Comey isn’t the first FBI director to keep memos on a president

FILE – In this May 8, 2017, file photo, then-FBI Director James Comey speaks to the Anti-Defamation League National Leadership Summit in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

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


President Donald Trump allegedly asked FBI Director James Comey to drop the FBI’s investigation into Michael Flynn. The Conversation

President Franklin Roosevelt asked FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to collect information on Americans who had committed no crimes.

President Richard Nixon asked Hoover to provide the White House a list of reporters the FBI knew were homosexual.

How do we know? FBI director memos.

As an FBI historian, I was not surprised to learn that Comey kept memos. The FBI’s history shows such documentation can be essential to how FBI directors operate, and how they can insulate or protect the FBI’s integrity.

Intelligence on noncriminal activity

In the summer of 1936, Roosevelt met the FBI director in the White House to discuss, according to Hoover’s memo, “subversive activities in the United States, particularly Fascism and Communism.” Hoover wrote that FDR was interested in getting from the FBI “a broad picture of the general movement and its activities as may effect the economic and political life of the country as a whole.” Hoover replied that “no governmental organization” collected that kind of information.

Hoover, second from left, stands over Roosevelt as he signs a bill giving the FBI immense power. (AP Photo)

Nobody collected that information because of FBI improprieties dating to World War I and the Red Scare of 1919 to 1920. During that period, the FBI had collected political intelligence on prominent politicians, social justice advocates and others it perceived as dangerous. In response, Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone publicly issued investigative guidelines that banned FBI agents from collecting intelligence related to noncriminal activity.

Notwithstanding these restrictions, FBI Director Hoover informed the president that a statute from 1916 allowed the FBI to investigate “any matters referred to it by the Department of State.” Roosevelt, though, was “reluctant” to formally ask the State Department for this request because information was constantly leaked from the department.

Instead, he asked Hoover to return to the White House the following day with Secretary of State Cordell Hull.

The next day, FDR explained to Hull and Hoover that he wanted a “survey” of Communist and Fascist activity in the country. Hull asked if he wanted the State Department to make a written request of the FBI. Roosevelt declined, saying he wanted “the matter to be handled quite confidentially.”

The president promised Hoover he would write his own memo about his request and place it in his White House safe, but such a document has never been located in FDR’s presidential papers. Hoover’s memo about the meeting remains our only historical source about it. The presidential directive to the FBI then remained a verbal one, albeit secretly documented by Hoover, with no White House-generated paper trail.

The meeting and memo were significant because they marked a shift for the FBI. Because of the president’s request and Hoover’s own interests, the FBI began prioritizing noncriminal intelligence investigations over criminal ones. This is the point where the FBI became, primarily, an intelligence agency. Hoover would thereafter collect massive amounts of noncriminal-related intelligence on Americans both prominent and common.

Homosexual reporters

A second example of the FBI director generating a memo about a sensitive presidential request dates to Nixon in 1970, during Hoover’s final years as FBI director. At that time, Nixon was obsessed with the constant stream of leaks from his administration and in discrediting the leakers.

J. Edgar Hoover memo from 1970.

Nixon had his Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman call Hoover to request “a run down on the homosexuals known and suspected in the Washington press corps.” Haldeman said the president thought the request would be easy because he assumed Hoover “would have it pretty much at hand.”

Hoover said he “thought we have some of that material.” To that, the chief of staff offered a couple of names of suspected gay journalists and added the president “has an interest in what, if anything else, we know.” Hoover told him the FBI “would get after that right away.”

In 1970, Hoover had passed what was then the mandatory retirement age of 70. He remained FBI director only because President Lyndon Johnson had issued an executive order exempting Hoover. Nixon could revoke that order at any time. With his job vulnerable, Hoover willingly complied with Nixon’s request. Hoover’s FBI also actively collected and disseminated information about gays, and Nixon knew this.

Handwritten notes on Hoover’s memo – the only record of the request, sent to Hoover’s top FBI officials – indicate that the FBI compiled the requested information and sent it to the White House in letter format, dated Nov. 27, 1970. To date, this letter has not surfaced either at the FBI or among the Nixon papers. Because we don’t have the letter, we also do not know the exact content of the information Hoover shared, or whether and how Nixon might have used it against reporters.

