Author: Sanford J. Ungar
Ungar, Sanford J. (1975). FBI: An Uncensored Look Behind the Walls. Little, Brown & Company
Date Updated: March 30, 2016
This is a review by the Defense Intelligence School.
This book is an account, by a well-known journalist, of the activities of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The author had the cooperation (if not the blessing) of Clarence M. Kelley, Director of the FBI, and some of his senior associates. He interviewed many then present and former officials and agents of the FBI, and visited many of their Field Offices. It is not by any means, however an “official” study. If anything, it is critical of many aspects of the Bureau’s activities. Unfortunately for the author, it was published before much of the testimony appeared in 1975-76 before various Congressional committees, which went into great detail on many of the Bureau’s operations in the internal security area.
A New York Times book review.
“Things will never get out of hand again the way they did under Mr. Hoover, but you can believe what your suspicions tell you: there is still a conservative, right-wing mentality among some agents working security. Paranoia is rampant. It scares me.”
The man on the telephone is an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, based in a big-city field office, who has worked on criminal cases for most of his 18-year career. I have called him because he is my personal barometer on the F.B.I. Fifteen years ago, when I set out to write a book about the bureau, I met this agent early in my research and he proved to have remarkable insights into the organization. Everything he told me then, and in our occasional conversations since, checked out.
I have called this time because, after a decade or so of relative inattention, the F.B.I. is back in the news. And, from appearances, it is back in disarray:
The bureau is accused of going overboard on an investigation of a group opposed to American policy in Central America, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (Cispes), stirring memories of an era when it routinely spied on American citizens and monitored their political views and associations.
At the same time, a black agent named Donald Rochon is pressing a claim that he was the victim of a grotesque campaign of racial discrimination and harassment in two Midwestern field offices; and some 270 Hispanic agents have joined a lawsuit against the F.B.I., charging systematic prejudice in their assignments, promotions, transfers and discipline.
The new Director, William S. Sessions , a former Federal judge from Texas, began work last November  after two delays due to illness, but for months was seldom seen in Washington. Having read to the press a prepared statement supporting the handling of the Cispes case, he went off on familiarization visits to field offices.
I call another agent friend from the past, this one ensconced in the hierarchy at F.B.I. headquarters. Despite the official insistence that all is well, he says, “there is big internal turmoil over Cispes and Rochon. They are looking for someone to blame.”
The search for someone to blame inevitably leads to the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Va., just outside Washington. There, in the deceptive quiet of the suburban woods, William H. Webster, now Director of Central Intelligence but from 1978 until 1987 Director of the F.B.I., riffles through a 13 3/4-inch-tall stack of bureau documents (released to Cispes under the Freedom of Information Act), most of which he says he has never seen before. It is left to him to defend the bureau and his long stint there. The implication is that when he moved to the C.I.A. last year to clean up the mess left behind by the late William J. Casey, Webster left behind his own mess in the J. Edgar Hoover Building on Pennsylvania Avenue downtown.
Ever since he arrived from St. Louis in 1978, a moderate Republican appellate court judge named F.B.I. Director by Democratic President Jimmy Carter, Webster has enjoyed an unusually good image in Washington. During his stewardship of the bureau, civil libertarians generally praised his performance, and he has survived even the Iran-contra affair unscathed. He is proud of his reputation and uncomfortable being on the defensive.
It is silent in Webster’s office. His tone is pained but defiant. “This business of producing ordered liberty is a very complicated thing,” he says, in a favorite reference to Edmund Burke.
“You cannot have liberty without order,” Webster says during an interview that lasts 3 1/2 hours. “And so you’ve got two important values—the right to be let alone and the right to be kept safe and free—and you want them both, and it usually falls on law enforcement to try to achieve safety without sacrifice of liberty.
“You cannot walk around with blinders,” he goes on, arguing that it was not objectionable for agents to photograph demonstrators or to copy down license-plate numbers of those attending a meeting, as part of the Cispes investigation. “The public has, and I think individual citizens need to have, a rational approach to what is in fact intrusive. Particularly when you are threatened on the terrorist front, you have to decide whether you must accept some technical intrusion to get the intelligence that you need to do your job.”
