Tuesday, August 09, 2005

J. Edgar Hoover: What Mafia?

I'm currently reading Ernest Volkman's Gangbusters: The Destruction of America's Last Great Mafia Dynasty, which chronicles how the Lucchese Family of New York was brought down by FBI agents and police detectives after decades of flourishing virtually free of government inquiry into their criminal activities, which ranged from trafficking millions of dollars a year in narcotics to leveling a hidden "Mafia tax" on every garment bought in the U.S., stemming from Gaetano Lucchese's ownership of the garment industry in New York.

Part of the reason for the Mafia's amazing immunity to law enforcement was J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, which Volkman describes in detail. Under Hoover, the FBI didn't even acknowledge the existence of a Mafia until the late 1950s. At least Hoover's willful ignorance, sheer idiocy, and unabashed self-preservation make for some funny anecdotes:

  • When Hoover's power is first threatened by then Senate Rackets committee Member Robert F. Kennedy by Kennedy's increasing reliance on Hoover's enemy Harry Anslinger at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (who does believe in the mob), Hoover decides to finally take action against the Mafia:
    Confronted with the evidence, Hoover finally gave up...His next two moves were pure Hoover. First, he ordered every FBI field office in the country to begin a 'Top Hoodlum Program.' Each office was to prepare a list of ten 'top hoodlums'--no more, no less--and target them for investigation and prosecution. The arrival of this order in such disparate FBI field offices as Butte, Montana, and New York City created two very different reactions. In Butte...the field office desperately searched for hoodlums to put on the list. Finally it listed ten local juvenile delinquents and vowed a full investigation of their 'criminal activities.' Headquarters praised Butte for its diligence. (81)
  • Once Hoover actually starts directing some FBI resources to the bugging of meeting places of mob men, he is preoccupied not so much with their criminality as with the gossip they divulge about various public figures. As Volkman says:
    Few in the FBI knew that for many years Hoover had maintained what he called a 'personal file,' actually several filing cabinets' worth of derogatory or incriminating material culled from FBI reports about leading public officials and assorted movers and shakers.' This collection of dirt, gossip, and rumor was intended as potential blackmail material...Hoover had paid special attention to the transcripts of one particular bug, which had been planted in Meyer Lansky's home. The bug was unproductive..., and the tape transcripts were mostly idle conversations with his wife. But among those conversations was one in which Lansky told his wife of hearing 'rumors' that Robert Kennedy was having an affair with an unnamed woman in El Paso. 'Oh dear,' a shocked Mrs. Lansky replied. 'And he has seven children!' Actually, the rumor was false, but the tidbit was added to a new secret file Hoover had opened on Kennedy. (83)
  • And more investigative difficulties because of Hoover:

    However inane, the Top Hoodlum Program nevertheless had the effect of diverting an increased number of FBI agents into organized crime investigation for the first time...[but] there were several Hooveresque dictates from headquarters: no cooperation with local police, no contact with the hated[Federal Bureau of Narcotics], and no deviation from the FBI's strict codes governing agent conduct--including the Bureau's rigid dress code of white shirt and dark suit, hardly the kind of outfit suitable for agents to get down in the trenches with the Mafiosi. (83)
  • When Robert F. Kennedy, Hoover's most recent nemesis, becomes Attorney General in 1961, Hoover is irritated by Kennedy's assertion of his authority:
    Impervious to Hoover's usual tactics of bureaucratic end run or outright intimidation, Kennedy presented a real problem...In one afternoon visit, he announced his intention of interrupting Hoover's regular 2 P.M. 'security conference.' Barging into Hoover's office past the furious protests of the director's secretary and gatekeeper, Helen Gandy, Kennedy discovered the 'conference' was in fact Hoover's regular afternoon nap. (89)
  • When an important mobman, Joseph Valachi, becomes an inadvertent Mafia informant on various details that undergird the structure of the mob, Hoover and Kennedy have conflicting ideas on how to handle his informative but ultimately unhelpful information (because it can't be used to prosecute any Mafia members):
    Valachi's information was useless. But Hoover grasped the larger significance: for the first time, a member of the Mafia had provided details on the mysterious organization's inner workings. Hoover sought to use this for the FBI's advantage: he ordered that his aides ghostwrite an article under Valachi's name, entitled, 'The Inside Story of Organized Crime and How You can Stop it,' to be published in Parade, the nationally distributed Sunday newspaper supplement. And, coincident with release of the news of Valachi's defection, Hoover planned an article under his own name that would claim Valachi's testimony 'corroborated and embellished facts developed by the FBI as early as 1961.' An appalled Robert Kennedy vetoed the idea. (92)

And one time when Kennedy found out that J. Edgar Hoover's close aide and "rumored lover" Clyde Tolson had been hospitalized, Kennedy replied "For what? A hysterectomy?" (90). J. Edgar Hoover: proving that the cream does not always rise to the top, as the saying goes.

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