The Secrets of the FBI

  • Ronald Kessler
  • Crown
  • 304 pp.

The author of this updated book has once again unearthed enough “sensitive” information to keep the pages turning.

Reviewed by Arthur Kerns

I don’t know how the author Ronald Kessler does it, convincing some FBI agents to sing like canaries. To obtain material for his 1993 book, The FBI: Inside the World’s Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency, Kessler was allowed unprecedented access to FBI personnel by the agency’s director at the time, William S. Sessions. As a reward for this gesture, Sessions was fired for alleged misconduct after Kessler dug up allegations of malfeasance on the part of the clueless gentleman. The fact that Sessions was politically naïve as to the ways of Washington and FBI politics didn’t help him. In this updated version, The Secrets of the FBI, one wonders if the current FBI administration responsible for blabbing trade secrets to Kessler is set for a White House dressing down. In any case, readers will find enough of interest to keep the pages turning.

Right from the beginning, Kessler reveals that the FBI conducts surreptitious entries to install court-sanctioned electronic listening devices in homes, offices and cars: They’re “black-bag jobs” to the insider, breaking and entering to the ordinary citizen. This is no news; how else would you install such devices? By page 25, the reader learns just how the FBI conducts these operations, with numerous examples of how they’re pulled off. The targets are also revealed: terrorists, organized crime members and foreign diplomatic missions. This is no minor issue since a U.S. government agency, in saying it breaks into diplomatic establishments, is admitting to a violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Hostile foreign intelligence officers, as well as organized crime consigliere, now have a new handbook to use to help thwart future FBI operations. Bureau agents on the street and members of the intelligence community must be shaking their heads in disbelief and perhaps even feeling a bit sad for J. Edgar Hoover’s old tight-lipped organization.

Oh, yes, and we have a hint of new revelations about Hoover’s sexuality. Well, actually there are no new revelations about Hoover’s relationship with Clyde Tolson that will titillate the jaded. Rather, Kessler describes it as “broadly a spousal relationship,” which could encompass two old fuddy-duddies in a 19th-century Victorian friendship. He points out that if the two had had anything more than a close relationship, it would have been very hard to keep it secret for any length of time.

The author does a commendable job summarizing the account of FBI turncoat Robert Hanssen, giving us fresh insight into how this notorious espionage case was unraveled. This part of the book reads like a spy novel. Hanssen and his CIA traitor counterpart, Aldrich Ames, are still considered so valuable that the Russians tried unsuccessfully to include both of them in a recent spy swap. Even though the Cold War has ended, the FBI and CIA are still engaged in a human and technical tug of war with hostile foreign countries.

Vince Foster is mentioned briefly, and the author’s investigation implies that a harsh verbal lashing by Hillary Clinton during a White House staff meeting may have triggered his suicide one week later. Once again we read more of Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedys, this time that Robert Kennedy used the personal car of the FBI’s Los Angeles special agent in charge to make visits, the last one just a week before she committed suicide.

Kessler spends a lot of time on the FBI’s counterterrorism program, which has been a primary focus of the bureau since the World Trade Center attack. The agency has shifted its tactics from one of mainly reacting to terrorist acts to a preventative stance. Now the FBI’s reach extends worldwide, and under the present director, Robert S. Mueller, plays a leading role in preventing further attacks. The extent of the FBI’s cooperation with other agencies and governments is unprecedented, as witness the bureau’s training of SEAL Team 6 prior to the raid on Osama bin Laden. The new FBI laboratory that moved to Quantico, Va., in 2003 processed the bulk of the data and evidence gathered during the operation.

Again, it is amazing how Kessler managed to get the FBI administration to reveal so much “sensitive” information on surreptitious entries. In years past, those raised in the ethos of the intelligence community learned early to guard their words. The only information released to the press or to authors had to be “scrubbed.” It is surprising to see tradecraft — so carefully invented, created and developed by FBI agents in the field — laid out by those in charge, for no apparent reason. Once upon a time we only caught a glimpse of top-secret espionage “sources and methods” from the creative minds of fiction writers. Some readers of Kessler’s book will hope that this is part of an FBI disinformation program.

Arthur Kerns is a retired FBI special agent who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., and is a past president of the Arizona chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers. His award-winning short fiction has appeared in anthologies and his second novel, a mystery, is with a publisher.

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