Few would deny that there has been a genuine terrorist threat to the United States in recent years. (Last month, New Jersey State Troopers arrested a man carrying powerful homemade bombs in his car; he is suspected of having links to a terrorist group called the Japanese Red Army.) But has the F.B.I., along with other agencies, exaggerated the menace for its own bureaucratic and budgetary advantage? Has the rubric of antiterrorism been used to bring back abusive domestic security investigations and the techniques that accompanied them?
Throw in the specter of vulgar racism in the Rochon case and it is easy to conjure up the vision of J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. after it had gone haywire. Early in his 48-year reign as Director, Hoover made important contributions to the national struggle against crime. But his obsession with the Communist threat eventually weakened the bureau. In the notorious COINTELPROS (“counter-intelligence programs”) of the late 1950’s through the early 1970’s, Hoover authorized agents to disrupt the lives and ruin the reputations of people belonging to certain organizations, particularly those fighting for “black power” or against American involvement in Vietnam.
After Hoover died in May 1972, the bureau lurched into an era of reform. L. Patrick Gray 3d, President Nixon’s acting Director—best remembered, alas, for destroying evidence related to the Watergate investigation—ended the practice of keeping a secret archive in the director’s office with files on politicians and public officials. He also loosened the old-fashioned dress code that often made agents sitting ducks and recruited women agents for the first time.
His successor, Clarence M. Kelley, introduced modern management techniques and inaugurated a “quality over quantity” approach to the F.B.I.’s caseload. For years, Hoover’s preoccupation with statistics had highly trained agents chasing stolen cars and military deserters; Kelley focused them on organized and white-collar crime.
These trends were thought to have been reinforced under Webster, who led a charmed existence on Capitol Hill despite his use of undercover agents in the Abscam case to catch members of Congress taking bribes. During his nine-year directorship, the bureau relentlessly pursued corrupt judges and other local officials, once again began to catch foreign spies (instead of just labeling people subversive) and joined the fight against illegal drug trafficking. To a degree reminiscent of Hoover’s earlier success with appropriations committees, money seemed to be available for anything Webster wanted.
But there were disquieting developments during Webster’s term, too—admittedly not all his responsibility. Early in President Reagan’s first year in the White House, he pardoned two former F.B.I. officials, W. Mark Felt and Edward S. Miller, who had been convicted of authorizing illegal break-ins during the search for radical fugitives responsible for bombings in the early 1970’s.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department under Attorney General William French Smith dropped its support of the bipartisan Congressional effort to enact an official F.B.I. charter, which would have defined more clearly what the bureau could and could not do in its various areas of jurisdiction.
In 1983, the F.B.I.’s new investigative guidelines, painstakingly shaped by Attorney General Edward Levi during the Ford Administration to preserve civil liberties, were loosened by Smith to give the bureau more latitude in probing “violence-prone groups” and combating terrorism.
The bureau redefined what it was looking for in many “domestic security” cases. “We changed the name to terrorism,” says Webster, “so people would know what we were talking about.” Agents working in this area began to feel free again to explore groups and individuals who were opposed to various elements of American foreign policy.
The F.B.I. has certainly changed since the early 1970s. Working conditions are better for most agents, and there are many more sophisticated, better-educated colleagues joining their ranks. The bureau is probably more effective now, if only because it no longer pretends to be perfect. That illusion became hard to sustain after well-publicized cases in which agents were caught stealing money and merchandise (one shot himself to death in 1979) and even passing secrets to the Soviet Union.
But, as I have learned in the last few months, certain old instincts lurk just beneath the surface. Critics of the F.B.I., internal or external, still tend to be mocked and vilified by the bureau. As one agent put it, “the language of the bureau certainly hasn’t changed,” and the tone favored in F.B.I. documents can make anything sound sinister. Powerful institutional forces and biases skew the bureau’s view of the United States and the world. And while it is shrinking, there is still an Old Guard that has enormous influence over F.B.I. policies and practices.
