In recent years the FBI has faced increasing criticism over a series of high profile blunders, and this week's discovery of the identities of the 1971 Media burglars reminded us of some of the agency's more sinister activities. But despite all the negative coverage, the media has always had a soft spot for the G-Men. Brooke looks back on a piece from 2001 in light of these recent revelations.
[(WHEN I GROW UP) THE G-MAN SONG]:
Gee, but I'd like to be a G-Man and go Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! I'd be a brave gang-busting he-man and go Bang! Bang! Bang! bang!
I'd put on disguises of all different sizes
And would I win prizes for telling who spies is!
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
RONALD KESSLER: I'll tell you, things have really changed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ronald Kessler is author of Inside the FBI: The World's Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency.
RONALD KESSLER: Under Hoover, the Bureau created this image of this invincible agency where they always got their man. They did this through the media, through radio shows, TV shows, movies that they controlled.
ANNOUNCER: Many of the incidents in the story you are about to hear are based on the actual records and authentic experiences of Matt Cvetic who, for nine fantastic years, lived as a Communist for the FBI.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: J. Edgar Hoover policed the agency's image through an office with the impenetrable name of the Crimes Records Division. It was charged with furnishing what were called "interesting case memoranda" to the radio shows, and later the TV shows and movies, over which Hoover exercised an invincible veto power. He was ever vigilant in pursuit of good PR.
J. EDGAR HOOVER: I am your new director. I did not ask for the position but now that I have it, I intend to give it the best I have. The Bureau will operate solely on efficiency, and we are going to do it as a team.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: Once upon a time, Hollywood loved the organization.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Edelstein is the film critic for New York Magazine.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: There was something very, very reassuring about the discipline, the order, the routine, the sticking to the rules. There was something very reassuring about those men in those gray suits, all with identical haircuts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the love affair had cooled for the average American in the mid-seventies, with the Senate investigation of the FBI under Frank Church. This week, we learned the real story of civic-minded burglars who slipped into an FBI office late one night in 1971 and stole out with suitcases full of documents exposing how the agency was spying on and interfering with anti-war and civil rights activists, in an explicit attempt to paralyze them with paranoia. The information leaked to the press, which gave rise to the Church Committee and new restrictions on the FBI.
RICHARD POWERS: That pretty much blew the lid off all of the FBI horrors that Hoover had kept, you know, bottled up over all those years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Richard Powers is the author of G-Men: Hoover’s FBI in American Popular Culture.
RICHARD POWERS: Once you have an image that the FBI promoted during the 1930s, of being an omnipotent, all-knowing, all-powerful agency that never could make a mistake, it was setting itself up for a terrible fall.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the image of the FBI splintered. Films like the Die Hard series showed up the FBI as officious and obstructionist bureaucrats.
BRUCE WILLIS AS JOHN McCLANE: Al, talk to me. What's goin’ on here?
REGINALD VEL JOHNSON AS SGT. AL POWELL: Ask the FBI. They got the Universal Terrorist Playbook and they're running it step by step.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Meanwhile the Bureau regained a measure of its old omniscience with a Jodie Foster vehicle.
SCOTT GLENN AS JACK CRAWFORD: Look at him, Starling. Tell me what you see.
JODIE FOSTER AS CLARICE STARLING: Well he's a white male. Serial killers tend to hunt within their own ethnic groups. He's not a drifter. He's got his own house somewhere, not an apartment.
JACK CRAWFORD: Why?
CLARICE STARLING: What he does with them takes privacy. And he's never impulsive. He'll never stop.
JACK CRAWFORD: Why not?
CLARICE STARLING: Got a real taste for it now, and he's getting better at his work.
JACK CRAWFORD: Not bad, Starling.
JOHN DOUGLASS: Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs probably did more for the Bureau as a fictional case than any real case, any real publicity [LAUGHS] that the Bureau could have done. It, it was – it’s amazing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ex-profiler John Douglass is the model for Agent Starling's mentor, Jack Crawford, played by Scott Glenn.
JOHN DOUGLASS: A lot of high-ups in the FBI itself at first didn't like the movie. They said it was very, very violent. And when I went to a movie screening, I got up and I said, I don't know what the rest of you think in the FBI. I see this work day-in and day-out.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: Damn, you know, who wouldn't want to sign up and, and go out and hunt themselves some serial killers?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Critic David Edelstein says that despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, the gods of Tinseltown have consistently favored the Bureau with positive portrayals.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: In the beginning, the FBI was all that stood between us freedom-loving Americans and those nasty immigrant gangsters. Then the FBI was all that stood between us and that evil Communist menace. Then, when the Communist menace no longer seemed so imminent, suddenly the FBI was, was out doing battle with right-wing white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan.
[X-FILES THEME MUSIC, UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even the X-Files, which depicts a dark and dangerous place, an agency at war with itself, has proved a boon to the FBI. As long as it seems powerful, the Bureau can't lose.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: It's only in very, very, very rare instances that the FBI is portrayed as incompetent, which seems to me the worst danger to an organization that thrives on secrecy and that presents itself as a model of superhuman and enlightened efficiency.
[VAN DYKE PARKS SINGING G-MAN HOOVER]
Rat tat tat G-Man Hoover
Rat tat tat tat…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the wake of criticism that the FBI may have dropped the ball on Boston bombers and failed to pursue white-collar criminals and racially profiled, as the new FBI chief sorts through his agency's priorities, he might want to consider beefing up the Bureau in Hollywood.
[VAN DYKE PARKS SINGING G-MAN HOOVER]
Criminals come but they have one way to go
Gangsters are dumb for by now they ought to know
Stick with care or they gang you over there
Hoover will bring them to the electric chair
A B C D E F G, G-Man G-Man Hoover
Rat tat tat tat rat tat tat tat…
[[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media was produced by Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Laura Mayer. We had more help from Kimmie Regler and Meera Sharma. And our show was edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week was Andrew Dunne and Justin Gerrish.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our Senior Producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for News. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.