J Edgar Hoover’s Oversteps: Why FBI Directors are Forbidden from Getting Cozy with Presidents

By: Douglas Charles, author of Hoover’s War on Gays & The FBI’s Obscene File. (Article originally published by The Conversation.)

How are U.S. presidents and FBI directors supposed to communicate?

A new FBI director has recently been nominated, former Assistant Attorney General Christopher Wray. He will certainly be thinking carefully about this question as he awaits confirmation.

Former FBI Director James Comey’s relationship with President Donald Trump was strained at best. Comey was concerned that Trump had approached him on nine different occasions in two months. In his testimony to Congress, Comey stated that under President Barack Obama, he had spoken with the president only twice in three years.

Comey expressed concern about this to colleagues, and tried to distance himself from the president. He tried to tell Trump the proper procedures for communicating with the FBI. These policies have been enmeshed in Justice Department guidelines. And for good reason.

FBI historians like myself know that, since the 1970s, bureau directors try to maintain a discrete distance from the president. This tradition grew out of reforms that followed the often questionable behavior of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who served from 1924 to 1972.

Over this long period, Hoover’s relationships with six different presidents often became dangerously close, crossing ethical and legal lines. This history can help us understand Comey’s concerns about Trump and help put his testimony into larger context.

As the nation’s chief law enforcement arm, the FBI today is tasked with three main responsibilities: investigating violations of federal law, pursuing counterterrorism cases and disrupting the work of foreign intelligence operatives. Anything beyond these raises serious ethical questions.

From FDR to Nixon

When Franklin Roosevelt became president in 1933, Hoover worked hard to develop a close working relationship with the president. Roosevelt helped promote Hoover’s crime control program and expand FBI authority. Hoover grew the FBI from a small, relatively limited agency into a large and influential one. He then provided the president with information on his critics, and even some foreign intelligence, all while ingratiating himself with FDR to retain his job.

President Harry Truman didn’t much like Hoover, and thought his FBI was a potential “citizen spy system.”

Hoover found President Dwight Eisenhower to be an ideological ally with an interest in expanding FBI surveillance. This led to increased FBI use of illegal microphones and wiretaps. The president looked the other way as the FBI carried out its sometimes questionable investigations.

But when John F. Kennedy became president in 1961, Hoover’s relationship with the president faced a challenge. JFK’s brother, Robert Kennedy, was made attorney general. Given JFK’s close relationship with his brother, Hoover could no longer bypass his boss and deal directly with the president, as he so often did in the past. Not seeing eye to eye with the Kennedys, Hoover cut back on volunteering political intelligence reports to the White House. Instead, he only responded to requests, while collecting information on JFK’s extramarital affairs.

By contrast, President Lyndon Johnson had a voracious appetite for FBI political intelligence reports. Under his presidency, the FBI became a direct vehicle for servicing the president’s political interests. LBJ issued an executive order exempting Hoover from mandatory retirement at the time, when the FBI director reached age 70. Owing his job to LBJ, Hoover designated a top FBI official, FBI Assistant Director Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, as the official FBI liaison to the president.

The FBI monitored the Democratic National Convention at LBJ’s request. When Johnson’s aide, Walter Jenkins, was caught soliciting gay sex in a YMCA, Deke DeLoach worked directly with the president in dealing with the backlash.

One might think that when Richard Nixon ascended to the presidency in 1968, he would have found an ally in Hoover, given their shared anti-Communism. Hoover continued to provide a wealth of political intelligence to Nixon through a formal program called INLET. However, Hoover also felt vulnerable given intensified public protest due to the Vietnam War and public focus on his actions at the FBI.

Hoover held back in using intrusive surveillance such as wiretaps, microphones and break-ins as he had in the past. He resisted Nixon’s attempts to centralize intelligence coordination in the White House, especially when Nixon asked that the FBI use intrusive surveillance to find White House leaks. Not satisfied, the Nixon administration created its own leak-stopping unit: the White House plumbers – which ended in the Watergate scandal.

Not until after Hoover’s death did Americans learn of his abuses of authority. Reform followed.

In 1976, Congress mandated a 10-year term for FBI directors. The Justice Department later issued guidelines on how the FBI director was to deal with the White House and the president, and how to conduct investigations. These guidelines have been reaffirmed, revised and reissued by subsequent attorneys general, most recently in 2009. The guidelines state, for example: “Initial communications between the Department and the White House concerning pending or contemplated criminal investigations or cases will involve only the Attorney General or the Deputy Attorney General.”

These rules were intended to ensure the integrity of criminal investigations, avoid political influence and protect both the Justice Department and president. If Trump attempted to bypass these guidelines and woo Comey, that would represent a potentially dangerous return to the past.

Seriously, What Would Hoover Do?

