The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been chasing down criminals of all stripes for 109 years. It was created, with vigorous bipartisan support, under President Teddy Roosevelt as the Bureau of Investigation (the “Federal” was added in 1935), the first national law enforcement agency. Fighting crime might once have been thought of as a bipartisan enterprise, but in our nation’s Capital, nothing stays apolitical for long.
Crime and politics have intersected far too often in the century plus since the FBI came to be, and they may have crossed paths again recently when President Trump did his Celebrity Apprentice bit on FBI director Jim Comey. Already loathed by half of Washington as the person most responsible for Trump becoming President, Comey had then managed to incur the wrath of the other half by refusing to give up on the investigations of Trump’s inner circle. Seeing no love from either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Comey may have felt compelled to resort to some political intrigue of his own simply for self-protection. He is not the first FBI director to do so.
Comey’s unfortunate brushes with notoriety may make him more memorable than all of his predecessors except one. James Edgar Hoover, whose name adorns the building the FBI calls home, assumed directorship during Prohibition and spent the next 48 years building his organization into the most fearsome and legendary law enforcement agency the country has ever known. Hoover served under, and some would say lorded over, six presidents. By the time he suffered a fatal heart attack during the Nixon Administration Hoover had expanded the Bureau’s reach, and his own influence, into nearly every corner of the Federal bureaucracy. As his power in Washington grew, Hoover grew more averse to any authority other than his own and more fearful that details of what might charitably be described as his quirky personal life might come to light. Perhaps to discourage such threats, Hoover assembled dossiers on most of D.C.’s illuminati; general scuttlebutt held that he had dirt on everybody from the President on down, and Harry Truman once remarked that every member of Congress was afraid of him. This aura of untouchability served to insulate him and his organization from the internecine mud wrestling for which Washington is famous. Seeing the nation’s capital at its worst also likely solidified Hoover’s cynical belief that everyone was probably guilty of something, that evidence of the crime was out there somewhere, and that if FBI agents just dug deep enough for long enough they would find it. J. Edgar Hoover was stubborn, insular and relentless, and as one might expect after four decades of his unyielding and suspicious leadership the FBI gradually came to mirror its iconic leader’s worldview.
Hoover is long gone, but the FBI still bears his imprint. The agency has a well-deserved reputation for thoroughness and diligence, and once they are on a case agents seem committed, Hoover-esque, to digging up the evidence wherever it may reside. This tenacity can lead to very negative outcomes for the guilty and innocent alike. I speak from experience.