Hoover was an astute bureaucrat who had a history of dealing with sensitive or controversial presidential requests. He fully realized, like Comey, the value of documenting his interactions with presidents. Hoover knew that if need be, he could produce the memo as proof he was ordered to do something that, if undocumented, might jeopardize his position as FBI director or lead him to legal trouble. In other words, the memo was a get-out-of-jail-free card.

It seems a similar situation may be unfolding with Comey. President Trump implied or boasted he might have tapes to use against Comey. But Comey actually documented his interactions with the president. The Comey memos and the FBI’s history shows how a careful bureaucrat in charge of a powerful agency can not only deftly protect himself, but the integrity of a democratic institution.

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

The FBI: With great power comes great scandal

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


Drama at the FBI is nothing new. Given its 109-year history, the FBI has seen many scandals and numerous directors come and go. The Conversation

Douglas Charles

Its directors, in fact, have always been the face and driving force of the FBI. Most have retired or moved on to other work, four were forced to offer resignations, but only two, including most recently James Comey, have been fired outright.

While FBI directors always served at the pleasure of presidents, they differed in their closeness to the chief executive. Most notably, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (1924-1972) worked to satisfy the political interests of some presidents and secretly undermine others. Since his death in 1972 and revelations of abuses, the federal government has treated the FBI director as independent from the White House.

As a historian who has long studied the FBI and its work, I believe knowing the agency’s past is crucial to understanding the firing of FBI Director James Comey and what may come of it.

The FBI’s origins

When the FBI was founded in 1908 during the Progressive Era, federal law enforcement was in its infancy. The Justice Department was only 38 years old. It was established in 1870 during Reconstruction in an effort to protect the constitutional rights of African-Americans, significantly by crippling the Ku Klux Klan.

Stanley William Finch.
Federal Bureau of Investigation

As the U.S. experienced rapid and massive industrialization, a realization emerged: Only the federal government was powerful enough to reign in rampant corporate corruption and abuses. President Theodore Roosevelt established the Bureau of Investigation (“Federal” was added in 1935) by executive mandate. Chief Examiner Stanley Finch became the first leader of the bureau. The title of “director” would not be adopted until later.

When the FBI was established, its purpose was to help enforce federal anti-monopoly and interstate commerce laws by scouring corporate financial records for wrongdoing, while Justice Department attorneys prosecuted. This mission was at the behest of President Roosevelt, whose interests involved regulating abusive aspects of corporate capitalism. Over time, however, the FBI and its directors assumed increased responsibilities and became more independent. But balancing this authority and independence was sometimes a struggle, resulting in scandals.

Expansion of authority

Finch was obsessed with prostitution, calling it “evil” and writing widely about its threat. He avidly pursued it as head of the FBI.

His efforts were based on passage in 1910 of the White Slave Traffic Act, a law banning the transportation of women across state lines for “immoral purposes.” The bureau’s investigative responsibilities quickly expanded to include targeting prostitution rings. The law’s wording, however, was vague – resulting in FBI agents enforcing their ideas about morality and the proper roles of women and men.

With passage of the Motor Vehicle Theft Act in 1919, FBI agents also began to target criminals driving stolen cars across state lines, like John Dillinger in the 1930s. The investigative realities of both laws made it necessary for agents to investigate crimes in the field, rather than examining financial records from behind a desk in Washington. The FBI established field offices across the country.

During World War I, the FBI’s responsibilities expanded again. This time it entered the field of domestic security. Fears of external influences abounded – immigrants, so-called “hyphenated Americans” like Italian-Americans and concerns over German espionage and sabotage. The FBI independently enforced new laws covering espionage, sedition, the draft and immigration.

A. Bruce Bielaski, Director of Bureau of Investigation from April 30, 1912 to Feb. 10, 1919.
FBI/Library of Congress

A. Bruce Bielaski was head of the bureau at the time. He was a former subordinate of Finch, a lawyer, son of a minister and member of the Justice Department baseball team. During his tenure, Congress investigated mass federal enforcement of the Selective Service Act. The FBI rounded up and illegally detained Americans until those who were detained could prove they had registered for the draft. Ultimately, Bielaski was forced to resign in February 1919 for his handling of the raids.