During my earlier research, Clarence Kelley allowed me access to agents and offices without the requirement (standard in the Hoover era) that my work would have to be cleared before being published. I met and interviewed hundreds of agents around the country over a period of two years. Many were suspicious and cautious. But to my surprise, I found most of them—especially those in their late 20’s and early 30s—eager to talk, relieved to explain their motivation for joining the F.B.I. and happy to describe what they were doing.
I recently tracked down several of the agents I had found most helpful previously, and asked them to tell me about life in the bureau during the intervening period—to offer their observations about how the F.B.I. had or had not changed, and to comment on the recent controversies.
There were three categories of reaction: Some not only spoke as freely as before, but even offered help in finding other agents who would do the same. Others talked privately, but somewhat more cautiously and did not want to be seen with me. One agent, however, said that in a bureau career now approaching 19 years, he had become convinced that when the media deal with the F.B.I., “things don’t come across straight.” Friendly but firm, he refused to have any conversation with me without first obtaining permission from his superiors; the bureau’s press office insisted that it monitor my discussions with the agent, now quite senior in the hierarchy. I declined the terms (while I did reluctantly accept them in the case of certain other officials).
An agent in the F.B.I.’s press office who had been assigned to deal with my requests said he did not believe that any agent would dare to talk to me without official permission and monitoring, “because that would violate the rules.” That attitude used to be known in F.B.I. parlance as the “for-reals” —a tendency to believe, mistakenly, that reality corresponded to official bureau descriptions of it.
One thing had not changed at all: none of the agents who spoke freely with me would allow his name to be used. “It’s just not worth it,” said one. “If you say something wrong—or even something right that sounds wrong -your life can be made miserable by an S.A.C. [ special agent in charge ] who doesn’t like you.” Accordingly, many of the agents quoted here must remain anonymous.
Exactly what happened to Donald Rochon is a matter of continuing dispute. A 37-year-old former Los Angeles policeman who is black, Rochon joined the F.B.I. in 1981. He claims that from the moment he was assigned to the Omaha field office in January 1983, he was the victim of overt hostility and vicious racial pranks. Investigations by the Justice Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have confirmed a number of incidents in Omaha, including one in which white agents defaced a photograph of Rochon’s family that was on his desk by taping an ape’s head over his son’s face. The special agent in charge, however, labeled the pranks a “healthy” sign of office “esprit de corps.”
According to a lawsuit Rochon has filed in Federal court, matters became even worse after he was transferred to Chicago: There were more insults at work and, at his home, late-night obscene phone calls focusing on interracial sex. (Rochon’s wife, who is white, was pregnant at the time.) He received letters threatening his life and bills for life insurance policies he had never ordered.
An internal inquiry resulted in the suspension of one white Chicago agent for two weeks without pay; but in a throwback to the Hoover era, when agents protected each other financially in the face of arbitrary punishment, colleagues chipped in to make up his salary.
While acknowledging that Rochon’s experiences were outrageous and offensive, bureau officials insist that his was an isolated case. “In over 21 years in the F.B.I., no one has ever called me a name that was a racial slur, and I have always been treated professionally,” says John D. Glover, 49, who, as Executive Assistant Director for Administration, is now one of the top four policy makers in the F.B.I., and the highest-ranking black.
The Rochon affair has become steadily more bizarre and embarrassing for the bureau. Now assigned to Philadelphia and separated from his wife, Rochon was involved in a well-publicized altercation with a girlfriend last March, during which his nose was broken. Afterward, says David Kairys, Rochon’s lawyer, the bureau subjected the woman to 20 hours of interrogation about their relationship and tried to get her to make damaging statements about Rochon.
William Webster is particularly stung by the accusations of racism in the F.B.I. He reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out a sheet of statistics: Between 1978 and 1987, 848 of the 5,122 agents hired were members of minority groups—a much higher rate (16.5 percent) than ever before. Webster points out that it was he who named the first black inspector, the first black special agent in charge and the first black assistant director. Each of these “firsts,” however, was the same person: John Glover.
A tall, suave man with a reputation as one of the most capable politicians in the bureau, Glover is held up as an example of how far minority group members can go in the organization. One of a handful of blacks who became agents while Hoover was alive, Glover moved steadily up: he was special agent in charge in Milwaukee and then Atlanta (during the controversial child-murder investigation), and headed the inspection division before moving into his current job.
