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One evening in 1968, my father put down his newspaper and said to me, “Eugene McCarthy must be the cleanest man in American politics.” I was a little surprised. Dad was a pretty conventional Irish Catholic voter who made the transition from JFK to Reagan as the Democratic Party forced out people like us. That year I figured he would vote for LBJ (or Humphrey after LBJ dropped out). He was with the Civil Rights Division and worked on desegregation cases in Mississippi and Tennessee. He knew a number of FBI guys, as did any other DOJ attorney.
I asked, “How do you know that?”
“Because about a month ago, McCarthy called for the resignation of J. Edgar Hoover and made a campaign promise to replace him.”
“Absolutely nothing bad about McCarthy’s personal life or finances has emerged since then, and Hoover would have destroyed him if he had anything.”
Apparently, Dad had no illusions about J. Edgar’s FBI.
The speaker at my high school graduation was Cartha DeLoach, an assistant FBI director. It was a weird speech, essentially listing categories of crimes and then telling us after each that we were not the type to do such things. In the finest FBI tradition, he is reported to have told the senior aide to the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee that the bureau knew about the aide’s sexual indiscretions. Oddly enough, DeLoach did not cover blackmail in the graduation speech.
The FBI has always been a self-aware, self-interested, politically astute entity. The bureau invariably wins turf and appropriations battles when pitted against other law enforcement agencies. In 2002, when the Department of Homeland Security was created, many assumed that the FBI would be subsumed into it. Fat chance. Two programs were ceded to DHS, but the FBI budget increased by a whopping 25% that year and continues to increase every year. The current budget is now over $10 billion.
By 1992, I still assumed that despite the sordid political traditions at the top of the agency, the FBI was all about straight shooters and principled people. My brother’s Boston Irish political contacts were already laughing at the Boston FBI and the “elusive” Whitey Bulger at that time, but I did not believe it could possibly be as bad as it turned out to be.
My image of the FBI at that time was shaped by Robert Hanssen. We were acquainted because our sons were classmates and friends, and we had lots of mutual friends and acquaintances. Hanssen seemed slightly to the right of Moses on matters of faith and morality. I knew that he was in the section that combatted foreign spies but not much else about his work. If I had to make a list of everybody I ever knew in order of least likely to betray the USA to communists, Bob Hanssen would have been at the top of the list (except for my mother or maybe Pope John Paul II). Captain America might turn out to be a squish, but not Bob Hanssen. If he was typical of the bureau, then they were still the fiercely principled people in the popular image of the FBI.
In April of 1992, Hanssen was at our house for my son’s birthday party. I kidded him that he would have to get a new job now that the USSR was kaput (as of December ’91). He did not take it as a joke and said that in reality, nothing had changed. The same people would be doing the same things for the same reasons because that’s just how the world is. He was kind of animated about the whole thing. I changed the subject.
Little did I know that it was probably the temporary disruption of his traitorous sideline that had him so agitated back then. When my wife and I heard the TV news in 2001 that an FBI agent named Robert Hanssen had been arrested for espionage, we both assumed that it was quite a coincidence that there was another guy with the same name at the bureau. And then they flashed his picture. It was a gut punch for a lot of people.
The current FBI leadership seems to be entirely populated by weasels playing political games. The absurd overkill against the Jan. 6 “insurrections” and the vomitous disgrace of not acting to protect the girls abused by Larry Nassar are deeply disturbing. Infidelity, corruption, and partisan impropriety seem less and less like exceptions when the FBI is in the news.
But it simply cannot be that the bulk of 13,000 or so FBI special agents are more corrupt than the average American. I am at least as paranoid as anybody else who posts on Ricochet, but I don’t buy that. The FBI rank and file is still a pretty select bunch. But like the rest of America, the good guys are being betrayed by a lack of moral leadership, and betrayal can have insidious, lasting consequences. How do we fix that? And not just in the FBI.Published in