Wiretaps and Weathermen
How Hoover’s FBI kept its ears open—in the White House and the counterculture alike.
“I told Mr. Hoover we would go forward with this program,” Nixon remembered. “I called Dr. Kissinger in and indicated to him that he should take the responsibility of checking his own staff.”
Kissinger complied. “Here he was in this room with J. Edgar Hoover, John Mitchell, Richard Nixon,” said Kissinger’s aide, Peter Rodman. “They’re saying: ‘Let’s do some taps.’ And J. Edgar Hoover and John Mitchell say: ‘Yeah, we can do that. Bobby Kennedy did this all the time.’ ”
The Kissinger wiretaps were on. “Dr. Kissinger said he appreciated this very much,” Hoover wrote, “and he hoped I would follow it up as far as we can take it and they will destroy whoever did this if we can find him, no matter where he is.”
On May 28, 1969, at 3 p.m., Nixon took a seat beside Hoover in the ceremonial East Room of the White House. Together they presided over the graduation of the 83rd session of the FBI National Academy, a training course for American law enforcement commanders and foreign police chiefs. Minutes before, in the Oval Office, Hoover had personally delivered a set of the Kissinger wiretap summaries to the president. In the East Room, Hoover gave Nixon a gold badge, making him an
honorary member of the FBI, and Nixon spoke about the rule of law.
“Our problem,” the president said, “is to see to it that, all over America, our laws—the written laws— deserve respect of all Americans, and that those who carry out the law—who have that hard, difficult, grueling, sometimes dangerous task of enforcing the law—that they carry out their responsibilities
in a way that deserves respect.”
That same afternoon, in Chicago, a young FBI agent named Bill Dyson was about to be initiated into the rules of a lawless world. He remembered the day with clarity. It was the start of a new life.
Dyson was 28-years-old, on his first tour of duty, barely two years after joining the FBI. His boss told him he was going to be working on a wiretap. He was not exactly sure what a wiretap was, or how they worked, or what laws regulated them. But he followed his supervisor down into a windowless room in the bowels of the Bureau’s office. His superiors sat him down and said: “Here’s your machine.”
They put him on the four-to-midnight shift listening to members of the Students for a Democratic Society.
The SDS formally convened in Chicago three weeks later. One faction declared it would begin an armed struggle against the government of the United States. Over the summer, and into the fall, Dyson listened as the members of the group argued, debated, and plotted. He was witnessing the violent birth of a terrorist gang.
“I watched them become the Weathermen! I was with them when they became the Weathermen!” he said. “It was exciting. I was watching history.”
About 50 years before, in Chicago, in September 1919, J. Edgar Hoover’s agents had spied on the birth of the Communist Party of the United States. Dyson was following in their tradition.
The Weathermen saw themselves as revolutionaries who could overthrow America, a vision fueled in part by doses of LSD. They called themselves Communists, but their tactics were closer to those of the Italian anarchists who had bombed Washington and Wall Street in the days after World War I.
Their leaders were white, good-looking, well-educated; some came from wealthy families. They tried to form armed alliances with the Black Panthers. They traveled to Cuba and met with representatives of the government of North Vietnam. They drilled discipline into one another with a grinding groupthink that Chairman Mao might have admired. They fought one another and slept with one another. And Dyson listened.
“I knew more about these people than they knew about themselves. If you work a wiretap, a good wiretap, you will become that way,” he said. “I lived with these people sometimes twenty- four hours a day, seven days a week.”
Tim Weiner has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his writing on American national security. As a correspondent for the New York Times, he reported on war and terrorism from Afghanistan and other nations over the course of 15 years. Enemies is his fourth book.