The FBI Story

, Daniel Smith, Leave a comment

…Waco…Ruby Ridge…Elian Gonzalez…Yearning For Zion Ranch…These words do not just compose a list of proper nouns. They are recent typifications of a problem as old as the United States, and, perhaps, as old as humanity itself. After all, our Founding Fathers’ chief concern was the limitation of governmental powers; the story of Eden pictures creatures refusing the mandate of their Creator. In both cases, personal liberty waged a war against law, and vice versa.

Reconciliation between liberty and law is not yet realized—a point the Cato Institute brought to the forefront on July 23. Two historians gathered at the libertarian think tank to discuss the centennial anniversary of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). According to Cato, “it is an appropriate time to review [the FBI’s] history, both good and bad, and to discuss its future.” Three of the five pieces of literature Cato provided focused on Waco; a fourth discussed Ruby Ridge. Tim Lynch, Criminal Justice Project Director at Cato, opened the discussion concentrating on the FBI’s “warped vision” of policing.

But light soon shone on the dark side of the FBI’s history. John Fox, the Bureau’s official historian, traced the “evolution of the Bureau” from its rise “out of the Progressive Movement” to its current post-9/11 role. The FBI originated from a disagreement between the executive and legislative branches. Teddy Roosevelt, as well as other former presidents, used Secret Service agents to assist the Department of Justice (DOJ) in investigating crimes. However, in 1908, Congress passed a law forbidding this practice. A letter dated January 14, 1909, from Attorney General Charles Bonaparte to President Roosevelt explains:

“…by the provision incorporated in the Sundry Civil Appropriation Act, approved May 27, 1908, it became impossible for this Department to avail itself of the services of the Secret Service at all after July 1, 1908; so that, instead of obtaining an improved detective force, the Department was cut off from the source to which it had been previous accustomed to look for such services of that nature as it needed. It became, therefore, unavoidable for the Department to itself organize a corps of special agents, and this it did, under the authority conferred by the general appropriations placed under its control. It incorporated in this force a number of former officers of the Secret Service, and also certain special agents of the Department previously employed to perform duties of a more or less analogous character, which, for various reasons, it had been found impractical, or deemed inadvisable, to entrust to such officers.”

Roosevelt and Bonaparte had a long history. They first met in Baltimore in 1892 when Roosevelt was Civil Service Commissioner. Even before he was President, Roosevelt was concerned with law and order, insisting that “border agents” be “excellent marksmen.” The Progressive Era brought the two together again, Bonaparte receiving an appointment as Roosevelt’s Attorney General.

The FBI began, then, said Fox, in 1908 as “a small force of detectives” who were “reorganized from the Department of Justice.” By 1944, however, the Bureau had grown to 10,000 agents. Mexico’s revolution, the rise of Communism, the German sabotage campaigns, national intelligence failures, and both world wars caused an explosion in “personnel and resources.” It is not a coincidence, then, that the FBI began during the Progressive Era and expanded during America’s dominance on the world stage. “The conception of the role of the federal government parallels” the “history of the FBI” in the 20th Century. The growth of the government’s primary enforcement agency is a microcosm of the growth of the federal government.

Expansionism has its price, though. Dr. Athan Theoharis, professor at Marquette University, focused on enforcement changes within the FBI. World War II moved the “elite detective force” from investigation to “anticipation.” No longer could the government merely react to crimes, especially when Germans, Italians, Japanese, Anarchists, and Communists were infiltrating North America. Instead, J. Edgar Hoover bolstered the Bureau’s “ability to amass and store information,” often utilizing “intrusive” and/or “illegal” methods. As Americans are well aware, information on ordinary and famous citizens was collected. Notable figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Frank Sinatra, Rock Hudson, and Martin Luther King Jr. were subjected to secretive FBI investigations.

As Dr. Theoharis stated, if detailed data collections remained within the Bureau’s vault, perhaps Americans would trust the FBI more. However, the FBI has a history of “disseminating information” to “influence public policy” in the “political arena.” It is a well-documented fact that the FBI met with MLK before his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech (see Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There With You), for example. Did the meeting focus on MLK’s socialist views or his potential “homosexual” comments during an orgiastic soiree? His extra-marital affairs? What transpired is speculative. But the fact that a taxpayer-funded enforcement agency possesses the power to delve into the private lives of those who fund it concerns Dr. Theoharis. In his own words, where is the “accountability?”

Daniel Smith is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.