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.

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.

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.

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