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FBI: History of Extraordinary Police work or Gestapo Secret Police?

Updated on August 26, 2012

Who Polices the Police?

With any person, event or time in history there is always more than one viewpoint, many times making the true story extremely difficult and sometimes impossible to determine. There is perhaps no more difficult story to get the true story of than that of the FBI and its founder J. Edgar Hoover. At various times the views of this story will come in conflict with those commonly felt beliefs that many of us hold when thinking of the federal police force. Be forewarned that some of the things you will read below (and in the book) can be surprising and upsetting. Many of us, especially those born after the 70s see the FBI as an elite police force ready to face the toughest challenges of terrorists and organized crime. However, the ugly side is of this same story is an organization that single handedly destroyed every concept of privacy and freedom of speech. Which is the right description of the FBI? Read their history and you decide.

Image Source from fbi.gov

The beginnings of the FBI

Like most things in life, the origins of the FBI started for the right reasons to help not hurt. There were a couple of key reasons for the Bureau of Investigations or BI (as it was first called) to be formed. First, criminals who crossed a state line would never have to worry about being pursued by the police since they had no jurisdiction in a different state. This allowed bank robbers and other criminals to escape with impunity by simply driving a few miles away in many cases. Second, the amount of training and abilities of many local police departments could not keep up with new crimes and new types of criminals. For instance bank robberies and kidnapping required advanced training and tactics that most small towns out west could not afford if they may only see one such crime every few years. Third, and perhaps the most important was nation wide emergencies like the assassination of President McKinley that perhaps showed a wide conspiracy that needed a very large force to investigate.

Thus, President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 authorized the Attorney General to create a set of investigators to help investigate interstate crimes and other areas of national security. Interestingly enough for several decades these investigators did not have the right to carry guns or even make arrests. They were truly investigators and had to use local police forces to make the actual arrests. As part of that mission the FBI created a centralized laboratory that could use the most sophisticated technology and processes to help investigate and catch criminals. This was used when the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped and several other cases that required new ballistic and fingerprint matching techniques. Ironically enough the very characteristics that made fingerprint and ballistic matching so powerful was its own source of abuse; that of creating files to match against for large number of Americas.

The growth of power

During prohibition the United States saw a tremendous growth in organized crime as bootleggers found huge profits in creating, transporting and selling alcohol. With any crime with tremendous profits there is almost always a growth of violence and fighting over those profits. In the case of prohibition almost all of this crime took place over state lines and thus the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Investigation. The most violent of these crimes were the major bank robbers including the most famous John Dilinger, but also "Baby Face" Nelson, Kate "Ma" Barker and George "Machine Gun" Kelley. It was not until one of these major criminals shot and killed a number of BI agents and innocent civilians outside a train station that J. Edgar Hoover was able to convince congress to grant agents the right to carry weapons and the power to arrest suspects. Truly now the BI was turned into a true police force.

At the same time the leadership of the BI was discovering an even more powerful tool, that of being able to listen to private conversation. First, they explored the benefits of wiretaps on phone lines and very quickly after listening bugs installed in a suspect's house or workplace. Of course the original intent of this electronic surveillance was to listen to criminal activity and prevent terrible acts of crime, but it opened Pandora's box allowing for tremendous capabilities of monitoring non-criminals as well. Keep in mind that unlike wiretaps which take place at the phone company, bugs required agents to break into a home or business to install and repair these devices. These "Black Bag" jobs became so common that agents routinely used these break-ins to search for evidence needed to get permission to plan a bug. Put another way, an agent has a suspicion that an individual is a potential communist or criminal, they will break into the home search for evidence plant bugs and listen. Only after finding files or hearing conversation do they then ask for permission from the Attorney General to arrest and search for evidence. Occasionally, agents made the mistake of going right toward hidden evidence in a suspects house in front of the suspect showing that they had been there before.

Soon BI was monitoring far more than criminals, soon they began monitoring political and civic leaders. This became the origins of Hoover's files.

