Sunday, January 11, 2009

"Dear Editor"

Dec. 17, 2008

Dear Editor:

I was disappointed and puzzled by the rejection of my article (“Information Flow and Political Policing: The FBI’s Troubled Relationship with the FOIA") based on the Reader’s very brief report. I believe this Reader has misunderstood or refused to accept the thesis of the article and the wide scope of the material I marshal to support it. I hope it is not inappropriate for me to write this response.

First, historians and scholars in other fields greatly under use the FOIA. Regarding the FBI , the government holds about 4.75 billion pages of records. Only about 6 million pages have been declassified under the FOIA, as I note in the article. Historians generally neglect the FOIA when its usefulness is critical in writing history in many areas: biography; social movements; the history of the Left and the Right; civil liberties; state power; the law, etc. I hope the publication of my article would encourage scholars to think about the FOIA and use it to get government files. We are talking about several billion pages of primary source material which could recast the writing of the 20th century in very significant ways.

I hoped my article could point to the problems researchers face in using the FOIA. I focus on the FBI exclusively because they are the only agency in the federal government to collect millions of pages of political intelligence. FBI scholars, whether liberal (Athan G. Theoharis), conservative (Richard Gid Powers) or radical (Ward Churchill), all agree that the FOIA is a vital ingredient in studying the activity of the U.S. state and its relation to dissidents and social change. Scholars disagree often in sharp terms about the good guy/bad guy dimension of FBI activity. There are heated disagreements, for example, about J. Edgar Hoover between Theoharis and Powers. Theoharis, who has published several books on the Hoover era and is probably the foremost expert, treats the Bureau as a conservative “bureaucracy” hostile to opening its records, embracing a culture of secrecy to conceal its widespread abuse of power and illegal political intelligence gathering. (Theoharis, ed., A Culture of Secrecy; The FBI and American Democracy) Theoharis privileges the role of Director Hoover, calling him an unaccountable “boss.” He wrties, “Hoover had more to do with undermining American constitutional guarantees than any other political leader before or since.”[Theoharis and Cox, The Boss, p. 17) Powers views FBI secrecy not as an effort to hide misconduct and to stop accountability, but as a necessary ingredient in the fight against internal subversives. Powers claims in Secrecy and Power that Hoover’s “most unassailable achievement was creating one of the great institutions in American Government…Millions were sure that Hoover’s secret power was all that stood between them and sinister forces that aimed to destroy their way of life.” [pp. 2, 489]

I generally follow the political view of Theoharis in my article. I do not believe I “recycle cliches about the authoritarian secrecy of J. Edgar Hoover and his successors.” I cite Theoharis extensively. He is not an ideologue or polemicist like Churchill. I do not believe I have overstated in my article beyond what the secondary and primary source material supports. I quote federal judges, after all. The Reader even says that “99% of AHR readers will agree with the author’s perspective.” If so, where have I overstated in my discussion?

Do I ignore the bureau’s motives? I address this dimension in several ways. If most Americans, as opposed to scholars, give “the Bureau the benefit of the doubt” – this may be because they know very little about FBI history. The FBI prefers to keep it this way. That is the main reason they pose obstacles to the use of the FOIA. They continue to try to suppress the release of information about their own history. I believe I make this point, and refer to others who make this point, in my article. This is not some “radical” view. Even FBI officials acknowledge this, like Scott Hodes who I quote; as well as federal judges in several FOIA lawsuits I quote.

It is not fair for the Reader to want a more “empathetic approach” in the article. For me to place the article in a different context – the FBI does a good job in responding to transparency and openness -- would be a misreading of the secondary and primary material.

I do not presume that the article as it now stands does not need revision. I just think that the Reader’s report does not do it proper service. Historians need a nudge to use the FOIA. That was my intention in submitting the article to the AHR.

Thank you for your consideration.

Ivan Greenberg

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