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VINE VOICEon 2 June 2008
For those interested in American politics and society, a single volume history of the FBI would certainly be a well-read, if weighty volume. And on the other side of the shelf, a similar volume on the CIA would be superb. Even with meticulous organisation, selection and editing, it is hard to imagine a short history of the FBI that does not approach 1,000 pages. The FBI A History by Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones is a 250-page book which claims to present a complete history of a vast, powerful and sometimes bitterly criticised American institution (as the dust cover says) charting its 100-year history. An ambitious task but one that Jeffreys-Jones has not succeeded by a wide margin.

To understand the FBI in a single time line is - arguably - unachievable. Simplistically you can assess its performance in catching criminals and domestic spies and the evolving technology of crime fighting. Here interest in the prurient detail of murder and violence (and was J Edgar Hoover really a transvestite) is the stuff of never ending books and TV dramas. Beyond the micro level, is the evolution of the FBI within American federal system and society, where power came from and how it was/is exercised. There is the significant political interaction with President and Congress, who was master, who was mistress? Ethically, there is the relationship between the FBI and democracy, how the balance between upholding freedom and undermining is struck. If that were not enough the FBI and CIA's fraught relationship is compelling.

So does Jeffreys-Jones manage to tackle any of this? No he flirts with some but goes nowhere. In the preface, he makes clear his own interest in black and labour history and the rise of feminism. In the first chapter page one Race and the Character of the FBI, he states "the dominant theme in the FBI's history, race." His much-repeated thesis is the imbalance in hiring minorities within the FBI and the FBI's action against, and occasionally in defence of minorities. Clearly, this is a valid area of study but to elevate it as the most important factor? If Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones wants to write a history of gender and race in the FBI then very well, but re-title his book and make the content better aligned with his particular interests. This book is both muddled and mediocre.

With the space available, chapter by chapter he makes the relevant factual points in twelve chronological blocks. He asserts that the FBI began in 1871 not 1908 and seems annoyed that he alone has recognised this. It might have been better had his chapters been thematic, as a lecturer I wonder if he presents in chorological lumps or does he select subject matter and issues to engage his students? The FBI is confronted by dilemmas that existed from its foundation and will always exist. One is Congressional corruption but then they answer to them for appropriations and powers. He mentions the use of fear, inflating crime statistics drive higher funding, there lies some hard history and current lessons. The relationship between the President and the Director of the FBI will always be theatre. The FBI is a unique organisation, cunning criminals confronted by larger than life agents, there are many stories of low life and high politics to be told but in terms of structure and content, the author might as well be relating the history of the IRS.

Update: for a good account of the FBI consider Tim Weiner "Enemies: A History of the FBI: The FBI and Its Enemies" (2012). This follows on from his book on the CIA.
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