The attorney general promised Congress that the FBI would “never be used for political purposes.” This announcement was met with skepticism from a congressman who warned that they “might hide things from Congress.”
The current FBI scandal was actually foretold in 1908 when Attorney General Charles Bonaparte requested funds for a “small permanent detective force.” Congress turned him down citing the temptation of a permanent police force evolving into a secret police.
This organization was the precursor of the FBI and congressional paranoia seemed legitimate given the recent attempted coup to overthrow our government. Some may think this an extreme statement, but the facts say otherwise. There currently exists ample evidence that FBI agents and Justice Department attorneys conspired to do just that.
Whenever I mention that the politicization of the FBI began during Robert Mueller’s tenure as director someone challenges me with, “What about Hoover!” They’ve got a point that J. Edgar may have engaged in Machiavellian principles, but he also built the finest law enforcement agency on earth. The director wasn’t always a political opportunist. It wasn’t until his power became absolute did Hoover begin dabbling in the subtle art of blackmail. But in the Bureau’s infancy J. Edgar was a magnificent bastard.
Unlike his great uncle, Napoleon, the attorney general refused to accept defeat and secretly recruited 9 Secret Service agents and 14 support staff. Thus, the embryo of the FBI was created. Two years later Bonaparte was succeeded by Attorney General George Wickersham who christened the group, The Bureau of Investigation (BI). By 1912 the Bureau grew to 100 men, but one congressman referred to them as, “an odd-job detective agency with fuzzy lines of authority and responsibility.”
John Edgar Hoover was born on New Year’s Day, 1895 down the street from the Capitol. His dad was a printer, but it was Annie Hoover who dominated the household. Edgar, as he was known at home, never married living with his mother until her death. Young Hoover shared a short squat body with his mom and overcame stuttering by speaking in a quick staccato manner. Only the best Bureau stenographers could take shorthand dictation from the fast-talking Hoover.
Edgar attended law school at George Washington University while working at the Library of Congress. Although he joined ROTC, Hoover didn’t enlist when the U.S. entered World War I, instead reporting to work at the Justice Department in 1917.
With a law degree, a brilliant mind and manic work ethic, Hoover’s rise was rapid. This nattily dressed law clerk often worked 7 days a week and could cite the most tedious federal statutes verbatim. But it was the Red Scare which catapulted Hoover into the national limelight. After the armistice, Attorney General Mitchell Palmer’s home was bombed by an alleged Bolshevik which prompted the creation of the General Intelligence Division. Palmer, who survived the blast, appointed John Edgar Hoover it’s head.
Stanley Finch, the BI’s first director, was succeeded by William Burns, a 62-year-old former Secret Service chief suffering with mild senility. Intel Chief John Hoover recognized an opportunity and made himself indispensable to the incompetent Burns. This proved the perfect storm for the young and ambitious Hoover who basically became the default BI Director.
But BI agents were not the cream of the law enforcement crop some with criminal records and others, frequent “no shows” at work. Hoover wanted to clean house, but Burns was using BI agents to moonlight at his private company, The Burns International Detective Agency. These inept, lazy agents embarrassed the idealistic Hoover who often told people, “I work for the government,” rather than admit employment at the BI.
Hoover’s reputation was vital to his mental well-being. He applied for a credit account at a department store but was denied. When informed that there was another John Edgar Hoover bouncing checks around Washington, D.C., he began signing all correspondence with, “J. Edgar Hoover.”
On April 8, 1924 Harlan Fiske Stone was sworn in as the attorney general. A month later the attorney general summoned Burns into his office and fired him. Fisk contacted the secretary of Commerce and future president, Herbert Hoover, and said, “I need someone to replace Burns, any ideas?” Herbert recommended his namesake though the two were not kin. The 270 pound, 6‘1” Stone called J. Edgar to his office and scowled at the young attorney. Hoover, believing he was next on the chopping block, avoided Stone’s stare.
The attorney general finally said, “Young man, I want you to be acting director of the Bureau of Investigation.”
“I’ll take the job, Mr. Stone on certain conditions.”
“What are they?”
“The Bureau must be divorced from politics and not be a catch-all for political hacks. Appointments must be based on merit, promotions will be made on proven ability, and the Bureau will be responsible only to the Attorney General.”
Stone glared at Hoover and announced, “I wouldn’t give it to you under any other conditions. That’s all. Good day.”
Hoover could never envision that his FBI would evolve into the preeminent law enforcement agency on earth. He also could never imagine that his agents would one day bend the Constitution for political purposes.
Hoover once said, “There’s something addicting about a secret.” Unfortunately, this current Bureau crisis may unearth secrets that may forever taint the legacy of Hoover’s FBI.
• John Ligato is a retired FBI agent. He is the author of “The Near Enemy” (Post Hill Press, 2017).