- Historic Sites
“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
Not content with investigation, Hoover now ordered his men to infiltrate and disrupt the activities of suspected organizations. The point was not to prosecute criminals but to hamstring political activities. Agents made anonymous phone calls and wrote letters denouncing targets in sexual terms. They contacted neighbors, employers, and friends to spread the word that a person was disloyal. They encouraged informants to sow discord, which sometimes led to violence. They arranged for targeted tax audits, and put “snitch jackets” on people, planting false rumors that they were cooperating with authorities.
The tactics were so effective that they spawned, over the next 15 years, additional COINTELPRO s, targeting the Socialist Workers party, white hate groups, black militants, the “New Left,” and others. The Communist-party COINTELPRO , though unauthorized, had tenuous justification in the Communist Control Act of 1954, which had outlawed the party. But with each subsequent program the agency moved farther away from any mooring to legality.
The FBI’s most notorious abuses were directed at Martin Luther King, Jr., who became the focus of the Bureau’s interest as early as 1958. He thrice transgressed: He was black, Hoover thought he had Communist ties, and he had the temerity to criticize the Bureau. In spite of the fact that its own studies had shown few connections between Communists and civil rights groups, the FBI tapped phones and hid microphones in King’s hotel rooms. It distributed tapes and reports from these sources as part of a vigorous campaign to demoralize the civil rights leader and undermine his reputation. Hoover held a press conference on November 18,1964, in which he called King “one of the lowest characters in the country.” But by the mid-1960s these Redbaiting techniques had begun to lose their potency; Hoover was falling out of sync with the temper of the times.
Once the FBI entered the business of combating political opinions, it became a criminal conspiracy itself. In March 1971 a group called the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI burglarized a Bureau office in Media, Pennsylvania, and made off with heaps of secret files. The burglary prompted Hoover to shut down his most egregious domestic spy operations. While the security breach barely made news, the designation COINTELPRO on one of the stolen documents, which the group sent to newspaper and television reporters, proved critical. No one at the time knew what the term meant, but the NBC News reporter Carl Stern made Freedom of Information Act filings that gradually helped reveal a long history of illegal activity. The Media break-in proved to be, in the words of one Bureau official, the “turning point in the FBI image,” forever tarnishing the G-man myth. By the time all the facts emerged, Hoover was dead and Watergate had darkened the national mood.
In 1976 Attorney General Edward Levi moved to re-establish Justice Department control over the FBI. His guidelines, echoing the sentiments of Attorney General Stone 52 years earlier, set limits on operations not specifically directed at criminal activity. They also required the Bureau to clear its investigations in advance with the Justice Department. Congress had already limited the director’s term to 10 years, with Senate confirmation of his appointment.
Seven years later President Reagan’s attorney general William French Smith rescinded Levi’s orders, once again letting the Bureau dig into the affairs of persons or groups that “advocate criminal activity.” The FBI had only to notify the Justice Department, not seek permission from it, when initiating a domestic-security probe.
One aftereffect of Watergate was the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, an effort to bring legal order to the intelligence realm. FISA set up a secret court to handle requests for investigations of alleged agents of foreign powers. Warrants for wiretaps for intelligence gathering rather than law enforcement needed no probable cause. The law recognized that the Bureau would have to continue to pursue intelligence in national security cases but attempted to contain its methods by limiting them to use against foreign agents.
The scandals of the 1970s and the resulting legislative restrictions temporarily damped the Bureau’s domestic intelligence activity and brought law enforcement back to the fore. Organized crime, white-collar crime, and tracking down foreign spies became top priorities. The Bureau introduced new methods like psychological profiling and, during the 1980s, DNA analysis. It also opened its ranks to minorities and women.
In the 1978-80 ABSCAM investigations, agents impersonating the representatives of a fictitious Arab sheik caught a U.S. senator, six representatives, and several others taking bribes. Operations against corrupt local government officials followed. Political malfeasance had long been a Bureau responsibility but one that it had approached gingerly.