'FBI' relies on anecdotes, not analysis

October 20, 1993|By Michael Tackett | Michael Tackett,Chicago Tribune

Paul Miller, one of the many FBI agents charged with talking to the news media about bureau operations, was jarred awake by a phone call in Miami at about 2 a.m. on Jan. 4, 1987. An FBI agent, Suzanne Monserrate, had been shot, Mr. Miller was told, as she and her agent-husband, Frank, were leaving a suburban club called The Playhouse.

Mr. Miller was stunned to see network camera crews rolling when he arrived. What was the big news? He soon found out The Playhouse was a club for sex swingers, and the Monserrates had been patrons.

The Monserrates initially denied participating in what the club had to offer. They were simply voyeurs, they told the bureau's internal investigators. But those investigators quickly assembled evidence proving they indeed had been full participants. The FBI fired them.

The story of the Monserrates seems to have everything: sex, violence, money and power. But like much that is to be found in Ronald Kessler's "The FBI," it's presented with little context. Mr. Kessler piles on the anecdotes from FBI field offices across the nation, yet tells us only sparingly how they fit into a larger picture of one of the world's most powerful law-enforcement agencies.

That said, Mr. Kessler does deliver a thoroughly researched work with much detail about operations that have received scant public attention elsewhere. Writing about a police agency that is legendary for its ability to fashion its image through positive coverage, he credibly shows that the FBI, too, has its share of thieves, louts, sexists and racists to go along with its heroes. Overall, though, his book presents a portrait of the FBI that should please most agents and their bosses.

Mr. Kessler focuses on the modern era, which is to say the period following the death of J. Edgar Hoover. With the full cooperation of now-deposed Director William S. Sessions, he gained remarkable access to the bureau. He takes us into the FBI's secret special-operations rooms and its behavioral sciences lab, and shows us parts of case files that serve to glamorize the FBI's work.

Ironically, it was Mr. Kessler's work that at least in part helps set into motion the chain of events leading to Mr. Sessions' departure. Indeed, the book's cover claims that Mr. Kessler "brought down" Mr. Sessions, though it seems equally likely from reading his account that there was no shortage of willing accomplices within the FBI who helped, and perhaps used him, to achieve the same end.

Having been granted wide access, in the course of his research Mr. Kessler heard from Mr. Sessions' many internal enemies, who told him how the director had abused his government travel privileges and allowed his wife, Alice, to flout bureau rules. Mr. Sessions comes off as feckless and ineffectual, probably an overly harsh assessment.

At first the book has a gee-whiz quality that's an FBI publicist's dream. Long portions read almost like an FBI tour, complete with side visits to field offices.

Mr. Kessler writes about how agents in Maryland decided to tackle a high-profile kidnap-murder case and "worry about jurisdictional questions later." (Agents were successful in bringing about the conviction of the woman's killer.) He also shows how the FBI in large part has outgrown the anal-retentive ways of Hoover and is no longer fixated on statistics for car thefts, for example.

Though many Hoover devotees remain in high ranks, agents no longer fear being transferred to Butte, Mont., for such minor transgressions as drinking coffee on the job. (In any case, that threat now can be symbolic only, because the Butte office has been closed.)

The book also provides a thoughtful treatment of how the FBI is attempting to overcome its discriminatory employment practices. Although still dominated by white males, the bureau has improved its hiring and recruitment practices, thanks largely to the efforts of former Directors William Webster and Sessions.

But trouble spots remain. Female agents, for example, are made to impersonate hookers or girlfriends on undercover assignments. "They seemed to have an opinion that any woman can play the girlfriend," Agent Linda Thompson says.

The book also shows an agency beset by internal politics. Bureaucratic inertia blocked a move to upgrade weapons for field agents. Technological systems are woefully inadequate, with some field agents lacking computers. And the FBI often demonstrates a lack of proportion, meting out the same punishment for sexual harassment as for the minor misuse of bureau files.

As remarkable as it might have been for Mr. Kessler to get so many people from the FBI to talk on the record, what they say here is not particularly revealing. The book piles on the anecdotes, but one wishes he had devoted more space to analyzing the information he compiled.

Sometimes his assessments are limited to single-sentence paragraphs at the ends of chapters. In one case he simply concludes: "What is needed is a balance between the arbitrary and harsh discipline of the Hoover era and the slap on the wrist that is too often meted out today for lying or abusing the FBI's awesome power."

"The FBI" certainly is a valuable reference for anyone who already is interested in the bureau. But for the general public, the book's lack of narrative power may limit its appeal.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The FBI"

Author: Ronald Kessler

Publisher: Pocket Books

Length, price: 492 pages, $22

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