"You must understand that you're working for a crazy maniac and that our duty...is to find out what he wants and to create the world that he believes in"

- Special Agent in Charge Roy Moore

To file or not to file:

While initially it was claimed that monitoring key leaders in power was important to search for spies and moles during the cold war, the line between searching for true treason and simply finding leverage (aka blackmail) was becoming blurred. Soon just the rumor that a leader was a homosexual, had an extra-marital affair, belonged to an organization or knew someone that might have once been party of a communist club all went into their permanent file. If they ever were to come in conflict with J. Edgar Hoover, he would pull out these files and either privately or many times publicly humiliate those leaders. While in theory this electronic surveillance needed to be pre-authorized (in fact the supreme court even mandated it), Hoover was able to find ways around this by always claiming it was for national security purposes and thus exempt from oversight.

Any Attorney General that attempted to reign in Hoover was somehow shown the door due to the number of senators, congressmen, even presidents that had a file with embarrassing details. Those that did not have a past, were given access to information on their opponents to help their campaigns and thus created a file for themselves simply by using other people’s files. Several president’s found these files so useful that they personally authorized and encouraged Hoover to continue the practice, always using the cover story that it was to stop communism or other threats to national safety. Unfortunately to accomplish this, the FBI had an unknown number of wiretaps, however evidence shows it was in the hundreds or thousands at any given time, not to mention breaking into private residences looking for evidence, even planting evidence to discredit enemies. Many times the only evidence that was found was simply details that did not fit with Hoover’s moral code. For instance Martin Luther King was bugged continuously by Hoover (even after Attorney General and President Kennedy ordered them to stop). The major crime that King committed to Hoover’s mind is that he engaged in sexual acts with women who were not his wife while on the road. So offended was Hoover that he sent copies of these sexual tapes to King’s wife as a way to create tension and attempt to neutralize King’s protest work.

So powerful was the FBI that when a witness did not remember events the way Hoover wanted them to remember they would keep asking the question and encourage them to ‘remember’ differently for their own sake (usually with view of their own files). Sometimes even the threat of a file was enough to strike fear in even the most powerful of leaders. Thus created the unmatched, unregulated and almost unlimited power of J. Edgar Hoover.

Hoover, The Legend and the Reality

J. Edgar Hoover was incredibly focused on his reputation throughout his life. He even changed his name to prevent confusion with another who was a criminal. Yet the methods he used to protect his name, his reputation and the reputation of the agency he built were extreme. Any reporter that wrote unfavorable reviews or articles was placed under investigation and was placed on a list to receive no contact from the FBI for any future story. Those that wrote favorable reviews got inside scoops and advance notice of key events. In addition, Hoover used his staff to write books, articles, even TV and movie scripts that would cast him and the FBI in a favorable light. The revenue that came from the work of public officials somehow ended up tax free in the director’s pocket.

Hoover also allowed his own set or morals to dictate how the agency would operate. A self-proclaimed moralist and racist, he would allow the FBI to inform local police forces and KKK units when a protest bus was coming down south and allow them to watch (and sometimes help) in the beatings and killing of those protesters. Somehow those crimes never got solved, in fact a few times it was the FBI agents themselves that participated in the assaults.

A man who never married (and was rumored to be gay) would blackmail anyone that he thought might be gay or had an affair. When it suited his purpose he would send tapes and proof to the wife of an adulterer even if that individual had committee no other crime. When his sensibilities were offended, people lost their jobs.

On the other hand, Hoover created one of the most loyal and well trained police forces in the world. He created an academy and a laboratory unrivaled both in his time and since. He created a vision for a bribable (except for himself of course) police force that could keep a country safe.

Do you think the FBI overreached its power or did what is had to do during the cold war?

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What we can learn:

While parts of this story by Curt Gentry perhaps are rumors or innuendo, ultimately the result is the same. In any country, there requires extremely watchful reporters and an informed population to control overreaching by those in power. There are too many examples of despot leaders who have used virtually unquestioned authority and power to tap down disagreement or free thinking in general. Nazi Germany, Mao’s China, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and unfortunately to this list we need to add almost 50 years in the United States under J. Edgar Hoover, not something many of us want to admit to readily. The only way to prevent these actions from repeating is to ensure constant vigilance.

First, it is the power of the press and the intrepid nature of reporters to test and research what we are told is true and to help present facts that might not be as clear. As we see the alarming trend of newspapers reducing their investigative reporting staff due to budget cutbacks, we see the alarming prospect of losing the ability to research the claims of government. Without this ability there is the potential of rampant corruption and abuses. We must not let investigative reporting be lost.

