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Jewish World Review Feb. 27, 2001 / 4 Adar, 5761

Dan K. Thomasson

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Is that J. Edgar Hoover turning in his grave? -- THE ghost of J. Edgar Hoover has come back to haunt the FBI in a way he never could have imagined.

In 1924, Hoover, a stiff-necked young lawyer, took command of the ineffective, discredited old Bureau of Investigation in the Justice Department. He quickly transformed it into the FBI and spent the next 50 years building its image as a corps of selfless public defenders invincible to the temptations and vulnerabilities that corrupted other law-enforcement agencies.

Police officers from the local to the federal level could be tarnished by corruption, but not Hoover's agents. It was a masterful public-relations job maintained by a group of specialists whose sole responsibility was to make the bureau and its director look good no matter what. This was bolstered by rigid agent supervision that headed off most bad publicity and swept the rest under the carpet when it couldn't.

The image of the incorruptible "G-man" reached such mythological proportions that saying one worked for the bureau was a testimonial to his integrity and intelligence. The Hoover PR machine was so good that not only the public but the bureau itself began to believe its own propaganda. The result was an institutional arrogance that is at the center of the bureau's current problems.

This has been compounded by the fact that the bureau's present size is at least twice what it was under Hoover and that it has expanded its interests tenfold. Hoover hedged his bet by making certain his agents didn't take on jobs - like narcotics control and organized crime - where monetary temptations and corrupting influences abound. They hunted spies, bank robbers, kidnappers and white-collar criminals. They never were involved in the gritty, often dirty assignments faced by officers in ordinary police operations.

The image Hoover built for himself and his agency has become increasingly frayed about the edges since his death in 1972. The truth was that Hoover's truth never really was the truth and as the bureau has grown dramatically, it has become impossible to hide the warts even with a dwindling but still influential cadre of sycophants and alumni in Congress dedicated to whitewashing its every gaffe. Hardly a month goes by without some new embarrassment.

Yet despite bureau snafus from Waco to the Los Alamos spy scandal, the arrogance remained pretty much intact. That elitism hindered an early resolution to what has become the mother of all FBI scandals, the arrest of one of its most trusted agents as a spy for the Russians for the last 15 years.

The unthinkable has occurred. An FBI agent is accused of committing treason. Not just any "brick agent" either but a 25-year veteran and devout Catholic father of six (Hoover's perfect profile of a G-man), who was a key player in trying to ferret out those who steal our secrets. Robert Phillip Hanssen, it is said, was such a straight arrow that he wouldn't even attend retirement parties that were held in clubs of which he didn't approve.

The question now being asked is how Hanssen could accomplish this for such a long time without detection. The answer once again is rooted in the philosophy that it can't happen here. So when there seemed to be evidence that superspy Aldrich Ames, the CIA mole, wasn't the only big player out there, the bureau failed to look to its own ranks and Hanssen continued to operate.

Hanssen was extremely smart. He knew the ins and outs of the bureau's counterintelligence operations just as Kim Philby, the Cold War spy who was his hero, had known how to maneuver inside British intelligence. He also understood the bureau's blind spot - the belief that the screening of agents was so thorough, the training and later control so rigid, and the esprit de corps and atmosphere of elitism so pervasive that it would protect him, if he was careful. He was right for a long time.

But ultimately, Russian sources provided some startling leads and a new unit was formed that combined agents from both the FBI and the CIA to hunt down the spy. Finally an FBI insider became a possibility.

What now? The current director's preoccupation with antiterrorism and his efforts to build the FBI into a national police force have diminished the bureau's spy-hunting capacity as evidenced by the Los Alamos debacle and Hanssen's arrest. President Bush is expected to appoint a new counterintelligence czar and combine CIA and FBI efforts in this area. Perhaps a humbler bureau will be a better bureau.

Meanwhile, a portly shade in a blue suit and white shirt is whirling about the halls of FBI headquarters.

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