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.

Making, and Un-Making, Environmental Law: Earth Day’s Uncertain Dawn

By Karl Boyd Brooks, author of Before Earth Day; The Origins of American Environmental Law, 1945-1970

President Donald Trump is about as subtle as a claw hammer. Two weeks ago, he went to Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington, D.C., to announce his disdain for nearly everything the agency had been doing during the Obama Administration. The presidential criticism amounted to a stunning rebuke of an agency that has, for over 45 years, earned solid marks from Americans for using law to safeguard their lives, communities, and future opportunities.

Presidents usually visit EPA to highlight some new initiative to take care of our environmental resources: the air, land, and water on which our lives, and our American prosperity and liberty, depend. President Trump went instead to lash the agency, demean its staff, and challenge the bipartisan legal legacy that has made Americans more prosperous and free by protecting their public health.  Picture the Trump/EPA moment as the President of the United States flashing his big, fat middle finger at the agency.

Those of us who have worked for EPA, and know first-hand about its people’s dedication and professionalism, found Trump’s symbolism telling:  there the president was — in the Rachel Carson Room, for gosh sakes — signing executive orders to speed up coal mining, roll back air quality protections, and undermine this nation’s signal effort to mitigate the grievous impacts of climate change. For good measure, President Trump paraded a handful of sheepish coal miners in front of his EPA ceremony to buttress his campaign pledge to “make coal great again.”

This month marks the 48th Earth Day. Throughout April, in events large and small, choreographed and spontaneous, Americans join their fellow passengers on Spaceship Earth to salute what Apollo 8’s astronauts, on Christmas Eve 1968, fondly called “our good earth.”  Now that the President of the United States has publicly trashed EPA, our premier environmental law enforcement agency, we should think a little harder about how our lives, our communities, and our legacy depend on environmental law.

EPA began in 1970. A very different kind of Republican president, Richard M. Nixon, created this new agency by welding pieces of other, older federal agencies into a single force combining environmental science, education, lawmaking, and enforcement. Of course, that was big news. And those were very different times than today. But we should widen our focus on EPA and 1970 a little to get the full story about the agency, to understand how radically disruptive and destructive President Trump’s environmental actions appear, and to appreciate how hard they will be to carry out. A little history about environmental law in America will put 1970 in perspective, situate EPA in a long and proud governmental tradition, and link today’s environmental challenges to those our grandparents faced after World War II.

A decade ago, I began writing Before Earth Day: The Origins of American Environmental Law. I wrote the book to answer a simple, but surprisingly elusive, question: where did American environmental law come from? I’d taught the subject at the University of Kansas (KU), to both undergrads and law students, for a number of years. I’d studied the American legal system and American environment systematically since beginning my history PhD work at KU in 1996.  And I’d spent much of my adult life working in and around law and the environment as a lawyer, elected legislator, and citizen activist in my home state of Idaho. And yet, despite some three decades of immersing myself in the challenges we create by living on this earth, I had no more clear idea about environmental law’s back-story than on the day I started law school in 1980.

Even if you’re not a lawyer, and even if you don’t put yourself in the “environmentalist” camp, you probably know a little about the famous federal laws that help keep us healthy and productive: the 1970 Clean Air Act, the 1972 Clean Water Act, and President Nixon’s 1970 pen-stroke that created the United Environmental Protection Agency. My book took a look at the “environmental decade” of the 1970s and found some important precursors to all those important laws. In fact, the more I looked into American environmental law’s “origin story,” the less I believed 1970 was the be-all end-all of the story. My book didn’t mean to diminish the hard-working, creative, and determined Americans who took up the fight against pollution and waste and injustice as the Seventies dawned. What Before Earth Day did is actually make those pioneers more traditional and less revolutionary, and their many accomplishments therefore more durable and defensible.

Law doesn’t just “happen.” Rules don’t appear spontaneously. Systems don’t come from nowhere. Environmental law, like environmentalism itself, emerged somewhat slowly after 1946. And like the ideas, imagery, and rhetoric of environmentalism, the principles and practices of environmental law have one foot planted in cautious tradition and one foot planted in bold reform. In fact, one reason why environmental law has stuck around so long is its very distinguished pedigree. Some of our most important environmental law principles date back to the early 20th century. Others emerged during the New Deal’s darkest days and the postwar era’s bright promise.

We should appreciate American environmental law for the careful, thoughtful, incremental advance it represents over the earliest American attitudes toward the natural world. At the origin of the American Republic, most laws encouraged people to own, use, and waste natural resources and systems. As late as 1900, few laws restrained factory-owners from pouring their waste into the air, water, and landscape. Even in the 1950s, government agencies – federal, state, and local – could plow a roadway through a wetland, or pour chemicals onto a forest, without telling neighbors, sharing the basis for their decision, or accepting constructive criticism. By 1970, though, even “Before Earth Day,” all those older ways of doing business (and damage) to the natural world had been replaced or substantially modified by the legal system we know today. President Trump may complain that dredging a wetland takes too long and emitting air pollutants has gotten too expensive. But that’s what environmental law has gained for us: breathing space, health benefits, and public participation.

