Oregon man spills stories on J. Edgar Hoover
On April 4, 1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover took an after-hours call at his home.
"Sir," said the caller, "we've just received a teletype from the Memphis office advising that Martin Luther King was shot while standing on a motel balcony in that city."
That caller was then 25-year-old Paul Letersky, author of "The Director: My Years Assisting J. Edgar Hoover," published by Scribner and available to purchase.
"I was just a snot-nosed kid who didn't know any better," recalled Letersky, now age 77 and a resident of Nehalem.
He's spent the last eight years in Oregon, dividing his time between his daughter in Bend, a couple years in Portland and now living on the Oregon Coast.
In the late 1960s, and fresh out of college, Letersky served as Hoover's assistant and had unusual access to the director at a critical time in our nation's history.
He alone was privy to Hoover's personal reaction to King's assassination. And Letersky witnessed firsthand the pivotal point public opinion about Hoover curdled. "A group called Citizens to Investigate the FBI broke into a resident agency and grabbed all the files." Those files, Letersky said, detailed the FBI's counterintelligence operations against groups like the Weathermen and the Black Panthers. He calls it psychological warfare.
"We would go against these movements through planting false stories, distributing bogus literature and publications, sending anonymous letters to create dissent within and between the groups to break down the internal organization," he said.
Letersky says the nation turned against Hoover when they saw the FBI use these techniques against the New Left."Nobody criticized the bureau for doing it to the Ku Klux Klan or to the communists," said Letersky.
Upon reflection, he thinks he did the right thing. "They were blowing up buildings and killing people, putting bombs in government buildings and police stations," he remembered. "We thought it was for national security and the good of everybody, even though we knew we were violating the laws."
Letersky believes his book especially resonates today when, just as in 1968, the death of a Black man riles protests, riots and violence. Again, our nation wrestles over race and police practices.
"I saw history repeating itself," he said, "and I thought this will be a good time to disclose a lot of stuff I was involved in that people weren't familiar with."
Letersky worked alongside special agent Mark Felt, "Deep Throat" informant during Watergate, and Joe Pistone, who worked undercover as Donnie Brasco, who infiltrated the Mafia, and developed information that led to more than 100 federal convictions.
A morally difficult part of his job as a special agent, Letersky says, was arresting soldiers AWOL from the Vietnam War. "I felt like a hypocrite arresting these young people," he said. "The Selective Service board discriminated against these poor kids. They didn't have the same resources or ability or knowledge or guidance to avoid the draft."
He almost jeopardized his career when he refused to arrest any more AWOL military."I had friends that went to Vietnam, and they suffered. Some were killed," he said.
"The Director" reveals a key moment when John F. Kennedy's extramarital dalliances endangered national security and enlightens readers about Hoover's "secret files."
"People talk about those secret files. Hoover never used anything in those files to extort anything from anybody. Not one person." Yet Letersky admitted Hoover's files held extraordinary sway over powerful people.
"If you were a corrupt congressman, you knew what you did, but you weren't sure if Hoover knew," he said.
Although Letersky never read those files, he knows what happened to them. He had a mother-son-like relationship with Helen Gandy, who worked beside Hoover from 1918 when she was a teen to the day he died in 1972, and beyond as she carried out Hoover's wishes regarding his files.
J. Edgar Hoover died in his home May 2, 1972. He was the first civil servant ever to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. Statesmen and movie stars attended his memorial. President Richard Nixon delivered the eulogy.
In contrast to the spectacle, Letersky in the telling first line of this book wrote: "No one cried at his funeral."
Letersky added: "Regardless, he was a patriot who for better or for worse built the FBI into a professional crime-fighting organization."
Interview requests fill his schedule, agents call about movie rights, but Letersky already plots his next book.
As head of security for United Airlines and vice president of Pan American, he traveled the world tracking down international terrorists.
"I ended up working with the KGB for a couple of years when the Soviet Union was collapsing," he said. "So, I have a lot of material for my next book or two. I just hope I live long enough to get them out."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.