After J. Edgar Hoover’s death 45 years ago, personal secretary Helen Gandy spent more than two months in the FBI director’s house on a leafy Northwest Washington street rifling through his personal files — the most powerful archive of blackmail material on presidents, politicians and pundits compiled in American history.
Gandy had served Hoover for the almost five decades that he ran the bureau, and she either trashed or stashed the most damning details in places that remain unknown to this day.
It’s a historical episode that may soon have up-to-the-minute relevance in the wake of President Trump’s abrupt decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey last month because of the bureau’s handling of an investigation into alleged Russian meddling in Mr. Trump’s 2016 election victory.
Among the most urgent questions lawmakers on Capitol Hill will have for Mr. Trump’s next choice to head the bureau: the whereabouts of Mr. Comey’s files.
At a May 11 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe told Sen. Kamala D. Harris that his fired boss’ files were the “responsibility” of the FBI. The California Democrat then specifically asked if Mr. McCabe was certain Mr. Comey’s “files and his devices” were secured in a way that would allow Congress to access the “information or evidence he has in connection with the [Russia] investigation.”
Mr. McCabe had been acting FBI director less than 48 hours. He nodded slowly, then replied, “Yes, ma’am, I am.”
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With a career like none other in the history of U.S. law enforcement, Hoover carved out a Jekyll-and-Hyde legacy in the eyes of many historians and researchers. He built one of the greatest and most respected law enforcement agencies in the world, pioneering the very concept of systematic, scientific criminal investigation. He established an unrivaled filing and index system and was a trailblazer in the development and use of fingerprint and forensic evidence, said Ronald Kessler, the international best-selling author of more than 20 nonfiction books on the CIA, Secret Service and FBI.
In an era when police were often seen as brutal and corrupt, Hoover instilled an unprecedented sense of professionalism. He was a public relations maverick who also used Hollywood to depict FBI special agents as cool-headed “G-men” — guardian angels who stuck to the facts and calmly busted bomb-tossing Marxists, bank robbers, gangsters and World War II-era German saboteurs.
But then there were the blackmail files and Hoover’s willingness to use them against anyone — including presidents — who tried to curb his power.
“Complex man that he was, J. Edgar Hoover left nothing to chance,” Mr. Kessler told The Washington Times in a recent interview. “He shrewdly recognized that building the world’s greatest law enforcement agency would not necessarily keep him in office — so, after he became director, he began to maintain a special ‘Official and Confidential’ file in his office, known as the ‘secret files.’”
Unprecedented in American history, the files allowed Hoover to stay on the job through eight presidential administrations as he manipulated the White House, Capitol Hill, government protesters and figures in popular culture, including Hollywood and the sports world. The list was endless — the blackmail targets deep, wide and often with no authorization.
Mr. Trump and his aides are consumed these days by leaks from anonymous sources leading to embarrassing — and, Mr. Trump contends, factually wrong — news stories. In his heyday, Hoover and top deputy Clyde Tolson would dine at the Mayflower Hotel and decide whom to surveil.
Consider Eleanor Roosevelt, whom they nicknamed “old hoot owl” and deemed a dangerous socialist after she left the White House. Her FBI file was more than 400 pages long.
“To capture the sounds of intimacy,” as Hoover once said, FBI agents bugged hotel rooms across the country with the era’s most advanced microphones. The bureau had Mafia contacts tipping agents off to congressmen carrying on affairs with starlets in Hollywood bungalows.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s sex life was studied and recorded, and the information was leaked to journalists to smear his name.
Hoover’s tentacles stretched everywhere. According to “Official and Confidential,” the 1994 biography by former BBC journalist Anthony Summers, an FBI agent in the mid-1960s found a bugging device wired into Capitol Hill’s main telephone switchboard with a cable spliced into hearings rooms. The cable stretched all the way to a room on nearby Constitution Ave. rented by the Justice Department.
“We understand you were with this prostitute last night,” Hoover would inform a certain congressmen, according to Mr. Kessler. “Of course, we will be sure to keep it to ourselves,” Hoover would add.
His highest targets were presidents. Hoover was ultimately able to force John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon to keep him on as FBI director because they were too scared of what he might know. One of LBJ’s most famous quotes — “Better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in” — referred to Hoover and the danger of making the FBI director into an enemy.
Historians say Hoover was often just bluffing, but few wanted to call the bluff.
Influence over Congress
What the FBI has learned from its probe into possible links between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia government agents is the dramatic centerpiece of Capitol Hill investigations into the controversy, which Mr. Trump has repeatedly denounced as “fake news.” There has already been one damaging leak that came directly from Mr. Comey’s personal files: memoranda the ousted FBI chief kept of personal conversations with the president, in which Mr. Trump reportedly suggested the agency drop its probe of ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Mr. Comey’s two appearances during recent weeks sent sparks flying, and his upcoming testimony — expected in mid-June — could be even more explosive. That, at least, would be a distinct break with the Hoover precedent.
“His relationship with Congress was entirely different than the way the FBI or other major agencies interact with Congress today,” explained Mr. Kessler. “He would actually rehearse with Chairman Rooney what he would say.”
Rep. John Rooney was a Democrat from Brooklyn who chaired the House Appropriations subcommittee that controlled the FBI budget. Hoover took such good care of him that the congressman kept only one framed photo on his desk: It was of Hoover.
The FBI director had spies scattered all over Capitol Hill, according to “Official and Confidential,” the 1994 biography by Mr. Summers. Some were FBI agents “loaned” to congressional committees as investigators. Others left the bureau to work for lawmakers but still reported back to Hoover.
It all changed after Hoover’s death of a heart attack on May 2, 1972. He was 77 and still running the FBI at the time.
Mr. Kessler said the behavior of the FBI transformed most dramatically following the controversial mid-1970s “Church Committee” investigations of abuses at the bureau, the CIA and NSA in the wake of Watergate and other scandals.
The probes, led by Sen. Frank Church, resulted in the establishment of permanent oversight committees to watch America’s intelligence community. Those committees are the ones that are now conducting the Russian election-meddling probes.
The image of Hoover as the hoarder of others’ secrets has taken on an ironic cast since some historians say the FBI chief had some secrets of his own to keep, including a possible intimate relationship with his deputy, Tolson.
Mr. Summers’ book alleged that the FBI director was a closet cross-dresser and partook in the occasional orgy — activities seen by some to have exposed the blackmail master to blackmail himself, especially from the Mafia.
Rumors also swirled through the FBI: Hoover banned gays from joining the bureau, but agents secretly called him and Tolson “J. Edna and Mother Tolson.”
Dorothy Parker, the American writer and famous wit, once joked that Hoover “chased men for business and pleasure.”
Hoover’s defenders have long dismissed such charges. They say FBI bodyguards watched the head of the bureau 24 hours a day, so he had no time to conduct gay affairs. They also argue his obsession with protecting himself from his many enemies meant he’d never take such risks.
And some of the answers to the questions looming over Hoover’s legacy may have been lost forever 45 years ago when Ms. Gandy cleaned out Hoover’s house.