FBI: Hoover's Political Spying for Presidents

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The vast fortress-like building on Pennsylvania Avenue has been criticized as an architectural disaster and a shocking waste of public funds ($126 million). Now the name, cast in bronze, begins to be something of an embarrassment in a democratic capital: the J. Edgar Hoover Building.

The Senate select committee on intelligence activities last week filled out the dismaying record of Hoover's eagerness to curry favor with Presidents by using agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to gather political information. The committee staffs report shows that Hoover willingly complied with improper requests from Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. He gratuitously offered political intelligence to Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman, but both seemed unimpressed.

In all these services, offered or actually performed, there was also the implicit signal that Hoover could find out almost anything and even Presidents should handle him with care. He ran the agency for 48 years and was seven years beyond the mandatory federal retirement age when he died in office on May 2,1972.

Based on seven months of staff investigation, the Senate report offers a bit of bitter justice to Richard Nixon. Among the Watergate revelations that undid him were his Administration's use of the FBI to wiretap Administration officials and newsmen, and his forestalling, for a time, the FBI investigation of the bugging of Democratic National Committee headquarters. The Senate committee reports that precedents for abuse of the agency were firmly established by Hoover under Democrats F.D.R., L.B.J. and J.F.K. Some of the examples of improprieties:

ROOSEVELT. After giving a speech on national defense in 1940, F.D.R. had his press secretary, Stephen Early, send Hoover the names of 128 people who had sent telegrams to the White House criticizing the address. "The President thought you might like to look them over," Early's note gently instructed Hoover. The FBI director had each name checked out in the FBI'S Washington files and the appropriate field office. This "name check" process retrieved any material, no matter how flimsy, that the FBI had on a person. If there was none, a file was opened on each such critic. Roosevelt ordered the FBI to put taps on the home telephones of three or four of his closest advisers, including Harry Hopkins. F.D.R. suspected that Hopkins' wife was passing anti-Administration information to the receptive Washington Times-Herald.

TRUMAN. When Truman's military aide, Brigadier General Harry Vaughan, picked up transcripts of some of the Roosevelt wiretaps from the FBI in 1945 and showed them to Truman, the President snapped: "I don't have time for that foolishness!" But Hoover kept sending unsolicited "personal and confidential" memos to the Truman White House on political matters, such as the claim that a Communist sympathizer was helping a certain Senator write a speech, that a sugar scandal might break and embarrass Democratic officials, that Newsweek was planning a foreign espionage story. There was no evidence that Truman was interested.

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