J. Edgar Hoover Was Listening

Then, again.
Feb. 29 2012 11:08 AM

Wiretaps and Weathermen

How Hoover’s FBI kept its ears open—in the White House and the counterculture alike.

President Richard Nixon FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and Nixon bag man Bebe Rebozo.
Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, and Bebe Rebozo

Courtesy the National Archives.

This article is excerpted from the book Enemies: A History of the FBI by Tim Weiner.

Richard Nixon came to power with a soaring vision of world peace. If he succeeded, he thought he could reunite a nation at war with itself. If he failed, he feared the United States itself might fall.

His hopes hinged on secret government in America. His policies and plans, from carpet bombings to the diplomacy of détente, were clandestine, hidden from all but a few trusted aides. But he knew the chances for the absolute secrecy he sought were slim.

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“I will warn you now,” President Lyndon B. Johnson had told him at the White House in December 1968, “the leaks can kill you.” He advised Nixon to depend on J. Edgar Hoover, and Hoover alone, to keep his secrets and protect his power: “You will rely on him time and time again to maintain security. He’s the only one you can put your complete trust in.”

Nixon had apocalyptic visions of a revolution in America, his dark thoughts driven deeper by the political assassinations, ghetto riots, and anti-war marches of the ’60s. His inaugural parade on Jan. 20, 1969, ran into a brief but furious hail of rocks, bottles, and beer cans tossed by hundreds of anti-war protesters. On the campaign trail, Nixon’s mantra had been “Bring Us Together.” The people he thought were ripping America apart were screaming curses at his black limousine as it rolled to the White House.

The early days of his presidency were marked by alarming bombings and shootouts: Radicals attacked army-recruiting offices and Reserve Officer Training Corps centers on campus; Puerto Rican nationalists

blew up the draft board in San Juan; black militants aimed sniper attacks at police. Hoover had proclaimed the Black Panther Party and its photogenic leaders the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States. His intelligence chief, Bill Sullivan, had succeeded at placing informers at high levels inside the party, which by 1969 was already starting to fragment. But the FBI did not have a clue about the student movement, and the students were the ones who worried Nixon the most.

Nixon feared that they were a subversive threat as powerful as the Soviets, the Chinese, and the Vietcong. He spoke of the campus uprisings at American universities in one of his first major addresses. “This is the way civilizations begin to die,” he said. He quoted Yeats: “Things fall apart. The center cannot hold. None of us has the right to suppose it cannot happen here.”

From his first weeks in office, Nixon learned that LBJ was right: The leaks were killing him. Every secret decision about the war in Vietnam, including the plans to bomb Cambodia, appeared in the press soon after every important meeting of the National Security Council, led by Henry Kissinger. Each leak fueled the fires of the anti-war movement. Nixon demanded secret intelligence on the radicals in the streets and on Kissinger’s aides in the White House, all of whom he suspected of treason.

He called Hoover and Attorney General John Mitchell into the Oval Office. His memory of the meeting was succinct. “Hoover informed me that . . . there was only one way to deal with it. . . . He had authority to wiretap . . . Wiretapping being the ultimate weapon.”