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#FBI: Presidential history: Politics entwine the FBI and president

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 Presidential history: Politics entwine the FBI and president

posted at 20:44:07 UTC via

From its genesis 115 years ago to the present, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been ensnared in presidential politics.

While it has evolved into the nation’s principal security and law enforcement agency, “the high-profile nature of many of its investigations often place it in the middle of political controversies,” writes Willard M. Oliver in his book “The Birth of the FBI.”

The bureau was created in the aftermath of a partisan tussle between Theodore Roosevelt and Congress.

Because the U.S. Constitution has not empowered any government group to enforce federal laws, the Department of Justice in the late 19th century “relied on detectives from the Secret Service and the Pinkerton Agency” to perform criminal investigations, according to FBI historian John F. Fox Jr. When Charles Bonaparte, Napoleon Bonaparte’s grandnephew, became Roosevelt’s attorney general and head of the DOJ, he objected to this awkward arrangement; he felt hamstrung to prosecute corruption without his own detective force.

The issue came to an impasse in 1908, and politics was at the center of it. When members of the Secret Service on loan to the DOJ were used to scrutinize a senator for possible land fraud, Congress retaliated by prohibiting the attorney general from using these borrowed agents for any criminal investigation.

With Roosevelt’s enthusiastic approval, on July 26, 1908, Bonaparte circumvented the legislature by creating DOJ’s own detective group of 34 special agents. Congress was notified of its existence six months later. Bonaparte’s successor named it the Bureau of Investigation — the FBI moniker came in 1935.

J. Edgar Hoover served as the Director of the FBI from 1924 to 1972. (Federal Bureau of Investigation/MCT)J. Edgar Hoover served as the Director of the FBI from 1924 to 1972. (Federal Bureau of Investigation/MCT)

While it didn’t take much time before Capitol Hill provided funds for the DOJ’s new policing unit, the force nevertheless “struggled to find its footing amidst the frequent influence of patronage politics,” according to an article in Smithsonian Magazine. In 1910, under President William Taft, the group found its grounding when it was tasked to enforce the Mann Act that made it a crime to transport women between states for immoral purposes. This led to a sizable expansion of the bureau’s jurisdiction, manpower and field offices.

Laws under Woodrow Wilson increased the agency’s work and authority during World War I. The Bureau of Investigation became the federal government’s arm to implement the Espionage and Seditions acts. Aliens and radical activists were targeted because of their political dissention.

In a flagrant abuse of jurisdiction in 1919, Attorney General Mitchell Palmer ordered the bureau’s agents to corral alleged revolutionary immigrants and deport them. In The Nation, author Jeff Kisseloff remarked that likely the most lasting effect of this scurrilous activity was Palmer’s decision to have his assistant involved with the raids. “The official, nicknamed ‘Speed,’ was 24-year-old J. Edgar Hoover.”

Warren Harding appointed his campaign manager, Harry Daugherty, as attorney general; he in turn placed a flamboyant private detective, William Burns, in charge of the Bureau of Investigation. Under Burns, the agency became a partisan machine for the administration. Agents gathered dirt on those opposed to the chief executive’s policies and “raided senators who asked too many questions,” Beverly Gage wrote in a Time magazine article.

Not long after Harding’s death and the revelation of the Teapot Dome scandal, President Calvin Coolidge fired Daugherty and replaced him with the longtime dean of Columbia Law School, Harlan Fiske Stone. One of his early priorities was to eliminate the mess at the Bureau of Investigation — it had become a political police force.

On May 10, 1924, Stone summoned Hoover to his office to name him the bureau’s new director. Tim Weiner relates in his book “Enemies – A History of the FBI” that 6-foot-4-inch Stone looked down on this 5-foot-7-inch, 29-year-old former library clerk and told him he was “on trial” and that the “bureau would no longer be an instrument of political warfare.” Hoover answered, “Yes, sir.”

Stone remained attorney general for another nine months before going to the Supreme Court — Hoover lasted 48 years as the FBI’s chief.

Although Hoover transformed the agency into a formidable law enforcement organization, along the way he soon forgot his command from Stone and used the bureau as a political machine for himself and many Oval Office holders.

Author Weiner writes that Franklin Roosevelt gave Hoover “the power to eavesdrop, plant hidden microphones and purloin secrets through burglary. When the Supreme Court outlawed telephone wiretaps, FDR told Hoover, in so many words, to hell with the court.” Roosevelt also showed little inclination to rein in Hoover from pursuing political inquisitions of his domestic critics, such as aviator Charles Lindberg.

By the time Harry Truman entered the White House, Hoover was a celebrity and wanted to extend the FBI’s scope into becoming a world intelligence service. When Give ‘Em Hell Harry thwarted his ambition by creating the Central Intelligence Agency, Hoover sought revenge. In the 1948 election, he used FBI resources to benefit Thomas Dewey, the Republican Party candidate. When Hoover heard of Truman’s upset victory, he disappeared for two weeks.

Although Hoover’s renown began to weaken in the 1960s, his file cabinets of dossiers and recording of personally damaging material on John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and other politicians kept him in the catbird seat until his death in 1972.

The political tug of war between the FBI and the commanders in chief continued after Hoover’s demise. In the Watergate scandal, the bureau’s second-in-command, Mark Felt, was Deep Throat. The agency played a part in Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra affair, and Bill Clinton’s Whitewater scandal. More recently, the FBI’s investigation of Donald Trump led to an indictment.

Author Willard Oliver writes: “Since its start, the FBI has continually found itself involved in politics because they are a political agency conducting investigations in a political world … and likely to continue to do so well into the future.”

Jonathan L. Stolz is a resident of James City County.

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