J. Edgar Hoover’s oversteps: Why FBI directors are forbidden from getting cozy with presidents

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Former FBI Director James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Douglas M. Charles, Pennsylvania State University

How are U.S. presidents and FBI directors supposed to communicate?

A new FBI director has recently been nominated, former Assistant Attorney General Christopher Wray. He will certainly be thinking carefully about this question as he awaits confirmation.

Douglas Charles

Former FBI Director James Comey’s relationship with President Donald Trump was strained at best. Comey was concerned that Trump had approached him on nine different occasions in two months. In his testimony to Congress, Comey stated that under President Barack Obama, he had spoken with the president only twice in three years.

Comey expressed concern about this to colleagues, and tried to distance himself from the president. He tried to tell Trump the proper procedures for communicating with the FBI. These policies have been enmeshed in Justice Department guidelines. And for good reason.

FBI historians like myself know that, since the 1970s, bureau directors try to maintain a discrete distance from the president. This tradition grew out of reforms that followed the often questionable behavior of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who served from 1924 to 1972.

Over this long period, Hoover’s relationships with six different presidents often became dangerously close, crossing ethical and legal lines. This history can help us understand Comey’s concerns about Trump and help put his testimony into larger context.

As the nation’s chief law enforcement arm, the FBI today is tasked with three main responsibilities: investigating violations of federal law, pursuing counterterrorism cases and disrupting the work of foreign intelligence operatives. Anything beyond these raises serious ethical questions.

From FDR to Nixon

When Franklin Roosevelt became president in 1933, Hoover worked hard to develop a close working relationship with the president. Roosevelt helped promote Hoover’s crime control program and expand FBI authority. Hoover grew the FBI from a small, relatively limited agency into a large and influential one. He then provided the president with information on his critics, and even some foreign intelligence, all while ingratiating himself with FDR to retain his job.

President Harry Truman didn’t much like Hoover, and thought his FBI was a potential “citizen spy system.”

Hoover found President Dwight Eisenhower to be an ideological ally with an interest in expanding FBI surveillance. This led to increased FBI use of illegal microphones and wiretaps. The president looked the other way as the FBI carried out its sometimes questionable investigations.

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Director of FBI J. Edgar Hoover.
Wikimedia Commons/Abbie Rowe

But when John F. Kennedy became president in 1961, Hoover’s relationship with the president faced a challenge. JFK’s brother, Robert Kennedy, was made attorney general. Given JFK’s close relationship with his brother, Hoover could no longer bypass his boss and deal directly with the president, as he so often did in the past. Not seeing eye to eye with the Kennedys, Hoover cut back on volunteering political intelligence reports to the White House. Instead, he only responded to requests, while collecting information on JFK’s extramarital affairs.

By contrast, President Lyndon Johnson had a voracious appetite for FBI political intelligence reports. Under his presidency, the FBI became a direct vehicle for servicing the president’s political interests. LBJ issued an executive order exempting Hoover from mandatory retirement at the time, when the FBI director reached age 70. Owing his job to LBJ, Hoover designated a top FBI official, FBI Assistant Director Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, as the official FBI liaison to the president.

The FBI monitored the Democratic National Convention at LBJ’s request. When Johnson’s aide, Walter Jenkins, was caught soliciting gay sex in a YMCA, Deke DeLoach worked directly with the president in dealing with the backlash.

One might think that when Richard Nixon ascended to the presidency in 1968, he would have found an ally in Hoover, given their shared anti-Communism. Hoover continued to provide a wealth of political intelligence to Nixon through a formal program called INLET. However, Hoover also felt vulnerable given intensified public protest due to the Vietnam War and public focus on his actions at the FBI.

Hoover held back in using intrusive surveillance such as wiretaps, microphones and break-ins as he had in the past. He resisted Nixon’s attempts to centralize intelligence coordination in the White House, especially when Nixon asked that the FBI use intrusive surveillance to find White House leaks. Not satisfied, the Nixon administration created its own leak-stopping unit: the White House plumbers – which ended in the Watergate scandal.

Not until after Hoover’s death did Americans learn of his abuses of authority. Reform followed.

In 1976, Congress mandated a 10-year term for FBI directors. The Justice Department later issued guidelines on how the FBI director was to deal with the White House and the president, and how to conduct investigations. These guidelines have been reaffirmed, revised and reissued by subsequent attorneys general, most recently in 2009. The guidelines state, for example: “Initial communications between the Department and the White House concerning pending or contemplated criminal investigations or cases will involve only the Attorney General or the Deputy Attorney General.”

