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“The Most Dangerous Institution”
For nearly a hundred years, the FBI has been fighting for America—with its discipline and professionalism often at odds with its shadowy, extralegal tactics.
August/September 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 4
After the war President Truman renewed his predecessor’s order permitting wiretaps for intelligence purposes. Hoover latched on to accusations against purported Communists in government and assigned 300 agents to investigate the former State Department aide Alger Hiss, one of the highest government officials accused of Communist-party involvement. Hiss was convicted of perjury in January of 1950 and jailed. Convinced that the Truman administration was not doing enough to counter the Red threat, Hoover fed FBI data to the House Un-American Activities Committee, letting representatives attack with innuendo citizens whom the Bureau lacked the evidence to prosecute. In addition, Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Senate subcommittee on investigations employed ex-FBI agents as sleuths and made liberal use of information from Bureau files (although when the senator began to make accusations against the Eisenhower administration itself, Hoover backed off).
The Bureau set up a Responsibilities Program under which numerous schoolteachers, college professors, and state government workers lost their jobs. Suspicions multiplied. Writers, reporters, and entertainers came under FBI scrutiny. The Bureau kept files on Leonard Bernstein and Pete Seeger, on Charlie Chaplin and Ernest Hemingway. It had drifted far from its law enforcement duties. It was about to stray even farther.
In the early 1960s, as the nation experienced a serious increase in crime, the Kennedy administration, searching for solutions, finally began to look at possible social causes of criminal behavior. But with Hoover still blaming crime on the moral failings of wrongdoers, the FBI continued to lobby for heftier Bureau appropriations with which to lock up more criminals. The agency had always been the nemesis of bank robbers, kidnappers, and car thieves, whose cases could be solved with relative ease and offered high conviction rates. For decades, however, it had failed to pursue organized crime. Hoover had labeled the notion of a national crime syndicate “baloney.”
During the 1930s urban gangs had used the clout and cash they gained during Prohibition to move into extortion, gambling, narcotics, and other rackets. Mysteries, some salacious, have been spun about Hoover’s reluctance to go after gangsters, but several straightforward explanations suggest themselves. Mob cases required tedious legwork and involved the danger that gangsters might corrupt agents. Organized crime’s intractability warned Hoover away from a potential quagmire. During the postwar period an all-out attack on gangsters would have taken Bureau resources away from the anti-Red crusade. As late as 1959 the FBI’s New York office had 400 agents chasing “subversives,” but only 4 investigating organized crime.
The discovery of a “crime convention” in the upstate New York hamlet of Apalachin in 1957 by two state troopers and two U.S. Treasury agents embarrassed the Bureau, which had to admit it knew nothing of the conclave. The headlines sparked public concern about the extent of organized crime, forcing Hoover to begin moving against the mob. Under his Top Hoodlums program, wiretaps and bugs proved effective in garnering intelligence about gangsters, but because the methods were illegal, the information could not be used as evidence in court.
In 1968 Congress finally gave the FBI its long-sought legal authorization to carry out court-approved eavesdropping. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) provision of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 allowed entire criminal enterprises to be indicted, and the gangster tide began to recede. The FBI gathered evidence that led to 2,500 convictions between 1981 and 1983, successfully hauled eight members of the Mafia “Commission” into court in 1986, and continued to hammer mob bosses through the 1990s.
Civil rights was another area where the FBI initially feared to tread. The Bureau was criticized for standing by in the face of provocations like the violence against the Freedom Riders in 1961 and Alabama’s official defiance of the integration of its state university in 1963. But under pressure from President Johnson the Bureau finally came to play a significant role in suppressing the violent reaction to the civil rights movement in the South.
In the fifties and sixties Hoover’s vigilance about domestic Communism approached paranoia—even though the threat had largely evaporated.
Throughout the fifties and sixties, as Hoover maintained the FBI’s emphasis on intelligence activities, his vigilance about domestic Communism approached paranoia. The fact was, the Communist threat at home had largely evaporated. The Smith Act trials had decapitated the party in the United States, and revelations of Stalin’s crimes, combined with the Soviet suppression of the 1956 Hungarian revolt, had seriously sapped party morale. By the end of 1957 the party claimed fewer than 4,000 members, many of them FBI informants. Nevertheless, hoping to obliterate the menace once and for all, the Bureau began the most serious intrusion ever of police power into the American political process. It was to be one of the FBI’s deepest secrets, with all actions personally approved by the Director. It became known as it COINTELPRO , for “counterintelligence program.”