Saturday, 4 February 2012

Review: Anthony Summers, Official and Confidential: the Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover

We need to talk about America.

Reading this very carefully researched book, I began to understand how 9 / 11 conspiracy theories could hold such appeal.As well as delivering the dirt on Hoover, who spent a lifetime delivering the dirt on anyone who aroused his dislike, it chronicles conspiracy after conspiracy, cover up upon cover up, negligence and downright corruption extraordinary at the highest levels of American executive and political life. Very few people emerge with much credit left (President Harry Truman appears an exception and, in some respects, Robert Kennedy). To a greater or lesser degree, all the others are crooks.

As a teenager, I was much affected by the death of President Kennedy: I can still remember hearing the news on the old valve wireless in our living room (there wasn't a television) and I recall it as the last time in my life that I prayed in any conventional sense.

There was a conspiracy to assassinate John Kennedy, almost certainly involving senior Mafia figures feeling betrayed by Kennedy and his brother,who as Attorney General had made the FBI tackle the problem of organised crime. The Mafia (with whom the Kennedys' father had a long association) had given campaign money and other help to the younger Kennedys and they did not like being kicked in the teeth.

Almost certainly, FBI reports brought in enough prior intelligence to indicate that something was about to happen to Kennedy. The Secret Service should have been alerted - the FBI was tasked with doing just that. But Hoover as Director of the FBI sat on the information. In effect, he let the assassination happen - rather as the FBI in a later incarnation let 9 / 11 happen.

After the event, the FBI ( = Hoover) sought to close the file as rapidly as possible: Lee Harvey Oswald did it and he did it alone. They had ample evidence to lead to the conclusion that this wasn't the case, but Hoover was compromised by his own links (extensive) to the Mafia and he had no inclination to dig dirt on his cronies.

When President Johnson set up the Warren Commission to produce a definitive account of the assassination, the FBI obstructed and misled it. The Commission's report was a British-style whitewash.

When Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, the FBI ( = Hoover) did not want to know. Hoover had only been interested in their marital infidelities, on which he kept bulging files.

Summers focusses on Hoover's vulnerability as a gay-hating closet homosexual who converted the FBI into a witch-hunting and blackmailing right wing organisation with files on everybody of importance. Congress could never touch him - he died in office, back in 1972, at the age of 77 - because he had files on all of them and knew how to use them when it suited him.

What Summers does not try to do is place this corrupt work in the context of the other activities of the FBI. He occasionally indicates the proportion of FBI time devoted to witch-hunting rather than criminal hunting, but I end up with no real sense of how the FBI functioned day to day and whether there was a routine and effective side to its work alongside the corrupt practices directed by Hoover.

Reading this book, I smiled at the thought that the America Summers describes, starting back in the 1920s, is the America with which British politicians insist on having a "Special Relationship". Maybe they would like to be as corrupt as the Big Boys in America.

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