Webster is also proud of the fact that almost 20 percent of the new agents hired while he was Director were women. Despite these efforts, however, out of more than 9,400 agents in the F.B.I. today, only about 4 percent are black, 4 percent Hispanic and 9 percent women. And despite a few symbolic people in high places, relatively few of the women or minority agents are in key jobs.
Matt Perez, an agent for the last 26 years who has now been demoted to the No. 2 job in the small El Paso field office, contends in a lawsuit joined by hundreds of other agents from around the country, that Hispanics are promoted more slowly and disciplined more severely than others in the bureau. “There are very few bigots in the F.B.I.,” he says, “but they are in high places.” (A class-action proceeding, filed in 1977 by Christine Hansen, one of the F.B.I.’s first woman agents, has resulted in cash settlements or awards as high as $200,000 for women found by the courts to have been discriminated against by the bureau. Hansen resigned from the F.B.I. shortly after filing her complaint.)
For more than two years, beginning in March 1983, F.B.I. agents across the country—acting, it turns out, largely on the basis of tips and allegations from a single informant, a Salvadoran refugee named Frank Varelli—tried to discover whether members of Cispes funneled arms to the leftist guerrillas in El Salvador or otherwise engaged in acts of violence. In June 1985, supervisors at F.B.I. headquarters decided they were probing “a dry hole”; the Justice Department insisted the investigation be shut down.
But according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York legal group that represents Cispes in various litigations, the F.B.I. had already gone too far. The center points to some particularly egregious passages in the 1,700 pages of bureau documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.
“It is imperative,” wrote one agent in New Orleans, “to formulate some plan of attack against Cispes and specifically, against individuals [ names, presumably of illegal aliens, deleted ] who defiantly display their contempt for the U. S. Government by making speeches and propagandizing their cause while asking for political asylum. New Orleans is of the opinion that Departments of Justice and State should be consulted to explore the possibility of deporting these individuals or at best denying their re-entry once they leave.”
In Norfolk, Va., agents were revealed to be conducting a “visual inspection” of a bookstore, which proved to contain “posters and other literature in support of black power and black militancy.” Perhaps most disturbing of all was the indication that headquarters forwarded to field offices a written analysis of Cispes’s plans and motives from a right-wing group in Reston, Va., the Young America’s Foundation.
When William Webster looks into that same stack of documents, he finds no grounds for hysteria. The alarming items highlighted by lawyers for Cispes, he points out, constitute a tiny percentage of the documents. What he highlights instead is a July 1984 communication from headquarters setting out “guidelines and instructions” for agents probing Cispes:
“Many of the people and groups involved with Cispes do so [ sic ] for political, emotional, or sociological reasons and are not aware of or involved in the Cispes covert activities enumerated above. [ The prior paragraphs in the document have been obliterated and kept secret. ] Therefore, it is imperative that these investigations are closely supervised and monitored to insure our investigations do not infringe upon the rights of these individuals or groups protected by the Constitution.”
When the Cispes controversy broke earlier this year, Webster says, “I went back and looked at this, holding my breath.” But what he found, he says, is that the Cispes inquiry took the equivalent of five agents’ full-time attention annually for its entire duration, whereas the bureau’s investigation of the right-wing Aryan Nation group received 52 agent-years of attention in 1985 alone (and, by comparison, the F.B.I. spent 1,600 agent-years on organized-crime cases that same year). “Did any of this operate to chill any of these activities or embarrass anyone in the exercise of his First Amendment rights?” Webster asks. He thinks not.
The bureau’s last line of defense on Cispes, most recently put forward by Oliver B. Revell, Executive Assistant Director for Investigation, during testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee in late February, is that although Cispes never committed any crimes, its members had contingency plans to do so, especially in the event that the United States invaded Nicaragua. According to a report prepared by the bureau’s Counterterrorism Section, Cispes was originally created with the help of the Communist Parties of the United States and El Salvador, as well as the Cuban Government, and the organization’s leaders were in contact with “intelligence officers and other representatives of hostile foreign countries in the United States.”
