Should J. Edgar Hoover’s Name Be Removed From the FBI Building?
A recent article in the LA Times discusses the ongoing debate about whether to remove J. Edgar Hoover’s name from the FBI building. J. Edgar Hoover was the head of the FBI from 1924, its early days before it was even called the FBI (it used to be called the Bureau of Investigation), until his death in 1972. Throughout his career, Hoover engaged in a massive array of abuses. According to the LA Times article:
Every year for the last three years, Rep. Dan Burton, a Republican from Indiana, has introduced a bill to strip J. Edgar Hoover’s name from the FBI’s headquarters — an initiative that has been largely ignored.
Now, however, amid headlines about possibly illegal government surveillance of Americans inside the United States, the effort to rename the Hoover building is starting to attract more supporters, most recently U.S. Circuit Judge Laurence H. Silberman, a Republican who was a leader of the presidentially appointed commission on pre-Iraq-war intelligence.
“This country — and the bureau — would be well served if his name were removed from the bureau’s building,” Silberman, a Reagan appointee, told the 1st Circuit Judicial Conference in June. “It is as if the Defense Department were named for Aaron Burr.”
Should Hoover’s name be removed from the FBI building? My answer is a definite yes. Although Hoover played an enormous role in shaping and growing the FBI, his record of abuses is so ugly and inexcusable that it far overshadows any achievements. For example, here are some of the things Hoover did:
* Hoover had hundreds of people wiretapped, including politicians, dissedents, academics, Supreme Court Justices, and others.
* Hoover maintained a vast array of dossiers on scores of people, including John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Charlie Chaplin, Marlon Brando, Muhammad Ali, Albert Einstein, Justice William Douglas, and numerous Presidents and members of Congress.
* The FBI vigorously investigated, wiretapped, and attempted to disrupt political dissenters in a program known as COINTELPRO (counterintelligence program). This was done in the name of national security. COINTELPRO focused on the American Communist Party, but the program extended far beyond to encompass the Civil Rights Movement and opponents of the Vietnam War.
* Hoover would gather extensive data about people’s private lives and use it to blackmail them or to publicly discredit them.
* Hoover had Martin Luther King placed under extensive surveillance. The FBI sent recordings revealing King’s extramarital affairs to King and his wife, along with a letter suggesting that King commit suicide or else his “filthy, abnormal fraudlent self [would be] bared to the nation.”
There’s much much more. Hoover’s abuses are chronicled in the extensive Church Committee Report of 1976.
For more about Hoover, I recommend Curt Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets (Norton, 1991). This is one of the most engaging and fascinating accounts of Hoover’s activities, and although it is over 800 pages long, it isn’t an onerous read.
For an account of the surveillance of Martin Luther King, David J. Garrow’s The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1980) is a short and interesting read.
Hoover’s abusive surveillance was one of the factors that led Congress to pass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, the law that President Bush is claiming he can ignore when conducting NSA surveillance. Although Hoover has a great historical significance to the FBI, the agency sorely needs to move past his influence, not have it still emblazoned on its building. On the other hand, perhaps having Hoover’s name on the building will serve as a constant reminder of the FBI’s shameful past, of Hoover’s unfettered and unchecked power . . . a reminder that some in Washington sorely need.
Other books of interest: