The FBI and American Democracy

A Brief Critical History

Athan G. Theoharis

For nearly a century, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been famous for tracking and apprehending gangsters, kidnappers, spies, and, much more recently, international terrorists. The agency itself has done much to promote its successes, helping to embellish its legendary aura. Athan Theoharis, however, contends that a closer look at the historical record reveals a much less idealized and much more disturbing vision of the FBI.

Created in 1908 with a staff of three dozen, the FBI has grown to more than 27,000 agents and support personnel, while its role has shifted dramatically from law enforcement to intelligence operations. Theoharis, Americas leading authority on the FBI, assesses the consequences of this shift for democratic politics, showing how the agencys obsession with absolute secrecy has undermined both civil liberties and agency accountability.

“Theoharis, a recognized expert in FBI research, is neither a muckraker or a whitewasher. [He argues] that the bureau has never lived up to its grandiose reputation; believes that its fame in tracking and apprehending gangsters, kidnappers and international terrorists has been grossly fictionalized; [and] condemns as threats to our civil liberties the FBI's use of wiretaps, buggings and break-ins. . . . His book relates in grim detail, when, where and how the FBI went wrong.

—Washington Post Book World

“The FBI has had a substantial impact on U.S. society from its inception in 1908 through the advent of the war on terror. Theoharis inquires into its myths and realities. He criticizes the bureau for frequent abuses of power and its failure to meet its stated law enforcement or intelligence goals. This clear, thoughtful presentation is strongly recommended.

—Library Journal
See all reviews...

As Theoharis reveals, FBI history has been marked by operational failures, overrated abilities, and the frequent use of highly suspect means—wiretaps, buggings, break-ins—that challenge the Constitutions guarantee against illegal searches. The agency has also gathered and disseminated derogatory (and often untrue) information in an effort to discredit citizens whose views are seen as dangerous. Most disturbing, it has drifted toward equating political dissent with genuine subversion, an approach with potentially grave consequences for free and open public discourse.

Theoharis also shows that the FBIs vaunted spy-catching prowess has been vastly overrated, from the early days of the Communist conspiracy to the more recent Wen Ho Lee and Robert Hanssen fiascos. And he criticizes Hoovers longstanding refusal to admit that organized crime actually existed, perhaps due to his preoccupation with the sex lives of public figures like JFK, Martin Luther King, and Rock Hudson, whose amorous escapades he recorded in his “Do Not File” files. More recently, the notorious incidents at Ruby Ridge, Waco, and Oklahoma City, as well as the 9/11 attacks, have further eroded public confidence in the FBI and tarnished its reputation.

Throughout, Theoharis raises serious questions about the extralegal nature of the FBI’s activities and its troubling implications for the rule of law in America.