Guide, Checkmark has, essentially, gathered the smartest kids on the block, Tony Poveda a professor at the University of New York, Susan Rosenfeld of Cornell and Georgetown and Richard Powers of the City University of New York, and had them produce a lively, interesting and very readable history of the Bureau. A refreshing feat, considering the dry dribble churned out by most academians.
     The book is an essential for the serious mob researcher and just plain fun to read.
     Professor Theoharis's book on J. Edgar Hoover, The Boss, set the standard for well-researched accuracy and clarity in FBI genre. His other works include Beyond the Hiss Case: The FBI, Congress, and the Cold War and Spying on Americans; From Hoover to the Huston plan.

JWT: Would the cult of secrecy have been built inside the bureau without Hoover?

Theoharis: I think not. I mean, in one sense, I think one could safely say, it would not have. The problem in federal agencies is that they are theoretically accountable to congressional over site, for their budget and review of their activities as well as whether legislation should be enacted expanding their authority. So its a restraint.
As agencies become increasingly important in the lives of Americans, they are also subject to media scrutiny, theoretically. If these agencies are going to be successful, they have to have a good image which requires that they give out information to the media, but the FBI was pretty successful under Hoover in circumventing both congressional and media over site.
It made the argument that the disclosure of any FBI record, dating from the creation of the bureau in 1908 could adversely effect the FBI's mission and aid and abet criminal behavior.
Hoover also recognized that secrecy is power, and that if you can control information, you can selectively release information and have control over the types of stories that are reported.
In one sense, Hoover ability to limit access would shape the image of the bureau itself. Further, what we now know, and we didn't know when Hoover was director authorized clearly illegal activities. Here's a law enforcement agency knowingly violating the law.
To raise questions about clearly illegal activities could have raised questions about Hoover's role in the directorship so it became important that this not become known.
The FBI also had a legitimate law enforcement interest in secrecy, when you recruit informants your success id dependent upon your ability to recruit later informants, you can't disclose the names of informants, so there was an interest from that angle as well.
So there was a combination of bureaucratic, political and PR factors which contributed to what I have described as a culture of secrecy that shaped bureau policy under Hoover and Hoover was very good at the politics of secrecy.
As an example, when Hoover discovered, in the 1960s, that FBI documents were available to the national archives with the records of other federal agencies like FBI reports to the department of state, these are records from the 1920s, he was able to successfully pressure archives to withdraw all of those FBI documents from circulation even though some of them had been assessable for twenty years under the argument that disclosure would adversely effect the Bureau's interests.
He was able to pretty much assure that the activities of the bureau were pretty exempt from external scrutiny.

JWT: Does the cult of secrecy live on, today, in the bureau?

Theoharis: The FBI is still really hesitant to release its records. Some of the more recent cases which have been embarrassing to the bureau, Waco, Ruby Ridge, have been embarrassing, because the FBI seems to be in a cover-up because they withhold relevant records and then there's a need to correct original positions.
So there still seems to be this cultural of secrecy that shapes bureau policy today, although it is far more open and accessible then it was under Hoover's tenure.
The culture remains, yes, anyone who is researching the FBI records will endorse this position because of the frustration they've encountered in obtaining access to records that are decades old and with holding information that is public knowledge.

JWT: Have you ever, in all your research, been able to locate anyone who would confirm, on or off the record that Hoover was gay, or a cross dresser?

Theoharis: Well, the answer is no. When I was writing my biography of Hoover, persons whom I didn't contact, but who somehow found out that I was writing Hoover's story, volunteered information about Hoover's homosexuality. What I found, in every case, was that these were always unsupported allegations. People said they had records, but when you pressed them, they said that they didn't actually have the records

JWT: Hoover's secret files. Separate from the files collected under Brownell, Did they exist or is this the stuff of more legend?

Theoharis: Hoover maintained, in his office, two sets of files, an official file, and an official and confidential file. These were secret files, both of the sets, in the sense that they were maintained in his office and were not known, and were separate from the FBI official records.
They were also secret in the sense that they were not serialized or indexed within the official FBI records system and that their contents contained pretty sensitive information that the FBI had picked up over time.
As an example, we know about the FBI file for break in's, because Hoover had a separate file explaining that procedure.
This file also contained very sensitive information about FBI wire tapping, FBI investigations about prominent personalities including Presidents and members of Congress, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
These are pretty sensitive records and they offer insights into Hoover's politics and priorities, and for that reason they were maintained under close control. Regrettably following his death, Hoover's assistant Helen Gandy, destroyed Hoover personal and confidential file. The official and confidential file wasn't destroyed.

