Filmmakers Find Criticism about FBI Documentary `Somewhat Mystifying'

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 15, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Filmmakers Find Criticism about FBI Documentary `Somewhat Mystifying'


Ray Wannall's criticism of "Operation SOLO," a documentary produced by Towers Productions Inc. for the History Channel, is an eloquent testament to the extraordinary influence of the late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ("Unrelenting assaults against Hoover," Commentary, Aug. 1). A generation after Mr. Hoover's death, his many defenders continue to rally around his legacy, even as that legacy slips beyond their control.

It is evident and honorable that the ideals they believe Mr. Hoover embodied are worth fighting for. History and hagiography are not the same, however. Mr. Wannall's response to our program illustrates the unfortunate tendency of Mr. Hoover's staunchest supporters to circle the wagons at the slightest suggestion of the director's fallibility.

"Operation SOLO" was one episode in a four-hour, four-part series called "Tales of the FBI." Our documentary is based on John Barron's book "Operation SOLO: The FBI's Man in the Kremlin." We believe the series offers a nuanced, balanced and accurate portrayal of the FBI's fascinating history. The "SOLO" program in particular, for which Mr. Wannall was interviewed, depicted the FBI at its most resourceful and exciting.

Maybe that is why we found Mr. Wannall's opinion piece somewhat mystifying.

For example, he insists that we sacrificed truth for the sensational misrepresentation that there was a Soviet spy in the FBI during the late 1960s. At no point do we make that claim. Rather, we assert merely that a Soviet spy in the United States came across information in FBI files, a statement whose accuracy Mr. Wannall's own words support. His interpretation may simply be a casualty of the constraints of television in a story as rich as "Operation SOLO" - there was just not enough time to provide the details of the operation he describes.

The other main target of Mr. Wannall's criticism appears to be our portrayal of the FBI's surveillance of Martin Luther King. Few would argue that this is one of the most exhaustively documented and damaging episodes in FBI history. Still, one of its central historical questions - did the FBI have legitimate reasons to suspect that the civil rights leader was being influenced by agents of foreign communism? - remains prisoner to the ideological passions of that era, both on the left and on the right.

Again, we believe that our brief retelling of this story was accurate and historically honest. Just as we did not contend, as Mr. Wannall claims, that SOLO itself expanded the power of Hoover, we did not argue that SOLO and COINTELPRO were related operationally.

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Filmmakers Find Criticism about FBI Documentary `Somewhat Mystifying'
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