The writer, an FBI agent for 31 years, retired as resident agent in charge of the Ann Arbor office in 2006.
By Greg Stejskal
The so called “cancel culture” movement has championed efforts to remove statues and the names of certain historical figures from public areas and buildings.
I have never understood why military bases and schools are named for Confederate generals who took up arms against the United States to maintain the institution of slavery. I don’t think anyone ever proposed naming anything for Benedict Arnold.
But the movement has gone beyond Confederate generals. There is apparently strong support, including on Capitol Hill, for removing J. Edgar Hoover’s name from the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. Some of Hoover’s actions during his 48 years as director of the FBI are difficult to defend. It brings to mind, Mark Antony’s funeral oration for Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play:
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.
The good that Hoover did was not interred with his bones. Upon his death in 1972, he lay in state in the Capitol rotunda, an unprecedented honor for a civil servant. When the FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue was finally built in 1975, it was named for him.
From the time Hoover became director of the FBI in 1924, he built it into arguably the best investigative agency in the world. Hoover embraced forensic/scientific crime-fighting tools and established the FBI laboratory. He championed a national fingerprint repository and matched with the fingerprints, a repository of criminal records. This would become the National Crime Information Center.
The FBI developed a reputation for professionalism and incorruptibility that has seldom been breached. That incorruptibility was demonstrated in 1925, soon after Hoover became director, when he committed the bureau to investigate the Osage Indian murders in Oklahoma. The murders involved a conspiracy of community leaders, local and state officials, and the collusion of law enforcement. (The story is well-told in David Gann’s 2017 book, Killers of the Flower Moon.) Using undercover agents, the FBI identified and prosecuted many of those involved the conspiracy.
During Hoover’s tenure he directed the bureau to do some extralegal activities. Many of these initiatives were done at the request of various presidents under whom he served. Prior to World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt asked Hoover to have the FBI monitor the activities of various isolationists, some of whom were German sympathizers, including Charles Lindbergh and Father Coughlin.
Against Japanese-American Internment
Hoover complied with the monitoring request. But when President Roosevelt was contemplating the detention of Japanese Americans, Hoover voiced his opposition to the detention, saying he did not believe they posed a threat to national security.
But the good that Hoover did seems to be largely forgotten or overshadowed by the bad acts that were committed by the bureau at his direction. Those bad acts principally involve the Counter Intelligence Program. COINTELPRO began in the mid-1950s by surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting and disrupting the American Communist Party that acted as a surrogate of the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin referred to American communists as “useful idiots.”
This was in the midst of the Cold War. To say that Hoover had an obsession regarding the threat of communism and the Soviet Union would be an understatement.
Hoover was privy to the Venona project, a secret counterintelligence operation begun by crypto analysts in the Army Signal Corps (forerunner of the National Security Agency) during WWII and for several years, thereafter. The analysts were able to decipher some of encrypted telegraph traffic between the Soviet embassy in the US and Moscow.
These communications revealed that Soviet intelligence officers operating in the U.S, had recruited numerous communists and communist sympathizers as spies or coopetes, people willing to help the Soviet Union.
It was the Venona that revealed that the Soviet Union had infiltrated the Manhattan Project which helped produced the first nuclear weapons during World War II.
Investigation by the FBI and British intelligence led to the identification of British physicist, Klaus Fuchs and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as spies. (Information from the Venona intercepts was never revealed at the Rosenberg trial.) The decrypted messages also indicated that a significant number of Americans in the government, entertainment and scientific research had been recruited by the Soviets.
Many of these recruits were never identified. Some were only identified after the fall of the Soviet Union. The existence of Venona and the deciphered messages was not declassified and revealed until the 1990s.
Monitoring Civil Rights Movement
Hoover and others involved in counterintelligence were understandably concerned about the possibility of Soviet influence in the media, entertainment and some political movements.
Under COINTELPRO, the FBI began to target some organizations within the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements that were believed to be influenced or controlled by the Soviet Union. There were people in leadership in these groups that were avowed communists. (Ironically, some of techniques that were used by the FBI were learned and honed successfully combating the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan’s ideology was more akin to the Nazis than the communists. In fact, the Klan was vehemently anti-communist.)
These targeted groups and leaders were monitored with electronic surveillance, wiretaps and hidden microphones. Robert Kennedy, attorney general from 1961-64, authorized electronic surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. and other principals in the civil rights movement ostensibly because of the possibility of Soviet influence. President John Kennedy was also aware of the bugging.
None of this justifies some of the egregious acts by the FBI at the direction of Hoover like threats of blackmail, false stories planted in the media, “black bag jobs” (burglaries). It does put COINTELPRO activity in context. There were national security concerns that at least in part explain why the groups were targeted, although the threat of Soviet influence in hindsight was exaggerated.
For all the good that Hoover did it’s hard to get past the bad things that were done to disrupt and discredit the civil rights movement, and specifically Martin Luther King Jr. He's been characterized by critics as racist, a trait that can't be condoned by anyone.
But COINTELPRO should not be Hoover’s legacy, nor should it be forgotten. His legacy should be the FBI – its successes, failures and transgressions.
Maybe we shouldn’t name anything for anyone. After all, It's said that not even the saints were saints.