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TAC Bookshelf: How the FBI Dropped the Ball on 9/11

Here's what our writers and editors are reading this week.
tac bookshelf

Arthur Bloom, TAC managing editor: This past weekend, I read the latest Jeffrey Epstein book, A Convenient Death: The Mysterious Demise of Jeffrey Epstein, by Alana Goodman and Daniel Halper, to prepare for a conversation with one of the authors on the podcast this week. You can listen to that to get my further thoughts on the book, which is a competent account of the events surrounding Epstein’s death.

Because of what we are continuing to learn about Russiagate’s origins, I also sat down and read Richard Gid Powers’ history of the FBI, Broken: The Troubled Past and Uncertain Future of the FBI. I’m a big fan of Powers. His biography of J. Edgar Hoover and his history of American anticommunism are both really excellent, and fairer to their subjects than most historians. But I had never gotten to this one. It’s incredibly compelling, though one can disagree with some of its conclusions.

Powers starts with the story of how the FBI dropped the ball on 9/11, owing in part to concerns about racial profiling, placing it at the end of several decades of declining prestige for the agency after the death of Hoover. It’s a strong indictment of the Freeh-era FBI, which brought overwhelming force to bear against the Branch Davidians but was too scared to keep tabs on the 9/11 hijackers. Powers is fairly critical of the post-Church Committee FBI’s timidity, which contrasts strongly with how they jumped into action on very thin evidence to surveil the Trump campaign in 2016. At the same time, Powers’ early chapters on the history of the bureau show that it has always been a political institution, coming into existence due to a fight between Theodore Roosevelt and his congressional opponents, first existing under the auspices of Napoleon’s grand-nephew.

One important dynamic Powers does not touch upon is the extent to which this declining mandate, or at least declining footprint, meant that other non-governmental watchers of radicals and extremists have stepped into the void in a kind of outsourcing, be it John Rees looking into student leftists, the ADL and SPLC monitoring the far right, and various cult deprogrammers keeping tabs on groups like David Koresh’s. All of these have had, or have, non-trivial relationships with the government, though not necessarily the FBI. Given the current civil unrest, one wonders whether we might see a return to COINTELPRO-style infiltration and subversion of radicals, though the era of mass surveillance presents a different, and not necessarily better, option that the government might be just as inclined to take.

Grayson Quay, TAC contributor: Between the coronavirus and the recent protests, plenty of people are rethinking the world they thought they knew. In the spiritual realm, I recently read The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way by Kallistos Ware, hoping to learn more about a Christian tradition of which I have spent my life entirely ignorant.

C.S. Lewis wrote that writers from the same time and place have a tendency to think “that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be” when in fact they are “all the time secretly united…by a great mass of common assumptions.” Ware’s books have revealed to me something similar about Protestantism and Catholicism. Until I was exposed to a unique perspective from the East, I was unaware of how much Evangelicals and Papists, often without realizing it, have in common. I find the Orthodox willingness to embrace mystery and ambiguity without becoming theologically limp to be especially appealing. Not that I’m planning to be chrismated next Pascha. I still can’t shake the idea (which I probably picked up from Chesterton) that to go East (do they call it “crossing the Bosporus?” I have much to learn) is to abandon Western civilization.

On a somewhat more politically engaged note, I also read Dorothy Day’s memoir Loaves and Fishes, which chronicles the rise of the Catholic Worker Movement. I’d previously had some idea of Day as the embodiment of all of Pope Francis’s worst instincts, an apologist for Castro who (unlike the flag-waving Fulton Sheen) didn’t know how good we have it in America. I was pleasantly surprised by her memoir. I found nothing unorthodox about her theology; what set her apart was a profound willingness to take the Sermon on the Mount literally. She was, in the proper meaning of the term, a “radical Christian fundamentalist.” It’s true that she initially had some kind words to say about Castro, but she herself was no socialist. She called herself a “distributist” or a “Christian anarchist” and believed that every dollar the government was forced to spend aiding the poor was a failure on the part of the Church. I admired her ability to see Christ in the destitute, even when they were profane and ornery, and although I do not share her pacifism, I was impressed by her willingness to go to jail for picketing air raid drills.

In an age when the international “national conservative” movement is attempting to overthrow the secular, globalist, woke elite and re-establish a patriotic traditionalism rooted in Christianity, I’m now wondering whether that’s what I should really want. Have I made an idol of Western civilization and compromised myself to hold its crumbling feet of clay together when I should have been worrying about how to be “not of this world”? Have I wasted time arguing about politics with strangers on Facebook when I should have been trying to manifest the good society within my own sphere of influence?



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