“The Most Dangerous Institution”


When American Airlines flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001, the Federal Bureau of Investigation director, Robert S. Mueller III, had been at his post for just one week. Suddenly he found himself responsible for both investigating the gravest crime in American history and for preventing further attacks.

Mueller had faced a daunting job even before the terrorists struck. He had been assigned to revamp a tradition-bound bureaucracy of 27,000 employees, an organization that for years had given the impression of lurching from one blunder to the next. His goals were to bring effective management to the Bureau, beef up its intelligence capabilities, reorder its priorities, and force the insular institution to cooperate with other agencies. He recognized that he faced a pivotal moment in the history of what his predecessor Louis Freeh had called “potentially... the most dangerous institution in the United States.” The FBI had long exemplified disciplined and effective professionalism, handling threats from kidnapping to espionage, but it had also assumed powers irreconcilable with democratic government and shamed the nation with its extralegal exploits.

Americans have always recoiled at the idea of a secret police. In 1908, when Attorney General Charles Bonaparte established what was called the Bureau of Investigation, Congress worried that the government would set up a “system of spying upon and espionage of the people, such as has prevailed in Russia.” The country had had no comprehensive police force on the federal level, and the Justice Department itself had not existed until 1870. After the turn of the century, Bonaparte had sought to expand the department’s role in antitrust and other law enforcement. Congress turned down his request for a band of investigators, but President Theodore Roosevelt authorized him to set up the squad anyway, and the legislature went along. The Attorney General admitted to “certain inherent dangers” but agreed with Congress that he should use his 34 detectives only for “the detection and prosecution of crimes against the United States.”


But the Bureau quickly strayed into exactly the kinds of political intrigue that Bonaparte had eschewed and critics had feared. The 1910 Mann Act, which forbade transporting women across state lines for the purpose of prostitution, became the impetus for sending Bureau men into the field outside Washington, D.C., for the first time. Since the law also covered “any other immoral purpose,” it proved a handy tool for pursuing out-of-favor politicians and troublemakers, ranging from the black boxing champion Jack Johnson to a prominent leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

During World War I the agency was given responsibility for curtailing saboteurs and spies, but it also used this power to prosecute aliens, union leaders, and radicals. National anxiety over the so-called Red menace came to a head in 1919, inflamed by the Russian Revolution and domestic labor agitation. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, whose own home had been bombed by anarchists, established what would be named the General Intelligence Division within the Bureau and put in charge a young Justice Department lawyer named John Edgar Hoover. Hoover set about creating and cross-indexing intelligence files on anarchist leaders and groups. Within two years his directory included 450,000 individuals, organizations, and publications.

During the winter of 1919-20 Hoover, along with the Bureau of Immigration’s head, Anthony Caminetti, directed a series of raids that netted thousands of alleged Bolsheviks and anarchists. What came to be known as the Palmer Raids were initially applauded in the press. The Washington Post declared, “There is no time for hairsplitting over infringements of liberty.” When the details emerged, though, they left a bad taste. Its own manpower limited, the Bureau had relied on local police and vigilante groups. Many of those apprehended were poor and illiterate, their connections to anarchism tenuous. Citizens had been hauled in along with foreigners. The dragnet’s failure to uncover any bombs or stockpiles of weapons gave the lie to the warnings of imminent revolution; warrantless arrests, forced confessions, suspension of legal counsel, and prisoners marched through the streets in shackles awakened fears of a European-style secret police.

The corruption-ridden harding years brought further scandal, and by 1924 Coolidge’s Attorney General, Harlan Fiske Stone, was determined to end the abuses. “... A secret police may become a menace to free governments and free institutions,” he stated.

He wanted a Bureau that was “not concerned with political or other opinions of individuals....Only with their conduct and then only with such conduct as is forbidden by the laws of the United States.” Stone directed the 29-year-old Hoover to clean house. In spite of his involvement in the Palmer Raid abuses, or perhaps because of it, Hoover was determined to make the agency incorruptible, tightly controlled, and dedicated to law enforcement rather than spying.

“The Bureau must be divorced from politics and not be a catch-all for political hacks,” he insisted. He culled the bad apples, recruited men of high character trained in accounting or the law, and fired the organization with his enthusiasm. For the next 10 years Hoover kept out of the limelight. He cut back the number of agents and actually returned budgeted funds that he hadn’t spent. He set up a central fingerprint registry and a system to track crime statistics. Later he would establish the National Police Academy to train law enforcement officers.