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.

Trump’s Saudi Arabia speech confirms massive shift in US foreign policy

Dennis Jett, Pennsylvania State University

President Donald Trump studiously avoided the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” in his speech at the Arab Islamic American Summit in Saudi Arabia on May 21. The Conversation

Dennis Jett

He instead accentuated the positive, calling the meeting a “historic and unprecedented gathering of leaders – unique in the history of nations” and stressing mutual respect and a desire to “form closer bonds of friendship, security, culture and commerce.”

He went on to say:

“America is a sovereign nation and our first priority is always the safety and security of our citizens. We are not here to lecture – we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership – based on shared interests and values – to pursue a better future for us all.”

This elaboration of Trump’s “America First” approach to the world must have been welcomed by foreign policy realists. Realists would like it because it marks a turn away from the emphasis, or at least lip service, that the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations paid to things like human rights and democracy.

In my experience as a foreign policy expert and former U.S. ambassador, I have found that realists believe nationalism is still as much the driving force as it has been since the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the 30 Years War and established a system of international relations based on nation-states.

Under realist theory, every country tries to maximize its power in a zero-sum game because the international system lacks any supervision from any supranational entity. For realists, it’s always anarchy out there. Putting America first is just a recognition that every country puts itself first.

What the Trump doctrine leaves out

Trump’s declaration of his America First approach was mirrored by Secretary of State Tillerson’s recent remarks to employees of the State Department. Tillerson stressed that the job of State Department employees is to promote American prosperity and security with little regard for the internal issues of other countries that are not related to those two goals.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaking to State Department employees. AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

From these two speeches, it’s clear that our “shared interests and values” do not include things that could be divisive, like respect for human rights and democracy.

The assembled leaders would likely have been pleased to hear that – most of them are autocrats, if not outright dictators. No official list of attendees was readily available, but a careful review of photos from the summit showed that about 55 nations were represented. Looking at where those countries fall on the rankings that the NGO Freedom House every year indicates why the audience was so receptive.

In its annual report, Freedom House assigns a numerical grade to 195 countries and 14 territories based on their score on 25 indicators derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Their total grade, which ranges between zero and 100, puts them into one of three broad categories – free, partially free or not free. Nearly half of the countries represented at the summit are rated not free, 40 percent as partially free and only 9 percent free, based on rankings from Freedom House.

Besides the United States, the only other nations at the summit categorized as free were Benin, Guyana, Senegal, Tunisia and Suriname. The U.S. was the most democratic country in the room, according to its Freedom House score of 89. None of the 27 countries in the world that rank higher than that were present.

While considerable progress has been made in recent decades in terms of increasing respect for these rights and liberties, 2016 was not a good year to the Freedom House Report. It registered net declines in these values in 67 countries and improvement in only 36. With the policy Trump described, in my opinion, chances for a better year in 2017 are greatly diminished.

A receptive audience

Many in the crowd must have been enthusiastic about Trump’s speech because governments that have little respect for human rights don’t like democracy. In addition, autocrats prefer decision-making to be confined to a small elite since it improves the economic opportunities provided by corruption.

They won’t have to worry about American criticism under the Trump doctrine, since all that matters to America now is jobs and fighting terrorism. The fact that democracy and respect for political rights and civil liberties is the best way to combat terrorism is something that doctrine fails to take into account.

There was one other thing Trump has said repeatedly in the past that he did not say at the summit. He did not call the press “the enemy of the people.” But that was unnecessary, as nearly everyone in the audience probably already believes that.

Dennis Jett, Professor of International Relations, Pennsylvania State University 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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