Angela Sanbrano, executive director of Cispes, denies these accusations. “We have had no relations with Cuban representatives in the United States,” or with any other foreign government, she says.
For John C. Ryan, working in the F.B.I.’s “resident agency” in his hometown of Peoria, Ill., the phone call came on July 31, 1984. His supervisor in the Springfield field office urgently requested that he “increase the burn rate” on foreign counterintelligence and antiterrorism investigations, in order to spend at least 25 percent of his time in these areas. “If you can’t think of anything, go over to the library and read magazine articles” about terrorism, Ryan remembers the supervisor saying. “Call it training.”
“I didn’t really do anything differently,” Ryan acknowledges. “I just turned in the figures they wanted.”
The reason Ryan tells this story publicly is that he has since been fired by the F.B.I. Now calling himself a pacifist, he refused in late 1986 to conduct a “terrorism” investigation of the activities of a peace group, Veterans Fast for Life, in Illinois. “It just looked to me like ‘Here we go again,’ “ Ryan says, “and I didn’t want to do it.” (The bureau terminated Ryan last September, nine months before he would have been eligible to retire with a pension.) According to sources in the bureau, messages like the one Ryan received in Peoria were being routinely transmitted to offices across the country—although often more subtly—in the summer of 1984. There was concern at the time that terrorists might disrupt one of the national political conventions or the Los Angeles Olympics. As one agent with long experience in security puts it, “The Hill votes extra money so we’ll do something. Then right away they put on pressure and want to know how effectively the money is being spent.”
In many small offices, serious counterintelligence cases (such as a visit by a known K.G.B. agent from the Soviet Embassy in Washington) and more speculative “terrorism” investigations (such as the Cispes case) are often handled by the same agents. It is inevitable, say some bureau veterans, that the investigative techniques and standards—which are more flexible in counterintelligence—as well as the rhetoric in reports, will become confused, even interchangeable. And if there are no counterintelligence cases to be worked, restless, underused members of a security squad invariably begin to pay too much attention to the other part of their assignment. Add pressure, and some of the agents may make gratuitous, even foolish remarks, as they did about Cispes and its members.
“You have to remember, too, that most agents, being pretty straight and conservative people—often ex-servicemen—will tend to disapprove of dissent,” says one headquarters supervisor.
In larger F.B.I. offices many agents may specialize in security matters. “They still see a Communist behind every tree,” says one of my old sources. “They speak of Communist plants in Congress. . . Security agents don’t have the constraints on them that criminal agents do. They can use conjecture and make comments in their reports that they don’t have to back up. If most people could read the stuff they churn out, they would not believe it.”
When an agent like John Ryan tries to resist the pressure for terrorism investigations, he is seldom successful. In 1985, for example, agents in Buffalo informed F.B.I. headquarters that the All Peoples Congress, an activist coalition that planned demonstrations against President Reagan’s second inauguration, had “no propensity for violence”; agents in the Washington field office said the same, arguing that it was “unnecessary” to conduct surveillance of the busloads of arriving demonstrators. But Oliver Revell, according to bureau documents now public, personally rejected that field advice and ruled that the surveillance must continue.
Revell says these methods have paid off. He claims that the F.B.I., since 1982, has prevented at least 52 major terrorist incidents and saved as many as 1,000 lives, including heading off the assassination on American soil of the leaders of India, Honduras and Nicaragua. Agents watched on closed-circuit television in Chicago while Puerto Rican separatists made bombs, and the bureau defused another one planted by Armenian terrorists at Los Angeles International Airport before it could explode.
Steven L. Pomerantz, chief of the F.B.I.’s counterterrorism section, insists that the existing guidelines protect the public from abuses. “I don’t think they allow room for fishing expeditions, and I don’t think we’ve fished,” says Pomerantz. “We’re investigating terrorism.”
Pointing to convictions of terrorists at both ends of the political spectrum, Pomerantz, who made his early reputation in the F.B.I. as an investigator of organized-crime cases in Detroit, says he is satisfied that the bureau, “as an organization, has been politically blind. We’re looking at conduct, not rhetoric or ideology.”
