The final step to dispel the ghost of J. Edgar Hoover may just have taken place. His “statue” — actually a life-size wax image — now rests perhaps permanently in storage at the FBI’s New York field office. It was transferred from the bureau’s Washington headquarters where it had been confined to the basement, but officials there had the same reaction to being reminded of the controversial director who reigned for 48 years.
The bureau leaves its Hoover Building headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue for new digs in the near future, but there hasn’t been any indication whether it will take Hoover’s name with it. If it doesn’t, it will be certification of what has been evident for some time now. Today’s version of the intrepid G-men he once controlled with an iron fist would rather forget the days when the very mention of Hoover’s name struck fear from the halls of Congress to the White House.
Remember those secret files he allegedly had on nearly every member of Congress, the presidents and thousands of other Americans — the infamous dossiers? No one ever found them, leading us to believe that like Saddam Hussein, Hoover was merely bluffing about the weapons of mass destruction. The threat of their very existence, however, was what kept him in charge from 1924 to 1972 through eight administrations.
The open embarrassment over the communist witch hunts and the black-bag jobs and the spying on average Americans and the attacks on civil rights Hoover sponsored has been accelerated by the retirement of senior agents and the need to radically change the culture of the bureau from one of post-traumatic focus to preventing new assaults by both domestic and foreign terrorists.
While the FBI is best in the world to take on white-collar crime, it still has much to learn about domestic intelligence gathering. The last two Hoover successors — Robert Muller and now James Comey — have dedicated much of the bureau’s resources to fixing the problem. But revamping the culture has not been easy.
According to those who are drafting recommendations about improving domestic security, Comey, is assigning even more agents to counterterrorism and, most important, striving to alter the bureau’s historic resistance to sharing information with other law enforcement agencies, federal, state and local.
This new emphasis has resulted in success in stopping potential terrorist devastation in a sizable number of incidents.
Since Hoover reformed the old, corrupt “Bureau of Investigation” into the modern FBI, the tendency toward secrecy has been one of its most criticized characteristics. It demanded cooperation from other law enforcement agencies but gave very little itself. But in today’s terror-driven world, it’s crucial for security agencies to work together. Independent panels and congressional committees have been studying ways to create a cohesive force from a variety of resources at all levels.
The Business Executives for National Security, a group of leading businessmen with expertise in organization recently found that efficient information-sharing is often hampered by limited state and local access to classified data basis. The panel recommended establishing a process in the FBI that ensures that information about counterterrorism investigations is shared.
The group noted that since 9/11 the bureau has made immense strides in emphasizing and expanding its intelligence-driven security missions, but added: “This transition remains a work in progress.”
While there was much to dislike about Hoover, there also were some actions he took that seemed utterly out of character for his stiff-necked rule and his obvious racial and anti-feminist prejudices. For instance, when President Franklin Roosevelt ordered Japanese Americans to be incarcerated after Pearl Harbor, Hoover was in strong opposition.
There’s no question that although Hoover has been dead for 47 years, the vestiges of his own often-despised, often-praised direction of the institution still lingers albeit far less these days. That may be changing even more given the Stalinization-like removal of his “statue” and the overcoming of a culture that has little place in the current mission of a 21st-century agency.
Dan Thomasson is a columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him e-mail at: email@example.com.