9780700623051By Matthew Cecil

FBI Director James Comey’s decision to release an ambiguous and ill-timed update on the Bureau’s investigation into Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s email server situation has drawn significant public criticism. Former Justice Department officials have noted that Comey violated longstanding Justice Department policies against election season disclosures. Political critics, including many Democrats and even some Republicans have accused Comey of everything from political naiveté to Machiavellian genius for the timing and nature of his announcement.

One name that has not been evoked in the discussion is that of longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Perhaps it is not surprising. After all, “What would Hoover do?” is a question that likely only comes up in his namesake building as a warning: “Let’s be sure not to do whatever Hoover would have done.”

It is worth considering, though, how Hoover handled election-year politics during his 48-year tenure as director of the FBI. Would Hoover have acted as Comey did in this instance? My immediate reaction, having read hundreds of thousands of FBI documents from the Hoover era is: Probably not, at least not in a presidential campaign.

9780700619467Generally speaking, Hoover was exceedingly careful about allowing himself to be drawn into election year politics. Most often, efforts to drag  Hoover’s name into campaigns, usually by his friends in Congress as evidence of their anti-communist credentials, were spurned by the FBI through its public relations officials. I can think of one specific instance, however, where Hoover allowed his political capital to be used in an election campaign.

Stalwart GOP Senator Karl E. Mundt of South Dakota faced a difficult reelection campaign in 1960 against popular Democratic U.S. Rep. George McGovern. One early 1960 poll showed McGovern with a 20-point lead over the venerable Mundt, then seeking his third term in the Senate. Mundt, who had been member of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, was about as anti-communist as one could be and was considered a “personal friend” of Hoover. In the summer of 1960, an FBI memorandum urged agents to keep a close watch on the race for any efforts by Mundt’s campaign to invoke Hoover’s name. It was left to a friend of the Bureau, newspaper editor, Fred C. Christopherson of the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Argus Leader to orchestrate a Hoover “endorsement” of Mundt. Christopherson wrote to Hoover in October 1960 asking him to name “the most experienced members of Congress with knowledge of the communistic threat and legislative know-how to handle the situation in our national legislature today.”

Hoover, in a letter written by his politically savvy public relations aide Deke DeLoach (see my book, Branding Hoover’s FBI, for more about DeLoach’s political machinations), named Mundt and three others while lamely qualifying the response by stating there were many others in Congress who were experienced in anti-communist matters. Hoover’s response was repackaged by the Argus Leader and by Mundt’s campaign in a newspaper advertisement, as an “endorsement” of Mundt. The Argus Leader published Hoover’s letter in full, including the qualifying statement. Mundt’s advertisement left that part out. Did Hoover understand he was assisting Mundt’s re-election? Probably, although my reading of thousands of FBI files has convinced me that Hoover was often unaware of basic context of the memoranda he read and letters he signed. The impact of DeLoach’s carefully-worded letter was certainly enhanced by the way it was interpreted and packaged by a helpful newspaper editor and by Mundt’s campaign.

9780700623242Hoover was very cautious about public relations matters, and he was subjected to some criticism after the pro-Mundt ad ran, criticism the FBI did not take lightly. I wish there was more clarity in the files. The Mundt file includes one memorandum suggesting that the FBI (DeLoach, anyway) was aware that Mundt was facing a difficult re-election campaign. Hoover certainly couldn’t have been surprised that his quote was used in a Mundt campaign advertisement. But there’s no indication that the Bureau orchestrated the “endorsement,” or that it knew Mundt would use the quote in an advertisement. Mundt won reelection in 1960 by a mere 15,000 votes and ultimately retired in 1973, although he suffered a stroke in 1969 and did not attend any Senate sessions during his last several years in office.

The many FBI files I have seen suggest that Hoover, for the most part, stayed out of political campaigns, at least publicly. Bureau public relations officials, in most cases, discouraged efforts to use Hoover’s image or words in campaigns. And in the case of Mundt’s campaign, the careful wording of the Bureau’s response to Christopherson’s letter demonstrates how cautious the Director was on those rare occasions when he did intervene publicly in election-year politics.

So what does this all mean for James Comey? I’m afraid Comey comes out looking bad no matter how one evaluates the precedent set by Hoover. If Comey was merely acting as Hoover sometimes did to influence elections, he was parroting the actions of the most discredited figure in FBI history. If he was acting beyond the cautious precedent set by Hoover, Comey was exceeding even the discredited Hoover’s Machiavellian tendencies. Either way, history provides little help for James Comey, whose enduring legacy will likely be shaped by the interpretation of this one event.

Dr. Matthew Cecil is the Dean of the College of Arts & Humanities at Minnesota State University – Mankato. He has published three books with the University Press of Kansas, The Ballad of Ben and Stella Mae, Branding Hoover’s FBI and Hoover’s FBI and the Fourth Estate.