Toxic Legacy: Hoover, the Bureau, and the American Surveillance State

Over five decades after his death, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI is among the greatest daily threats to the constitutional rights of Americans. That must change.

Toxic Legacy: Hoover, the Bureau, and the American Surveillance State
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover at the Justice Department, April 5, 1940. (Source: LOC)

Over five decades after his death, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI is among the greatest daily threats to the constitutional rights of Americans. That must change.

Last Thursday (May 2) marked the 52nd anniversary of the passing of the United States' longest serving and most consequential government bureaucrat. The late J. Edgar Hoover started out as a filing clerk at the Library of Congress and ended up being the most feared man in government.

Yale history professor Beverly Gage's 2022 Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Hoover, G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century, will likely stand the test of time as the definitive account of the man's life and influence, as well as his fall from favor.

"During his lifetime," Gage notes, "Hoover did as much as any individual in government to contain and cripple movements seeking racial and social justice, and thus to limit the forms of democracy and governance that might have been possible." (p. 731)

Like other historians, Gage believes that "the abuses exposed by the Church Committee have continued to define his legacy; his name conjures up images of backroom scheming and abuse of power, of secrets and lies and the politics of fear." (p. 731)

"The man who once garnered a 98 percent approval rating," Gage writes in the book's epilogue, "now has few admirers and almost nobody willing to claim his legacy, even within the FBI." (p. 732)

It is on this last point that Gage is, unfortunately, quite mistaken.

While his successors might not openly embrace Hoover, they've actually continued some of his worst practices and invented new ones of their own.

There's no question that the eight years between Hoover's death and Ronald Reagan's election as president were a time of long overdue scrutiny of the FBI's past misdeeds, followed by a period of limited and temporary accountability for some of Hoover's former lieutenants implicated in illegal break-ins against anti-Vietnam War activists.

But the toxic organizational culture Hoover created at the FBI--a penchant for targeting American political activists who vigorously but lawfully oppose policies and paradigms embraced by official Washington--remained unchanged. If anything, it was reinvigorated by the new commander in chief. 

During Ronald Reagan's tenure in office, the FBI would investigate American libraries for Soviet sympathizers as well as activists nationwide who were opposed to Reagan's policies in Central America. The gay rights and AIDS treatment advocacy group ACT UP was also a target.

Under Reagan's successor and former Vice President, George H.W. Bush, the Bureau would actually target a group aggressively employing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to uncover federal government chicanery on a range of national security topics.

During Bill Clinton's time as president, the Bureau engaged in wide-ranging surveillance activities targeting Arab and Muslim Americans in an investigation ironically named VULGAR BETRAYAL. The surveillance of those groups only intensified after Al Qaeda's September 11, 2011, attacks on America, even including Arab or Muslim American candidates for political office. And in a replay of its Vietnam War era surveillance of anti-war protesters, the Bureau targeted individuals and groups opposed to America's war against Iraq during George W. Bush's presidency, a tactic the FBI would continue to employ during the Obama administration.

Under then-President Trump, the FBI would be the spearhead of the Department of Justice's so-called "China Initiative"--a blatantly racist "national security" initiative that became a major embarrassment to the Bureau and only alienated the Asian American community generally and Chinese Americans in particular.

And of course most recently, it is the FBI that's been responsible for literally millions of facially unconstitutional violations of Americans' privacy via the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Section 702 program, about which I've written previously.

In his 2019 book Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide: How the New FBI Damages Democracy, long-time former FBI agent Mike German traces the FBI's devolution from a law enforcement agency with intelligence functions to an intelligence agency with law enforcement functions and why that change represents a fundamental threat to our constitutional rights.

"Today, many Americans worry about how an authoritarian president like Donald Trump could be using an FBI that has claimed such broad and unchecked capabilities. But the point is that no president should have such an unbridled domestic spy agency at his or her disposal, if for no other reason than no president could ever be safe from it." (pp. 19-20). Indeed, it was a lesson Trump should've learned from the FBI CROSSFIRE HURRICANE investigation that targeted one of his 2016 campaign advisors.

Not everyone in Washington has remained oblivious to the FBI's serial misconduct.

In March 2022, Representatives Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Nancy Mace (R-SC) asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO)--Congress's chief investigative component--to examine the FBI's use or misuse of so-called "Assessments," an investigative tool created in September 2008 by then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey and which requires no criminal predicate or judicial approval to open.

With an "Assessment," an FBI agent can 1) run confidential informants against the target, 2) initiate physical surveillance of the target, and 3) conduct searches of commercial and classified databases for information on the target, which would inevitably include those in contact with the target--family, friends, co-workers, etc. It's the kind of "fishing expedition" investigative power that no law enforcement agency should possess.

Once the GAO's report is finally done and made public, I'll personally be pushing for Congressional hearings on the report as well as legislative action to end the FBI's use of "Assessments" as well as other long overdue changes to the FBI's mission and authorities--changes that, if mandated by law, will finally begin to exorcise the ghost of J. Edgar Hoover from the FBI's organizational culture and mindset.

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