JWT: Lets discuss the FBI's internal policy on bugging. What was Brownell's directive of May 1954?

Theoharis: Until May of 1954 the FBI had installed bugs without prior knowledge or authorization of the attorney general.
Hoover had briefed Attorney General J. Howard McGrath in 1951 about FBI bugging practices. McGrath had responded that he had no problems with bugs installed without trespass, but he could not approve of bugs installed by means of trespass, for legal reasons. While he did not prohibit them, however, his memo establishes a record that the Attorney General concluded that they were illegal, and this really changed only in May of 1954, when the next administration of Dwight Eisenhower and his Attorney General (Brownell) issued this broadly worded directive authorizing the FBI to install bugs during a national security investigation.
Brownell did not explicitly require his advance approval and the general discussion leading to the issuance of the Brownell directive related to this, for the use of intelligence reasons and national security case.

JWT: For years, the FBI, under Hoover's reign, has been accused of turning a blind eye to organized crime. the Bureau's detractors say that Hoover avoided the mob for fear that his agents would be corrupted. On face value it doesn't seem to make much sense, certainly the Russian or Chinese had much more corruption money then the mob. Your opinion?

Theoharis: Well, the FBI did not really begin to intensively monitor organized crime, until the late 1950s, the early sixties. But all of this was immediately after the issuance of Brownell's directive even though his directive was to authorize bugging for national security investigations.
But FBI officials concluded that they could interpret the broadly worded directive from the Attorney General to authorize installation of bugs involving criminal activities. But in these cases, they could only do so with Bureau authority, and in these cases, even after the fact, the FBI did not notify the Attorney General that they had installed a bug during a criminal investigation.
This really increased the use of bugging in the FBI's investigation of organized crime. And, the FBI's investigation of organized crime increased with the incident in Apalachin (The Mafia conclave) in 1957, and then sort of explodes after Robert Kennedy becomes attorney general in 1961.

JWT: Is it fair, or rather is it accurate, to summarize Hoover's reluctance to attack the mob because (a) Hoover over estimated the Mafia's toughness and assumed that the Bureau would be defeated, thus damaging his carefully crafted image of his FBI (B) The Mob would use its enormous political clout against the Bureau to end the assault and (C) graft by his agents

Theoharis: Hoover had a number of concerns that explain why, under his directorship, the FBI did not vigorously pursue organized crime.
First there was limited authority. He didn't really have an expansion of laws authorizing the FBI investigation of organized crime until the 1960s, but there was a second concern which shaped bureau policy, which was that organized crime investigations are very labor intensive, and, thus, they could influence other Bureau investigations, and, until the 1960s, and dating from the 1940s, the major priorities of the FBI investigations were in the internal security areas, and, lastly, there was a concern on part of the director, which explains why you don't have the agents undercover, was the possibility of compromising agents.
The bureau found it very difficult to recruit informants from within the ranks of organized crime, so that it was pretty much limited to what they could do against it, and that was a fact they considered when Hoover decided to make this a priority.

JWT: Did Hoover set policy regarding organized crime or did he play out the role of perfect bureaucrat, and simply follow the dictates of the powers that came and left the White House?

Theoharis: Both. Hoover set policy and followed the directives of the Attorney General. Organized crime was not a priority of either the Truman or the Eisenhower administrations and so the bureau was not subject to great pressure to move against organized crime.
This changes with the Kennedy administration where Robert Kennedy initiates this far more intensive emphasis on criminal activities.

JWT: In the face of the overwhelming information provided by Kefauver, why did Hoover refuse to recognize that the Mafia was active in the United States and that the national crime syndicate existed? Certainly his field agents knew they existed.

Theoharis: Well, in one sense, what was disclosed in the Kefauver hearings was a corrupt relationship between organized crime figures and local officials and local police.
Hoover's essential response was that while this was a crime problem, it wasn't a federal crime problem, it was a local and state crime problem.
He denied the existence of a nationwide crime conspiracy, and, emphasizing the very tittle of the program that was instituted after Apalachin, the Top Hoodlum Program, is that you have the problem of hoodlums and the implication being that you have independent operators who are not coordinating their activities nationwide.
Hoover's concerns were strictly bureaucratic. I mean, to disclose the existence of, what the top hoodlum report documented, of contacts between criminals nationwide, would raise questions about the efficiency of the FBI and his own director hip of the bureau.