Second is an informed population for “In order for evil to flourish, all this is required is for good men to do nothing” (Edward Burke). Without people asking questions, pushing back, forcing those we elect to demonstrate the facts behind their speeches, it is just words. Words can be deceiving or outright falsehoods. Whatever generation you belong to, owe it to yourself, your family and your country to never stop asking question and demanding to understand more than just a headline or a speech for a politician. You deserve more!

It is too easy to think this is all in the past and no longer an issue but I would like to point out two cases that have recently come up. The first one appeared before the Supreme Court just one year ago where police departments were placing GPS tacking devices on a suspect’s car and tracking them 24x7 without a warrant. Their claim was this is the same as having a police officer trailer someone, which is legal. The difference, and alarming potential, is that GPS devices are now a fraction of the cost of a police officer making it almost trivial for a police department to start tracking not dozens of suspects but thousands or tens of thousands remotely. This ability was revoked by the Supreme Court without a warrant.

The second case happened during President George W. Bush where he instituted warrantless secret wiretaps on an unknown number of Americans. Using the claim that it was for national security (just like Hoover), there was absolutely no oversight and no court records. The court was less clear on this case, requiring future presidents to use a secret court that has a much lower level of evidence than standard courts.

As you can see, absolutely power tends to corrupt absolutely. We as citizens must stay connected to current events and stand up (LEGALLY) for what we think is wrong.

My thoughts on the book

This incredibly densely written book is not one that most will pick up on a whim. It takes a determined reader with free time, not to mention a very open mind to approach this book. Toward the later part of the story Curt Gentry becomes increasingly more opinionated and seemingly jaded by the subject he is writing about. Perhaps much of this can be excused given the subject matter, but it does put into question some of the suppositions he puts forward in this book. However, with that said this book is amazing well researched and incredibly detailed in not only the facts and figures but also the emotions behind this story. Anyone with a passing interest in not only the history of this country, but also perhaps the inner workings of government will find this to be a fascinating read.

Read more in the book itself

There is so much more to this story than I can possibly share here. Information on the Kennedy assassination, civil rights movement not to mention dirty details on 8 presidents. Anyone who has an interest in history or government conspiracy will find this book quite interesting.

A few of my favorite quotes

"J. Edgar Hoover has achieved a status in American life that is almost unique. In law-enforcement circles he is, we suppose, what Knute Rochne was to football, or Babe Ruth to baseball. And like them he is virtually untouchable." --Commonweal

"For years and years and years I have approved opening mail and other similar operations, but no. It is becoming more and ore dangerous and we are apt to get caught. I am not opposed to doing this. I am not opposed to continuing the burglaries and the opening of mail and other similar activities, providing someone higher than myself approves of it...I no longer want to accept the sole responsibility....I am not going to accept the responsibility myself anymore, even though I've done it for many years" -- Hoover speaking to his third in command Sullivan

"Mr. Chairman, I have a philosophy. You are honored by your friends and you are distinguished by your enemies. I have been very distinguished" - J. Edgar Hoover

"My conscience doesn't hurt me. I stole from the bankers. They stole from the people. All we did was help raise the insurance rates." -Harry Pierpont, part of the Dillinger gang

"I cannot say that our country could have no central police without becoming totalitarian, but I can say with great conviction that is cannot become totalitarian without a centralized national police...All that is necessary is to have a national police competent to investigate all manner of offenses, and then, in the parlance of the streets, it will have enough on enough people, even if it does not elect to prosecute them, so that it will find no opposition to its policies. Even those who are supposed to supervise it are likely to fear it. I believe that the safeguard to our liberty lies in limiting any national policing, or investigative organization, first of all to a small number of strictly federal offenses, and second to nonpolitical ones." - Robert Jackson, Attorney General and nominal boss of J.E. Hoover

"You must understand that you're working for a crazy maniac and that our duty...is to find out what he wants and to create the world that he believes in" -- Special Agent in Charge Roy Moore

"We knew he was capable of assassinating the president, but we didn't dream he would do it" -Agent Revill speaking to Chief of police in Dallas about Oswald after he shot President Kennedy

A few things you might be interested in

Do you think the FBI has reformed or still abuses its power?

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    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 5 years ago

      I think that many government agencies abuse their powers.

    • Michey LM profile image

      Michey LM 5 years ago

      It is hard to say, they have huge successes, and failures as well... it is hard to decide without to now the percentage of each. I will say that the good work overcome the failures, as the good work keep us safe.