“The Most Dangerous Institution”


Hoover continued to believe that the Bureau should be a leader in law enforcement, but not a comprehensive federal police force. The agency stayed out of the unpopular business of Prohibition, and Hoover saw no role for it in addressing strictly local crimes like gambling and labor racketeering. Rather, the Bureau should remain an elite agency guiding the nation’s police in modern crime-fighting methods. “Before science all things must fall,” was one of Hoover’s favorite mottoes.

Some New Deal aides had been pushing for the federal government to take a preventive or social response to wrongdoing—attacking problems like slums, poverty, and unemployment that were seen as the roots of crime. The G-man clamor drowned out their voices, touting instead a strategy of prosecuting criminals. The policing philosophy defined the FBI; and the Bureau actively promoted that philosophy.

Two years after the Dillinger coup, as the “crime wave” that had established the Bureau was sputtering out, an equally momentous development in FBI history occurred, far from the glare of publicity. The date was August 24,1936. Concerned about the war clouds gathering in Europe and Asia, President Roosevelt wanted an assessment of the threats from both Communists and Fascists in the United States. Organizations like the right-wing American Liberty League, backed by powerful business executives, were in fact mulling over plots to depose the President.

Because his appropriations did not cover such investigations, Hoover suggested that his authority rely on a 1916 law authorizing the State Department to approve intelligence operations against agents of foreign powers. The next day Roosevelt had Secretary of State Cordell Hull give the order—but Hull never put the man- date in writing. In spite of the fact that the law was intended to authorize surveillance only of foreign spies, the Bureau immediately turned its attention to purely domestic groups. The verbal directive, Hoover’s biographer Richard Gid Powers points out, “provided Hoover with his basic authority for nearly forty years of domestic intelligence operations.”

Both Hoover and FDR knew that domestic spying was a political minefield, yet the director was eager to serve the President, and the mission fitted his own inclination to get the goods on suspected radicals. Abandoning his innate caution, he steered the Bureau onto legal thin ice.

As war threatened to engulf Europe in June 1939, Roosevelt issued an official but secret edict directing the FBI to investigate domestic espionage and sabotage. Hoover re-established the General Intelligence Division, the spy unit that had been eliminated in the 1924 reforms; he had conveniently saved its files. The Bureau’s intelligence activities were carried out under the guise of national security, but their targets were often political: Roosevelt critics like Sen. Burton Wheeler; isolationists like Charles Lindbergh; labor leaders like John L. Lewis.

During the war years the Bureau handled counterintelligence efforts throughout the Western Hemisphere and spoiled at least one German sabotage attempt. Hoover opposed as both pointless and illegal the policy of transporting everyone of Japanese descent on the West Coast, including U.S. citizens, to camps far inland. But he established a system of secret files that were not included in the Bureau’s careful indexing system, hiding all its illegal intelligence activity from scrutiny. Congress had outlawed wiretapping in 1934, but Roosevelt decided the ban didn’t apply to national security threats. The FBI arranged for the delay and examination of Axis and Soviet cables, the opening of mail to Axis diplomats, and break-ins for espionage purposes. These activities were illegal, but many continued after the war. When Attorney General Francis Biddle found out about the Bureau’s Custodial Detention Index, listing suspects who were to be rounded up in an emergency, he labeled it “dangerous, illegal” and ordered its end. Hoover simply changed its name to the Security Index.

Had Americans known of the FBI’s clandestine ways during this era, few would have questioned them. Such abuses of power paled alongside the external threats the nation faced, and the FBI’s civil liberties record was still better than that of most local police agencies. Later the danger of giving the Bureau ill-defined spy duties became clearer. The FBI emerged from the war with some 4,000 agents and a formidable intelligence capability. Hoover maneuvered to maintain an FBI monopoly over domestic intelligence, and Congress restricted the new Central Intelligence Agency to overseas duty. Tension with a resurgent Soviet empire convinced the Director that another war was imminent and that the Bureau needed to be ready.

In 1939, with war threatening Europe, President Roosevelt directed the FBI to investigate domestic espionage and sabotage.

The Smith Act, passed in 1940, had made it a crime to advocate, or to belong to a group that advocated, the overthrow of the government by force. It provided a potent weapon against radicals during the Cold War. The Bureau targeted and won convictions of top leaders of the American Communist movement in 1948 and 1949, and additional party members went to trial over the next five years. The FBI also solved what Hoover at the time called the “crime of the century,” the theft of America’s atomic bomb secrets. With the help of meticulous code breaking, agents were able to alert British authorities to the spy Klaus Fuchs and to apprehend his U.S. contacts and coconspirators, including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.