I had never heard of the 1971 burglary of the FBI offices in the United States that exposed the nefarious practices of the bureau’s director, J Edgar Hoover, and was perhaps even more consequential than the Watergate scandal a year later. I don’t mind admitting this, because Emily Maitlis – the former Newsnight presenter – says that she hadn’t heard of it either. With the help of some notable guests (including the burglars themselves), her eight-part series for Radio 4 centres on the man who ran the FBI for nearly five decades, under eight presidents, and who many consider the architect of the US’s deep state.
We won’t come to the burglary until episode five – and there’s a lot to get through before then. The story begins in 1919: an era of anarchy, of organised crime, and of the “Red Scare”. Hoover, an ambitious clerk in the US Department of Justice, is promoted aged 24 to head up a new division monitoring left-wing radicals. He swiftly moves up to run the Bureau of Investigation (soon to become the FBI), and by the 1930s is a household name – the escapades of his agents lionised by Hollywood films. A high-profile showdown (possibly staged) with a notorious gangster cements his reputation in the popular imagination and ensures Hoover will never have to face serious congressional scrutiny again. For the next 35 years his influence grows, until he is making presidents wait and rewriting American history with the help of his secret police.
This is a story about unaccountable power, and the inability of creaking political structures to react when institutions take on an agenda of their own. But it’s also a story about data. “Hoover, in his own analogue way, launched the information age,” Maitlis explains. By gathering information on anyone who could be a potential threat or asset to him, an unelected bureaucrat became one of the most powerful men in the land. “Today, Americans are continuing to wrestle with Hoover’s ghost,” we are told in episode one. So who holds that power now? And is there anything the rest of us can do about it?
The People vs J Edgar Hoover
BBC Radio 4, weekdays, 1.45pm; available on catch-up
This article appears in the 15 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Big Slow Down