J. EDGAR HOOVER, right, who used the FBI to harass and discredit civil-rights and anti-war activists, confers with Sen. William Jenner and Atty. Gen. Herbert Brownell Jr. before a 1953 Senate hearing.
to entrap them. The bureau even mailed letters with compromising information to people’s spouses in attempts to destroy their marriages. Covert activity became such an obsession of Hoover’s that he reportedly kept voluminous files not only on alleged subversives but also on political opponents, celebrities and colleagues — because of their political views or their lifestyles.
From its inception, the Bureau of Investigation (as it was called until 1935, when it acquired its present name) abused its investigative authority. With America’s entry into World War I, it rounded up thousands of young men as
suspected draft dodgers — only to conclude that most were not draft dodgers after all. J. Edgar Hoover, who rose to prominence during the notorious Palmer Raids and was later selected to clean up the disgraced agency, worked to build
The worst of those abuses came to light in a series of high-profile congressional hearings convened by Frank Church in 1976. Spy operations included COINTELPRO, created to harass and spy on
THE LONG REACH OF J. EDGAR HOOVER
For more than half its history the United States got along without a general-purpose investigative agency. Many people do not realize that the Federal Bureau of Investigation did not come into being (as an investigative force within the Justice Department) until 1908. Or that it was established not by an act of Congress but by executive order of a long-forgotten attorney general. Its history provides a vivid example of how bureaucracies are created and how, once entrenched, they can become rife with abuse.
its reputation with the highly publicized capture of a handful of gangsters — but is most remembered for his politically inspired spying.
At his instigation, the bureau set up a series of secret police operations within the Justice Department that investigated people because of their ethnic or racial backgrounds or political views, used its intelligence apparatus to disrupt and discredit anti-war and civil-rights activists, and harassed people like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who posed no threat of violence or illegal activity. It not only spied on law- abiding Americans, it also used burglary, blacklisting and