Enemies: A History of the FBI - Tim Weiner

“Enemies” is a colorful tale of the Federal Bureau of Investigation from its humble beginnings in 1908 fighting organized crime to its recent involvement in the War on Terror. Based on a wealth of research, declassified documents and interviews, the book devotes many of its pages to the larger-than-life character of its first director, J. Edgar Hoover, who for half a century personified the FBI and left an indelible stamp on the agency housed in the Hoover Building in Washington, D.C.


I was compelled to read this book after watching a biopic on Hoover in order to get a fuller picture of the legendary man. The book offers an in-depth, no-holds-barred look at the Bureau and its leadership from Hoover to its most recent director, James B. Comey. Effusive in his praise and sharp in his criticism, the author paints a picture of a government agency torn between balancing its mission to provide security and fight criminal and terrorist activity and the need to protect civil liberties so that “Americans could be both safe and free.” Its first century has been one of successes, failures, and a constant struggle to find or upset this balance. The author draws from a wealth of documentary evidence to portray a Bureau that in many ways operates like a tragicomedy as it tries to make sense of and respond to ever-changing threats, often in heavy-handed and arguably unconstitutional ways. Weiner does an apt job of bringing the FBI to life.


Although the author makes no attempt to tell an impartial story, his interpretation of history makes it all the more interesting. Putting the FBI through the lens of constitutionality and civil rights, he chides the Bureau for its many deficiencies but commends it where it has taken strides to improve, such as discontinuing (at least publicly) warrantless searches and seizures and improving its information systems. He leaves the reader with the impression that the organization has moved away from many mistakes of the past and has a promising future as the U.S. Government’s primary law enforcement agency.


The book’s Achilles heel is its over-reliance on archival information. Much of it is devoted to the Hoover years, while events after his death seem glossed over. Depictions of evolution of the FBI during the War on Terror seem rushed. The author felt it necessary to tell the Bureau’s full history, but his lack of source material and apparent lack of access in the post-Hoover period is evident. It might have been better to focus on the agency’s first 50 years and save the last half century for another book.


I give this book five (5) stars and highly recommend it to anyone interested in the FBI, federal law enforcement, and civil liberties.