FBI improprieties did not end as the U.S. entered the 1920s. Under the leadership of William J. Burns, the first FBI head to use the title “director,” the country experienced what until Watergate was the granddaddy of American political scandals: the Teapot Dome scandal.

President Warren Harding’s financially strapped interior secretary, Albert Fall, had allowed oil companies to tap U.S. Navy emergency oil reserves in Teapot Dome, Wyoming, in return for kickbacks. Eventually Sen. Burton K. Wheeler and others discovered and began investigating the improprieties.

FBI Director Burns, at the request of Attorney General Harry Daugherty, tried to end the Senate probe. Burns was the owner of a private detective agency, and a man apt to believe investigative ends justified the means. He was not afraid to target powerful men. So, he dispatched agents to dig up dirt on Sen. Wheeler. Not finding any, he and Daugherty concocted baseless corruption charges against Wheeler that only backfired. The attorney general was fired and replaced with a reformer, who promptly forced the resignation of the corrupted Bureau Director Burns in 1924. The FBI was placed under the tutelage of J. Edgar Hoover.

Under Hoover, the FBI evolved from a relatively small investigative agency to a large, professional and influential law enforcement and national security body. It assumed arrest powers and focused on process and scientific detection techniques to target celebrated gangsters of the 1930s. Then, under President Franklin Roosevelt, it shifted to prioritize national security and intelligence investigations.

Over time, Hoover’s FBI also became notorious for its political intelligence gathering, obscenity investigations, secret files and targeting of African-Americans, gays, war protesters and leftists.

The modern FBI

When the public became aware of these activities after Hoover’s death in 1972, the FBI worked to repair its damaged reputation. Congress further mandated that directors would serve a statutory 10-year term to avoid the abuses of an entrenched Hoover, who was director for 48 years. It would also help avoid FBI directors being subservient to partisan presidential interests.

Weeks before Watergate, Nixon sycophant L. Patrick Gray stepped in to replace Hoover as acting director, and was nominated by Nixon to serve as permanent director. He soon withdrew his nomination, however, and resigned as acting director in April 1973, after admitting to destroying Watergate-related files.

Later came William Sessions, a former federal judge who took the job under President Ronald Reagan in 1987 and focused on white-collar crimes. Sessions, however, violated bureau procedures and federal law by using FBI resources for personal trips and home improvements. After an in-depth internal ethics investigation, he sternly resisted six months of White House demands for his resignation. President Bill Clinton personally telephoned Sessions and fired him in July 1993. This was the first outright firing of a director.

This brings us to James Comey, famous for his Boy Scout’s reputation and independence streak, and now only the second FBI director to be fired outright. There are shifting accounts over why he was fired, focusing either on his handling of Hillary Clinton’s emails or the Trump-Russia investigation. Unlike the case of Sessions, where an internal probe was first concluded, the inspector general’s examination of Comey’s actions in the 2016 election have not yet ended and its status is unclear.

Also unlike Sessions, where he was pressured for six months to quit, Comey’s firing was sudden and indirect – he heard about it from news reports while visiting an FBI field office – with a paper trail of recommendations about it dated only to the actual day of the firing. How this all will unfold remains unclear, but it is a dramatic moment in a long history of FBI directors and their exits fitted to their times.

Douglas M. Charles is an associate Professor of History at Penn State Greater Allegheny. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Donald Trump’s First 100 Days: The Worst on Record

Penn State Behrend Associate Professor of Political Science Robert Speel’s work was recently noted in a New York Times op-ed about President Donald Trump’s first 100 days. Here is an excerpt from the New York Times article:

Robert Speel

“Franklin D. Roosevelt invented the idea of a president’s first 100 days. Roosevelt was actually referring to the first 100 days of a special Congressional session to fight the Great Depression, as Robert Speel of Penn State notes. But the idea soon came to mean the 100 days that start on Jan. 20 and that, for President Trump, will end on Saturday.

“No doubt, you’ve seen a torrent of coverage in recent days of the milestone. And while it’s certainly an arbitrary milestone, it’s also a meaningful one. Presidents are at their most influential in their early months, which makes that period a particularly important one for a presidency.”

Read the full article at

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