What Susan Rosenfeld Gets Wrong About "Enemies"Historians/History
Tim Weiner is the author of "Enemies: A History of the FBI," the National Book Award-winning "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA," "Blank Check: The Pentagon's Black Budget," and co-author of "Betrayal: The Story of Aldrich Ames, an American Spy." His investigative reporting for the Philadelphia Inquirer won a Pulitzer Prize. He is currently a reporter for the New York Times.
David Walsh, the editor of HNN, has invited me to respond to a review of my new book, Enemies: A History of the FBI, by the former official FBI historian Susan Rosenfeld. I am grateful for the opportunity.
It seems to me that official history is to history as military music is to music. It is used to make people march in lockstep. Official historians have unique access to the documents that are the foundation of good history. That does not necessarily make them good historians. I was educated by good historians in college. I try to hew to the standards I was taught -- and not only because my own mother has been a professor of history for nearly sixty years.
For my book, I used some 70,000 pages of FBI documents, some released under the Freedom of Information Act, and some posted online by the FBI itself, to its great credit (and I give credit where it is due). I also drew from 208 oral histories complied by the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI’s Oral History Heritage Program. From beginning to end, I back up every quotation with an on-the record citation, using 666 endnotes to support a 450-page text.
I was astonished that the reviewer -- a principal consultant to the FBI oral history program -- denigrates my use of those oral histories. She seems aghast that I used the oral history given by the FBI duty officer who took a call from President Nixon's aide John Ehrlichman after the Watergate break-in.
The citation illustrates the fact that the Nixon White House wanted to obstruct justice in the FBI's Watergate investigation. That is no secret. For Rosenfeld to question the use of oral history to amplify the existing record is breathtaking. It also seems on its face to be an insult to the oral history program itself, not to mention the FBI agents who diligently participated in it. Every citation from those oral histories in Enemies is a verbatim quotation or an accurate paraphrase. If their fair use is invalid, are the oral histories in the holdings of the presidential libraries also null and void? Are the transcripts of the White House tape recordings extracted from the records of the Johnson and Nixon administration also useless? Is the history of an institution like the FBI delimited by its official historians?
The reviewer suggests that I ignore "the bombings, property destruction, and threats of violent revolution" that confronted the FBI in the late 1960s and early 1970s; therefore, I must be a leftist ideologue. That is false. Thousands of words in Enemies are devoted to the bombings and threats posed by the Weather Underground, the Puerto Rican nationalist gang known as the FALN, the Black Panthers, and other armed revolutionary groups from anarchists to al Qaeda.
Here is one passage among many in Enemies, summarizing the last three months of 1969 and the start of 1970: "[A]lmost every day brought reports of threats and attacks from left-wing groups in America’s biggest cities, its college campuses, and in many a small town, too. Bombs struck at Rockefeller Center in New York [and] the county courthouse in Franklin, Missouri.... The Black Panthers shot it out with the Chicago police, and the police counterattacked with help from the FBI.... Armed black militias, including a small gang that became known as the Black Liberation Army, allied with members of the Weather Underground. 'They were trying to shoot and kill police officers,' said the FBI’s William M. Baker. 'When they saw a white officer and a black officer working together, the Black Liberation Army, in an effort in their minds to create a revolution, would shoot both of them and then claim responsibility for it. Well, President Nixon ordered the FBI into this.' ” The quotation from Baker, by the way, is from the same oral history program whose accuracy and usefulness the reviewer questions.
Rosenfeld says I make "a hero" of Robert S. Mueller III, the FBI's director since September 4, 2001, while simultaneously "demonizing the FBI." This goes beyond falsehood into the realm of logical impossibility.
It also goes to the heart of Enemies. Mueller is no angel, but he is a good man. FBI agents who broke the law were not devils, but loyal government servants acting at the direction of their leaders. Enemies shows in detail that J. Edgar Hoover was not a monster, but an American Machiavelli. Where Hoover bent or broke the law in the name of American national security, he did so because he had -- or believed he had -- the authority of the President of the United States to conduct secret intelligence operations, including wiretapping, bugging, and break-ins.
The question of whether the president and his aides can go beyond the law in the name of national security runs from the beginning of the book to its end. The tug-of-war between national security and civil liberties that is embedded in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is embodied in every chapter of Enemies. That struggle is real. The FBI faces it every day.
Rosenfeld's review is, to date, the only negative notice to appear under the bylines of historians, intelligence professionals, and journalists in the United States, Britain, and Germany. The only bad review of my last book, Legacy of Ashes, a history of the CIA, was written by an official CIA historian. I conclude that good history has to be written without ideological preconceptions or the imprimatur of officialdom.
comments powered by Disqus
- Call to help Moroccan historian Maâti Monjib, who has been on hunger strike since 6 October 2015
- Charles Gillispie, trailblazer in the history of science, dies at 97
- NYT History Book Reviews: Who Got Noticed this Week?
- NC student’s senior thesis selected as top paper sheds light on little-known victory over Jim Crow
- Historian Who Probed Austria’s Nazi Past Begins Sentence for Defrauding State