President Trump and EPA Administrator Pruitt have announced drastic plans to shear off many key environmental law principles and to slash EPA’s capacity to make and enforce environmental law. What may restrain them as much as public outrage and business indifference (just check out how the energy industry has voted with its investment dollars against coal and for wind) is history and tradition. EPA may be only 47 years old, and it may have appeared when men tended their sideburns and women tottered on their platform shoes (not so different than today), but the underlying legal rules, principles, and precedents are far older. With roots that run so deep in American legal, cultural, and political soil, POTUS and Pruitt will find it harder than they imagine to tear up our environmental law system.

 

 

Karl Boyd Brooks is a Clinical Professor and Program Director, LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas-Austin and former associate professor of history and environmental studies, and courtesy professor of law, University of Kansas; and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator and acting Assistant Administrator

Donald Trump, His Porn Pledge & the Historic Relevance

Nixon porn exploBy Douglas M. Charles

In the current presidential election cycle, we have witnessed unprecedented firsts from the nominee of the Republican Party, Donald Trump. We have seen this major-party presidential candidate say racist, misogynist, xenophobic and all manner of unorthodox or shocking things, like threatening to pull out of NATO and praising Vladimir Putin. We’ve also seen him borrow from the political past. He’s dredged up and embraced the previously discredited America First movement of the early 1940s, and he’s borrowed the Law and Order mantle of Richard Nixon in 1968. In early August Trump announced, to some excitement and drama, that he had signed the Children’s Internet Safety Presidential Pledge, a declaration crafted by an anti-pornography group claiming it seeks to protect children (they all do) and calling itself Enough Is Enough. This latest news item involving The Donald is also nothing new. Focusing on pornography or obscenity and appealing to people’s perceptions of decaying morality has been a standard GOP modus operandi since the late 1960s and Richard Nixon and ever after.

By the late 1960s, after various Supreme Court rulings liberalized federal anti-obscenity law, leading to a boom in the pornography industry, some Americans unsurprisingly became concerned. Around the same time (1970), in the realm of politics, political scientists concluded that Democrats won elections on economic issues while Republicans won by appealing to social issues. The GOP and Nixon fully embraced this idea and appealed to the great “silent majority” of Americans who worried about crime and respected decency, and Nixon squeaked out an electoral victory. Nixon continued to push social issues as president and focused on the pornography boom as something dangerous to Americans. A scientific presidential commission had even been formed by President Lyndon Johnson to study the issue, and the report was due out during Nixon’s first months in office.

The commission concluded that pornography did not contribute in any significant way to America’s various social problems of the time. Nixon would have nothing of it, and pushed the issue going so far as to arrange an all-out effort to discredit the commission’s report and advocating for the strengthening of federal anti-obscenity law. Nixon staffers even drafted an internal report on “The Pornography Explosion” and wanted to “activate all of the anti-obscenity groups” against the commission’s report. Nixon hoped to change the law (but the GOP had only minority numbers in Congress) or push for new obscenity prosecutions to develop a possible new Supreme Court ruling in its favor. Neither happened, but Nixon’s appointing of four conservative Supreme Court justices did slow, if not stop, the liberal trend in obscenity case rulings.

This trend then continued with certain GOP presidents. During the Reagan years pressure mounted again to do something about pornography, which resulted in Reagan’s attorney general, Ed Meese, releasing his own utterly un-scientific report concluding that pornography resulted in sexual violence and social problems. Even still during the 1980s fewer than 100 people were charged under federal anti-obscenity statues and only 71 convicted, a dismal record reflecting the continuing liberal evolution of Americans’ attitudes about the issue. Still, the issue was good for Republican base politics.

Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, however, was not much interested in this aspect of social politics and neither, of course, was the Democrat Bill Clinton. But when George W. Bush ran for president in 2000 he resurrected it as an appeal to his right-wing evangelical base who wanted something done about obscenity and pornography. Bush won the election and even tried, but failed, to reinstate federal prosecutions of adult obscenity — unsurprisingly claiming an aim to protect children, an age-old proclamation —  which had previously faded away. When Barrack Obama assumed office in 2009 he ended the Bush effort (except for the focus on child pornography) as a drain on resources, but socially conservative Republicans tried to push back and demanded the Obama Justice Department do something about the alleged threat pornography posed to American society.

So Trump’s resurrecting the old ratty dog of pornography and its threat is really nothing new. It’s an effort to motivate the GOP’s socially conservative based in hopes to drum up votes. Could anything come of Trump’s anti-pornography pledge? Perhaps. But obscenity prosecutions have actually diminished steadily not just from the 1960s but throughout most of the 20th Century and into the next. It would be legally and socially very difficult for a President Trump to revive anti-pornography targeting and prosecutions; George W. Bush tried and failed miserably. American culture and social attitudes have just evolved too far to care much and see successful prosecutions. Then again, it would also depend on Trump winning the election, and that seems unlikely.

Douglas M. Charles is the author of UPK books, The FBI’s Obscene File: J. Edgar Hoover and the Bureau’s Crusade Against Smut & Hoover’s War on Gays: Exposing the FBI’s “Sex Deviates” Program.

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