"FBI agents are some of the most idealistic people you can imagine," says former G-man Wesley Swearingen in John Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisitions, a new video documentary by Chicagoan Denis Mueller. Swearingen says he joined the FBI "to put bank robbers in jail," but he soon discovered he was mixed up in a clandestine, and often illegal, war against political dissent. "We had a police state," he admits, "and it was a secret one."
Swearingen's 25-year stint at the agency beginning in the early 1950s required acts of espionage against antiwar and civil rights activists as well as anyone suspected of having ties to the Communist Party. Fellow agents in the Chicago office were asked to spy on religious leaders and educators. These deeds were referred to as "black bag" operations because many agents carried doctors' satchels with equipment for picking locks, opening mail, and photographing documents.
Mueller's two-hour video details a number of criminal acts promoted by Hoover in the name of national security. He says FBI abuses involved slander, forgery, blackmail, and even murder. Mueller was inspired by the late lefty documentarian Emile De Antonio, whose last film, Mr. Hoover and I, revealed his life story as refracted through 10,000 pages of FBI surveillance material acquired under the Freedom of Information Act.
Mueller blends archival footage and interviews to portray Hoover's single-minded suspicion of American activists. The 44-year-old director says he had to resist the impulse to portray Hoover as simply evil: "It was a continuous fight throughout the editing of the tape." He told himself, "Don't demonize him. The truth is bad enough."
Hoover's absurdly autocratic style led to some odd actions. Mueller tells of one agency underling who misconstrued a note about neatness Hoover scribbled on a memo's margin--"watch the borders"--and he dispatched FBI agents to the Mexican border. Petty high jinks included penning letters to Martin Luther King Jr., calling him an "evil abnormal beast," and meddling in writer Nelson Algren's sex life by blocking his travels to Paris to see Simone de Beauvoir.
In a 1957 speech Hoover warned that "a tidal wave of lawless tyranny is now surging forth from the criminal and subversive underworlds." It's an equally apt indictment of his own reign as the chief of secret police. "Hoover legitimized repression when progressive politics were under legally sanctioned attack for 50 years," says Mueller, who also notes the irony that "the biggest increases in the FBI's power came under liberal Democratic administrations."
Mueller will attend the premiere of John Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisitions at 7:30 PM this Friday, March 3, in the Kino-Eye Cinema of Chicago Filmmakers, 1543 W. Division. Tickets cost $5. Call 384-5533 for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Nathan Mandell.