The ConversationThese rules were intended to ensure the integrity of criminal investigations, avoid political influence and protect both the Justice Department and president. If Trump attempted to bypass these guidelines and woo Comey, that would represent a potentially dangerous return to the past.

Douglas M. Charles, Associate Professor of History, Pennsylvania State University This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why taking down Confederate memorials is only a first step

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A statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee is removed on Friday, May 19, 2017, from Lee Circle in New Orleans. AP Photo/Scott Threlkeld

Joshua F.J. Inwood, Pennsylvania State University and Derek H. Alderman, University of Tennessee

Recently the city of New Orleans removed several Confederate monuments from a prominent, downtown location. The decision to remove these memorials has touched off a debate throughout several other major U.S. cities who have memorials dedicated to the Confederacy. While critics of the removal say the effort erases history, supporters argue that these memorials celebrate racism and memorialize white supremacy.

Joshua F.J. Inwood

We are scholars of memory and cultural landscape. Our work shows that challenging Confederate symbols that legitimize white supremacy is certainly the right thing to do because of the historic legacies of racism they represent. However, taking down Confederate symbols cannot just be a feel-good moment or a substitute for the hard work of racial reconciliation and understanding to advance justice.

Symbols of Jim Crow era

Monuments and other commemorative sites tell at least two stories, according to sociologist James Loewen. The first is the story of the people and events commemorated by the memorial. The other is a deeper tale of how the monument was created, by whom and for what political purpose.

Memorials, thus, are shaped by a broad range of political, economic and social relationships. For example, the contested Confederate memorials of New Orleans, along with those in many other cities, were dedicated during a Jim Crow era in which whites actively discriminated against African-Americans.

In this respect, the monuments to the Confederacy in New Orleans and many other cities are doubly problematic. They not only publicly honor the Confederacy, but also are a symbol of an era that saw the continuation of institutionalized racism and black disenfranchisement. During the era of segregation white elites employed these statues to take advantage of the racial anxieties of poor whites and to remind civil rights-seeking black communities of who really mattered and belonged (and who did not) in the city.

As New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently stated in a speech:

“Can you look into that young [African-American] girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too? We all know the answer to these very simple questions. When you look into this child’s eyes is the moment when the searing truth comes into focus for us. This is the moment when we know what is right and what we must do. We can’t walk away from this truth.”

What Mitch Landrieu recognizes is a fact that many contemporary scholars have known for some time: Memorials can and do exact a painful toll on the sense of belonging and place of African-Americans in the American landscape. Simply taking down the memorials to the Confederacy is not the same as creating a society in which all people – regardless of color, religion, gender or sexuality – are able to live out their limitless potential.

Building a community’s capacity

Our own work suggests that “memory work,” the necessary labor of coming to grips with the stories of past traumas like racism and its wounds, is a key component of healing.

Memory work is building the capacity of a community to recover from past injustices. This capacity-building needs to recognize not only those injustices but also how they continue to have an impact on inequality today. Scholar Karen Till argues that it needs to be rooted in activities such as truth commissions, collecting oral histories, museum exhibitions, or public performances and art that help connect a community’s history to contemporary inequality. So, the removal of the Confederate memorials is an important first step, but it cannot end there.

Memory work also means that addressing racial injustices takes sustained heavy lifting. And the removal of Confederate monuments cannot be mistaken for a solution for longstanding racial inequality. To understand, let’s look more closely at New Orleans – which brings together two cities – one white and one black.

The white city is relatively wealthy, while in the African-American city 30 percent of black households are under the poverty line (compared to 4.9 percent of white households). In addition, these disparities have led to gentrification and the disappearing of many black communities. This is changing not only the historic makeup of the city, but also its cultural landscape. As Geographer Clyde Woods notes, the civil rights movement is “unfinished business” in New Orleans. This is true for the rest of United States as well.

Truth and reconciliation commission

Bringing about commemorative reform without beginning this broader work of remembering and recovering from white supremacy runs a great risk of perpetuating the tradition of manipulating memorial symbols for political advantage and expediency.

We suggest that cities such as New Orleans follow the lead of a growing number of cities in organizing a truth and reconciliation commission to examine the material, social and symbolic consequences of the reality of racism and racial inequality.

