How George W. Bush Fulfilled FDR's Legacy


Scott McLemee reviews Athan Theoharis' new book Abuse of Power:

Theoharis makes the rather provocative case that George W. Bush was (at least in one respect) the fulfiller of FDR's legacy, rather than its dim negation.

In the mid-1930s, faced with the aggressive pursuit of influence by Germany and the Soviet Union, Roosevelt made "a fundamental shift in the role of the Federal Bureau of Investigation … from [being] a law enforcement agency that sought to develop evidence to prosecute violators of federal laws to an intelligence agency that would seek to acquire advance information about the plans and capabilities of suspected spies and saboteurs."

Rather than propose legislation to that effect, the president "instead opted for secret executive directives, a method that had as its central purpose the foreclosure of a potentially divisive and contentious debate." And the director of the FBI was hardly going to object if things were done in secret, at least if he were the one doing them. Like the New Deal, "this profound shift was effected not through a well-defined blueprint but through a series of ad hoc responses"—creating their own complex dynamics.

The ugly results included "wiretaps and break-ins, campaigns to infiltrate and disrupt various organizations, and investigations into the private lives of public figures," along with a little-known program launched in 1939:

Renamed the Security Index in 1943, this created a list of candidates for "preventative detention" in case of emergency. There was also "a plan for the suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus," in the words of FBI assistant director D. Milton Ladd. In 1950, conservative members of Congress were able to override president Truman's veto to pass an internal security act that included its own provisions for rounding up potential subversives. But it defined the pool of detainees more narrowly than the FBI had, and mandated that they receive a hearing within 48 hours of being taken into custody. The bureau ignored the legislation, and by the 1960s was adding civil-rights and antiwar activists to the list. The program was phased out following [J. Edgar] Hoover's death in 1972. By then it was called the Administrative Index: a case of blandness as disguise.

The book covers post-9/11 surveillance as well, finding both parallels and discontinuities with the Hoover era. ("According to Theoharis, the FBI had about 200 wiretaps going at any one time throughout the entire country, while intercepting (that is to say, opening) thousands of pieces of correspondence. Under the USA PATRIOT Act, that would count as a slow morning.") The review culminates with a point worth stressing:

the book also serves as a warning to those who, down the line, try to research this past decade.

Theoharis describes Hoover's techniques for routing and storing information. Agents would not submit material gathered from break-ins, wiretaps, or highly confidential sources in their official reports, but via letters forwarded to him directly with a code on the envelope. Besides the FBI files, he kept auxiliary archives full of especially sensitive documents. That way, if forced to turn over the bureau's files on a given topic, he could limit the exposure of what intelligence he had gathered—and, just as importantly, how he gathered it.

Assembling information was not enough; he had to dissemble it as well. The power to do either has grown exponentially in the meantime. Hoover's material was recorded on paper and audiotape. Just learning to find his way into the maze of Hoover's evasions cost Theoharis much time and effort. The comparable documents covering the past few years will be far less tangible, more heavily encrypted—stored in sticks, chips, or clouds. And the people creating (and hiding) information have the warning of Hoover's example. Within a few years of his death, the architecture of secrecy began to crumble. Things will be better hidden, and learning to track them down will be harder.