Has the FBI Ever Been Divorced From Politics?

From its earliest days, Congress feared it would act as a “secret federal police”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing a bill that gave J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI enormous power, in 1934. The bureau has been heavily involved in politics since its origin. AP Images

In May 1924, a 29-year-old J. Edgar Hoover was called into Harlan Fiske Stone’s office.

President Calvin Coolidge had appointed Stone as the U.S. Attorney General just a month earlier. He would only serve in the role for a year. But during his short tenure, Stone fundamentally changed the United States when he plucked this particular “young man” to become the acting director of the Bureau of Investigations.

Hoover didn’t immediately accept his offer. Instead, as the story goes, the then-assistant director of the Bureau of Investigation told the U.S. attorney general told Stone he had several conditions.

“The Bureau must be divorced from politics and not be a catch-all for political hacks. Appointments must be based on merit. Second, promotions will be made on proven ability and the Bureau will be responsible only to the Attorney General,” Hoover said.

Stone responded, “I wouldn’t give it to you under any other conditions.”

Hoover’s 48-year reign created the modern bureau (renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935). Contrary to his words, the FBI has never truly been divorced from politics.

The agency’s origins can be traced to 1908, when Attorney General Charles Bonaparte (the grandnephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) appealed to Congress for dedicated funding to conduct investigations. “He had no squad of investigators to call his own except for one or two special agents and other investigators who carried out specific assignments on his behalf,” the FBI history section notes. To get around this, Bonaparte had been borrowing Secret Service Division members and Pinkerton Detective agents to conduct investigators, but they were expensive and ultimately didn’t report to him.

Congress had little sympathy for the Attorney General. Fearing a federal secret police, Congress banned Secret Service operatives from being loaned to other federal departments. Ironically, this forced Bonaparte’s hand. He wrote to Roosevelt asking to be granted his own special investigation force, and the fledgling bureau was created that summer.

In its early days, the agency (christened the Bureau of Investigation by Bonaparte’s successor, Attorney General George Wickersham) struggled to find its footing. “It was not yet strong enough to withstand the sometimes corrupting influence of patronage politics on hiring, promotions, and transfers,” as the FBI’s website puts it.  

But wartime legislation greatly expanded its powers. During World War I, the Bureau was put in charge of enforcing the Espionage and Sedition Acts, which prohibited interference with military operations and restricted free speech during the war. Targeted arrests from these acts showed early examples of potential political abuses.

"Bureau investigations targeted radical activists, not necessarily because their actions suggested a willingness to act as German agents, but because of their political dissent, whether during the prewar period opposing United States involvement in the war or after April 1917, opposing the administration's mobilization and conscription policies,” wrote historian Athan Theoharis  in an encyclopedia of the United States in the First World War.  

After the war, the growing “Red Scare” led to more political bungling. Anarchist bombing attacks in 1919 and 1920 produced the “Palmer Raids,” ordered by General A. Mitchell Palmer and overseen by Hoover. "[P]olitics, inexperience, and overreaction got the better of Attorney General Palmer and his department," writes The FBI: A Centennial History, 1908-2008 on the controversial and poorly handled events, which heavily infringed upon civil liberties.

By the 1920s, the bureau “had a growing reputation for politicized investigations,” writes the FBI. The Teapot Dome scandal, which rocked the Harding Administration, revealed that bureau agents had been assigned to gather dirt on opposition politicians.

In an attempt to clean house, President Calvin Coolidge ousted Attorney General Harry Daughterty, and tapped Stone for the job, who soon called for the resignation of the sitting chief of the Bureau. Stone’s statement to the press addressing the change in leadership harkens back to Congress’ early fears.

“The enormous expansion of Federal legislation, both civil and criminal, in recent years, has made a Bureau of Investigation a necessary instrument of law enforcement,” it reads. “But it is important that its activities be strictly limited to the performance of those functions for which it was created and that its agents themselves be not above the law or beyond its reach.”  

Later that day, Stone tapped Hoover as the new acting head. He looked to Hoover as someone who could reset things. “Everybody says he’s too young, but maybe that’s his asset,” he once said to a colleague. ”I believe he would set up a group of young men as investigators and infuse them with a will to operate independent of congressional and political pressure.”

Despite what Stone believed, by 1933 the Washington bureau chief for Collier’s magazine, Ray Tucker, commented that Hoover used the bureau as his own “personal and political machine.” The FBI had grown from 441 agents when Hoover took over to almost 5,000 by the end of World War II.

 “The more awesome Mr. Hoover's power grew, the more plainly he would state, for the record, that there was nothing ‘political’ about it, that the F.B.I was simply a ‘fact-finding agency’ that ‘never makes recommendations or draws conclusions,’” writes Christopher Lydon in The New York Times.

But Hoover’s record speaks for itself. Theoharis explains in From the Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover that the FBI wasn’t fully accountable to the attorney general during Hoover’s tenure. FBI assistant director William Sullivan recalled how the bureau essentially blackmailed politicians.

“The moment [Hoover] would get something on a Senator he would send one of those errand boys up and advise the Senator that we’re in the course of an investigation and by chance happened to come up with this—we realized you’d want to know… Well Jesus, what does that tell the Senator? From that time on, the Senator’s right in his pocket.”

Hoover’s independence was challenged briefly by Attorneys General Nicholas Katzenbach and Ramsey Clark, Theoharis notes, but Nixon’s administration allowed Hoover to work almost unchecked. “The consequence of this secrecy was the forging of an independent, virtually autonomous agency with its own political agenda, capable of influencing public opinion and national politics,” writes Theoharis.

Congressman J. Swagar Sherley, who opposed Bonaparte forming a “small permanent detective force” in the Department of Justice back in 1909, would have agreed. As Sherley said on Congressional Record, “In my reading of history I recall no instance where a government perished because of the absence of a secret-service force, but many there are that perished as a result of the spy system. If Anglo-Saxon civilization stands for anything, it is for a government where the humblest citizen is safeguarded against the secret activities of the executive of the government.”

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.