The ConversationThese commissions would help engage in memory work and the healing of historic wounds – something much-needed today.

Joshua F.J. Inwood, Associate Professor of Geography Senior Research Associate in the Rock Ethics Institute, Pennsylvania State University and Derek H. Alderman, Professor of Geography, University of Tennessee This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Mueller’s threats to resign reveal his character


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Former FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington in 2011. AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File

By Douglas M. Charles, Penn State Greater Allegheny Associate Professor of History


On May 17, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed a special counsel to investigate ties between Russia and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The Conversation

The man he chose was James Comey’s predecessor as FBI director, Robert Mueller – a man who once said he hoped Comey would succeed him.

Douglas Charles

Mueller served longer as FBI director (2001-2013) than any other except J. Edgar Hoover (1924-1972). Since the appointment, Mueller has been described as tough, a former athlete and a decorated Marine officer from the Vietnam War. He’s held positions as U.S. attorney, assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division and, of course, FBI director. Some commentators have said Mueller is Trump’s worst nightmare come true.

From my perspective as an FBI historian, Mueller’s character was revealed when he threatened to resign twice during his time as FBI director. Comparing his resignation threats with those of J. Edgar Hoover brings them into sharper focus.

The comparison suggests how Mueller will comport himself as a special counsel investigating the president of the United States.

Mueller’s principles

In 2004, while Attorney General John Ashcroft was in the hospital, President George W. Bush authorized the warrantless interception of domestic communications over the objections of the Justice Department. Standing on principle, Mueller, along with Deputy Attorney General James Comey, threatened to resign if the program’s legal issues were not addressed.

Bush altered the program and Mueller continued on as FBI director. Mueller reportedly said about it: “There are days that go by, but not many, that you’re not balancing national security against civil liberties.”

Mueller threatened to resign again in 2006 after the FBI seized the records of Congressman William Jefferson, who was involved in a corruption scandal. Under intense congressional pressure, President Bush ordered the FBI to return the papers. Mueller resisted with a threat of resignation, again on principle – the FBI had seized the records with a valid judge-issued warrant. Bush relented, and Mueller stayed on as FBI director.

Hoover’s lip service

Compare these moves with Hoover’s threats to resign as FBI director. In 1940, Hoover’s FBI arrested members of a leftist group that had recruited volunteers to fight for the left-wing Spanish government in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The arrests sparked outrage from the liberal press and liberal Republican Sen. George Norris, a longtime Hoover critic.

The liberal press suggested Hoover’s FBI was akin to the Russian secret police or the Nazi Gestapo. Sen. Norris suggested Hoover was interested only in publicity and spying on Americans. Other critics in Congress even questioned Hoover’s competence.

Hoover moved quickly. He sent a message to his boss, Attorney General Robert Jackson, saying he was willing to resign if Jackson was unhappy with his leadership, pressuring Jackson to back him.

Hoover well knew his resignation would never be accepted. He had already succeeded in generating a significant amount of good press and public support in his 1930s war on celebrated gangsters. Since Hoover had cultivated and maintained a solid based of support, Jackson had little recourse but to publicly support Hoover against the “smear campaign.”

An astute if selfish bureaucrat, Hoover saved his job.

Hoover offered his resignation again in early 1971 after an embarrassing episode in which Hoover leaked information to Congress about an anti-Vietnam War group threatening to sabotage Washington, D.C. utilities. Hoover’s claims went public and forced a rushed FBI arrest of the group’s members. Hoover was then accused of prejudging the perpetrators before any arrests were made and rushing the arrests purely for publicity purposes.

In a storm of bad press, Hoover told President Richard Nixon’s attorney general, Richard Kleindienst, he would resign if he was an embarrassment to the president. But at the time, Hoover was entrenched in his position and far too powerful ever to be removed by any means. Interestingly, the Nixon White House considered replacing Hoover but decided it was untenable. Kleindienst merely reiterated his support to Hoover.

Unlike Hoover, who used resignation threats to preserve his bureaucratic position and reputation, Mueller did it out of a sense of right and wrong. These comparisons tell us much about how Mueller might behave as special counsel. They also tell us Mueller will stick with principle over political pressure. He will likely resist any pressures the Trump administration might exert on him to undermine the investigation of Russian influence on the 2016 presidential election.

Douglas M. Charles is associate professor of history at Pennsylvania State University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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