In many ways, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is an iconic institution in American political life. No small part of its place in the public imagination is due to such films as "G" Men (1935), starring James Cagney, and to the long-running television series The FBI (1965-74). No doubt both the television series and then endless cable repeats and the later movie version of The Untouchables (1987), based on the life and adventures of Eliot Ness, added to the mystique of the agency even though those were actually about Treasury Department officials and not agents of the FBI. But the most durable part of the foundation of the bureau's reputation - for good and for ill - was poured by the inimitable J. Edgar Hoover, who served as the sixth director of the FBI for an astonishing 48 years, from 1924 to 1972.
Hoover was famous in his time for his politically astute bureaucratic skills and his relentlessness pursuit of those he deemed to be the bad guys. His efforts ranged from combating organised crime to keeping secret dossiers in a special file behind his desk on the private proclivities, especially sexual ones, of those whom he distrusted - such as first lady Eleanor Roosevelt (who was, in Hoover's view, either a heterosexual adulteress or a lesbian, or both) and then later Martin Luther King, Jr (whom Hoover believed to be a profligate womaniser.) But as The FBI: A History makes clear, there is more to the story than Hoover.
This is a book that strives to offer a comprehensive account of the FBI. Whereas the official founding date of the Bureau of Investigation was 1908, the author makes the case that its institutional antecedents were so substantively close that its true founding was, in fact, not as late as 1908 but as early as 1870. He traces the agency to those early days in which Congress turned its attention to breaking up the newly formed Ku Klux Klan and ending its reign of terror, not least on the newly freed slaves. From that point the narrative is more or less strictly chronological, tracing the growth and transformation of the agency over the decades. Indeed, no small part of Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones's story is that Hoover is not the most important part of that story.
Whatever the weaknesses of this book, it does tell a tale that is, in places, captivating. The history of the tensions between the FBI and its closest rival, the CIA; the history of efforts at reform by a series of attorneys general; and the successes in fighting the mob and in nabbing spies - all of these anecdotal surveys open up new ways of understanding the agency. But for all its merits, this is a book weakened by its determination to cram the history into a scholarly construct that does not always fit the material in a convincing way.
The author begins with a basic but arguable premise: that race is "the dominant theme in the FBI's history". Holding fast to this theory, he bewails repeatedly what he sees as discriminatory hiring practices; he seems to suggest that most, if not all, of the bureau's failures are due to such administrative shortfalls. Moreover, he argues repeatedly that those in positions of power in the agency were more often than not guided by simple and perverse racial prejudice in the decisions that were taken to launch and then to conduct investigations. This construct leaves him to offer as his first word on his subject that when it comes to the FBI, it "has long been observed that it is an unjust organisation". It also leads him to his final conclusion that the agency had "always been a showcase for human frailties and bitter controversies".
The problem arises in the often imprecise nature of his indictment. Race may indeed be an important part of the perceived weaknesses of the FBI, but it may not be the entire source of the problems the organisation has faced. And all too often the argument is left at the level of surmise and speculation; alternative explanations are never really pursued. Even if the author is right in his inferences, this would have been a stronger book if he had undertaken to show that the other possible explanations were not valid.
There is another small but important irritation, and that is the relatively sparse method of citation. This is a book filled with provocative quotations and questionable authorial judgments that call out for full and precise citation of the authorities from which they have been drawn. All too often, one finds statements worth following up (did they come from truly reputable sources such as original papers or from unpublished doctoral dissertations?), but one turns to the notes only to get lost in the grouping of citations after several paragraphs of text. Scholarship that leads to arguable conclusions needs a more thorough system of citation.
While this is an interesting narrative of an important US institution, it is in all likelihood not the definitive institutional history of the FBI that the author undoubtedly hopes it to be.
Gary L. McDowell is Tyler Haynes interdisciplinary professor of leadership studies, political science and law at the University of Richmond, Virginia.
The FBI: A History
By Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones
Yale University Press
Published 1 December 2007