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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 MobStudy@aol.com