Still, many in the bureau admit to serious procedural errors in cases like Cispes. Even if there were other significant sources of information about the organization along the way, as Revell contends, it is clear that the F.B.I. relied too much on a single informant, Frank Varelli. “This is a very common syndrome, in security and criminal cases,” says one agent who was stationed in Dallas when Varelli was selling that field office information about Cispes. “One or two things check out, and then you find them going with everything the guy says. If there is not enough knowledge back at headquarters to measure the veracity and validity of a source, the bureau can end up being pretty naive.”
The F.B.I. acknowledges paying Varelli almost $18,000 and buying him a used car. Varelli has claimed in a lawsuit that the bureau owes him another $66,000; he says that his “handling agent,” Daniel Flanagan, may have kept that money himself.
Flanagan, who has denied that charge, resigned from the F.B.I. after the bureau accused him of “misconduct” in the case.
Two months after my initial request for an interview, I met the new Director of the F.B.I., William Sessions, for the first time in mid-April. He was charming, peppering our conversation in his office with jokes, many of them at his own expense. Knowing that Clarence Kelley had cooperated with my earlier inquiries, he sought to assure me that he had come out of the same tradition of openness—Sessions, in fact, graduated from the same Kansas City high school as did Kelley.
Nevertheless, we had agreed in advance that he would not talk about the Cispes case while an internal review is pending, and Sessions refused to discuss publicly matters of equal employment opportunity and discrimination within the bureau in light of the lawsuits by Rochon and Perez.
Sessions has spent most of his time thus far on management issues rather than investigative or ideological matters. (At a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington six weeks earlier, he had said that when he was nominated by President Reagan, he “did not realize the obligation of the director in the foreign counterintelligence” field, and he still seems confused about where some of the F.B.I.’s duties originated.) Still, he has scored points within the agency, according to some officials. His first of 13 visits to field offices was to New York, where agents have traditionally felt alienated and underappreciated. That is seen by some as an important symbol, as will be his recommendation to close the office in Butte, Mont., which achieved notoriety in Hoover’s day as the place where agents were assigned as punishment for misbehavior.
Sessions, say some insiders, is justifiably worried about the bureau’s image and has streamlined procedures for discrimination complaints and ordered a review of promotion policies for agents and clerical employees. In some of his field office visits, he has warned about the dangers of racism.
According to some high-ranking officials, the F.B.I. is really being run by Revell, a skillful bureaucratic politician and a strong-willed administrator who has been representing the agency on Capitol Hill on a wide range of issues. “That’s not so,” Revell says. “The Director does rely on my advice. . .I’d like to think it’s my expertise. But he definitely sets all policy.”
I asked Sessions, who acknowledges that he has little experience as an investigator and much to learn, if he felt confident that he was in charge. “You’ll have to ask others about that,” he said, without missing a beat. “I feel good about the people I work with. . . I hope they accept me as a leader.”
Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf
The most definitive and balanced history of the FBI written by an outsider. This is not a book exclusively about intelligence and counterintelligence in the FBI, but it does contain throughout information on the intelligence and counterintelligence activities of the bureau. Chapter 6 is devoted exclusively to counterintelligence. The author, Washington editor of Atlantic Monthly and writer of an award-winning book on the Pentagon Papers, had access to FBI files and records, and was given permission to supplement this material by interviews with past key figures of the bureau , He has concentrated on the operational aspects of the FBI machine, and has provided useful insights on how the bureau acted to protect the United States from suspected international Communist conspiracy. Important information is revealed on the FBl’s surveillance of the leftists, extremists, and terrorists during the height of the cold war, as one means of combating hostile intelligence infiltration and the spread of subversion. Of particular interest are the inside views one obtains regarding the tensions be-tween the FBI and the other intelligence agencies. No footnotes are available for expansion of source material or checking on the author’s interpretation of the data
 Defense Intelligence School (1981). Bibliography of Intelligence Literature: A Critical And Annotated Bibliography of Open-Source Literature (7th ed, rev.). Washington, DC: Defense Intelligence School, p. 63
 “The F.B.I. On The Defensive Once Again,” (published: May 15, 1988). Sanford J. Ungar, dean of the School of Communication at American University in Washington. He is also author of this review in the New York Times.
 Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., pp. 78-79