How did intelligence-gathering in the United States become centralized and opposed to civil liberties?
The answer lies in war, fear-mongering, political ambition, and the career path of the most pragmatic bureaucrat America has produced: J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972), the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). A supremely political animal, Hoover occupied high office for nearly 50 years, during which he was instrumental in laying the foundation for a national security state.
A national security state is one that is constantly at war and vigilantly on guard against “the enemy” who is both external and internal. The external enemy can be a combatant country or a concept, like communism or terrorism. The internal enemy is anyone within the nation who disagrees with official war policy or espouses the “wrong” concept.
Bureau of Investigation
Hoover’s career was born in war and in fighting “the enemy.” Before World War I the then-Bureau of Investigation (BI) pursued federal crimes, such as transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes (the Mann Act, 1910). During the war the Justice Department, under which the BI functioned, shifted its focus to domestic security. It targeted the foreign-born within America.
In 1918 the Alien Enemy Bureau opened to track foreign nationals, radicals, and other suspected subversives. In his book J. Edgar Hoover and the Anti-Interventionists, historian Douglas M. Charles observed that it was in this bureau “that a young J. Edgar Hoover . . . learned to use administrative procedures to bypass legal restraints.”
Fear of subversives outlived the war. As Russia plunged deeply into communism, massive strikes rocked America; the labor unrest was blamed on socialists and foreign radicals. In 1919 Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer appointed Hoover as head of the newly formed Radical Bureau with the mission of rooting radicalism out of American soil. Approximately 10,000 “subversives” were arrested, with several hundred foreigners deported. Civil liberties were ignored or skirted; for example, immigration regulations were altered specifically to facilitate deportations.
In 1923 the BI’s abuses became a raging public scandal and a new attorney general vowed to clean house. In 1924, despite his role at the Radical Bureau, Hoover assumed BI’s leadership. Publicly he pledged an end to civil liberties violations. Privately he developed procedures to gather prohibited intelligence on the sly. For example, sensitive information never entered the BI’s files but was placed directly on Hoover’s desk to enter a parallel filing system. Hoover began to amass the vast database of personal information for which so many politicians in future decades would fear him.
Under the presidency of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945), the Republican-appointed Hoover made himself useful by providing intimate reports on FDR’s political opponents; indeed, Hoover’s power increased under Republican and Democratic presidents because his services were of bipartisan value. Civil liberties violations were largely ignored. In the 1930s high-profile crime sprees, such as that of bank-robbing John Dillinger, allowed the federal government to develop an expansive crime program through which the BI assumed jurisdiction in areas formerly reserved to the states. In July 1935 the Federal Bureau of Investigation emerged. A federalized combination of intelligence gathering and crime control was established.
As fascism grew in Europe FDR focused on foreign policy and domestic security. In August 1936 a private meeting between FDR and Hoover was recorded in then-confidential memoranda. FDR wanted “a broad picture” of subversive groups and, again, Hoover side-stepped legal obstacles through an administrative tactic. The FBI was allowed to investigate “any matters referred to it by the Department of State.” Thereafter, the FBI closely monitored journalists, political activists, antiwar advocates, isolationists, and critics of FDR.
At this point the FBI became primarily an intelligence-gathering agency. Moreover, through administrative ruses and covert means, the agency functioned largely without legislative approval or public scrutiny; it became increasingly autonomous.
Hoover then moved to ensure a monopoly on domestic intelligence. In 1939 FDR considered giving this authority to an interdepartmental committee. In his book Charles explained that Hoover warned the attorney general “of the civil liberty abuses” during the Palmer years and “argued that centralizing domestic investigations within the FBI could avoid the mistakes of the past. This clever civil libertarian argument worked. . . .” Domestic intelligence was placed under the authority of the FBI, Military Intelligence Division, and Office of Naval Intelligence; most importantly, the FBI coordinated all information.
From American entry in World War II through the ensuing Cold War, civil liberties gave way to security concerns. By then the FBI was already positioned as a centralized agency of social control, which was maintained through gathering intelligence for political purposes.
Hoover retained his FBI power base until his death in 1972. Subsequent “national security” agencies have followed in his footsteps by remaining secretive, by using administrative procedures to violate civil liberties, and by being useful to both parties. In a real sense, it is a photo of Hoover that should looking down on America as Big Brother.