JWT: Even after the raid on Apalachin, which was conducted by the New York State Police and the IRS, the FBI's Top Hoodlum program, didn't really amount to much, did it? What was the program and why did it die off?

Theoharis: There was a real problem caused by Apalachin, a public relations problem, which seems, which looked like, it had caught the FBI with its pants down. So, Hoover had various field offices prepare these intelligence reports identifying the top hoodlums in their area. This was an intelligence program, as opposed to, say, a prosecutive program. As a result, what you have, almost immediately, are field agents requesting permission to wire tap or install bugs, and the rationale for this, was to obtain intelligence about organized crime because information so obtained could not be used for prosecutive purposes, so, in one sense, the program wasn't successful because it wasn't a crime enforcement program.

JWT: And what do you make of the persistent story that Hover was compromised by the mob?

Theoharis: These allegation persist, that Hoover was compromised by the mob, that they had come across a photograph of him and FBI Associate Director Clyde Tolson, engaged in homosexual activity.
Yet, people, who cite the photo, are unable to produce the photo. But I think there is no evidence to support that story, that he was compromised.

JWT: Did Robert Kennedy drag the FBI into the fight against the mob, or would the Bureau have gotten pulled into eventually without him?

Theoharis: Well, it was the case that Attorney General Kennedy brought the FBI into the fight, kicking and screaming. But, the bureau now had support form the Attorney General, and could rely upon the Justices Department interest in prosecuting members of organized crime. But, by then, the bureau was already installing bugs and was requesting permission to install wire taps, and so the FBI was, on its own, moving vigorously against organized crime.

JWT: After Kennedy, both Attorney General Clark under Johnson and Mitchell under Nixon, complained that they were unable to get the FBI, or specifically Hoover, to join the fight against the mob, why did he resist so long?

Theoharis: Well, we know very little of the FBI's investigations into organized crime, and the reason we know so little, is the FBI has been unwilling to disclose its records.
What we do know, comes out of investigations by the Congress and recently with the establishment of the Kennedy Assassination Review Board, is that the FBI had intensively monitored organized crime figures, and these records have been released, and, what we have here, through these records, is a different sense of what the FBI is doing. Clearly, the bureau was interested in developing information on organized crime activities. The problem, again, is that, this information, until you legalize wire tapping and bugging in 1968, can't be used for prosecutive purposes.
In Attorney General Clark's complaint, the FBI is not producing information that can be used for prosecutive purposes. I can't explain Mitchell's response because it was the case that the FBI in the late sixties and seventies, is beginning to make this a higher priority and now, with the legislation of 1968, to move vigorously against organized crime

JWT: Joe Valachi, one of the very first mob informants, he was an FBI discovery wasn't he?

Theoharis:...And the interesting about Valachi is that his testimony is publicized and results in the identification of the La Costa Nostra, and all this good press comes out of this, and I note, that the credit is given to the Attorney General in leading to the public discourse of this FBI informant about the successful penetration of organized crime. Valachi was very much a bureau success, even though the Attorney General was trying to publicize this as a departmental success.

JWT: But later, in the very late 1950s, the FBI abuse of Brownell on Organized Crime cases hurt the Justice Departments assault on the mob didn't it?

Theoharis: Yes because while the FBI succeeded in developing intelligence in mob activities, it did not succeed in developing admissible evidence, so, in a sense, it negated a movement against organized crime. The only way it could use information gained from wiretaps and bugs, would be if it could launder that information for prosecutive purposes, and that required that they have a lot more Joseph Valachi's then it could produced, as witnesses during criminal proceeding to testify to alleged criminal activities of the subject of the indictment, but, the bureau was not very successful in developing informants, and, thus, it couldn't use the wire tap and bug information to bring cases against organized crime.

JWT: Comparing our FBI to other similar law enforcement agencies across charged with combating organized crime, fair, good, very good or great?

Theoharis: It easy to conclude that the FBI is the greatest law enforcement agency in the world.

JWT: Doctor Theoharis, thank you for your time

Theoharis: Thank you

Mr. Tuohy can be reached at

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