Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life and Career of J. Edgar Hoover


With the Kennedy assassination, the question was inevitable: why didn't the Bureau know what Lee Harvey Oswald was up to? With all the money spent on making the Bureau into the fount of knowledge on Communists in the U.S., why was Oswald running around Dallas with nobody watching him?

The fact was that President Kennedy had made many powerful and dangerous enemies. In all likelihood, the President himself, Bobby and Hoover did not appreciate the amount of hatred that JFK had attracted: "the Teamsters, the gangsters, the pro-Castro Cubans, the anti-Castro Cubans, the racists, the right-wing fanatics, the lonely deluded nuts mumbling to themselves in the night." (Powers)

The evening of the assassination, the President Lyndon Baines Johnson called his old friend J. Edgar Hoover to request a complete report on the death of JFK. The very next day, Hoover sent to Johnson a preliminary report indicating that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin, a view that never changed regardless of information to the contrary.

Special Agent Gordon Shanklin of the Dallas office had been put in charge of the investigation. In the middle of the night, Shanklin called Hoover to tell him of an anonymous tip that Oswald was going to be shot when he was transferred from the Dallas Police Department to another jail.

Hoover told Shanklin to call the Dallas Police Department immediately and relay the message. Dallas police had already received the same tip and were taking precautions to prevent the shooting. Shortly after noon on the same day, November 24, Jack Ruby mortally wounded Oswald in the basement of the Dallas Police Department.

That same afternoon, the Dallas office began its cover-up of its role in the Oswald case. The Bureau had opened a file on Oswald when he defected to Russia in 1959. In 1962, when Oswald came back from Russia with his wife Marina, he was interviewed again by the FBI. When Special Agent James Hosty, who had been assigned the Oswald case, noticed that Oswald was subscribing to Communist publications, he reopened the case in March of 1963. Another FBI office discovered that Oswald had joined the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, but the message had not been passed onto Hosty until late June.

Oswald moved to New Orleans in August of 1963 where much anti-Castro efforts were concentrated. It appeared as though Oswald was trying to infiltrate the anti-Castro groups. There was another FBI interview in which Oswald denied his Communist activities, although shortly afterwards he got on a radio program to defend Castro.

Oswald went to Mexico City in September where he met with a Soviet KGB officer and tried to meet with Cuban officials. Oswald then returned to Dallas in early November and got his job at the Texas Book Depository. Hosty went out to interview Marina Oswald.

A couple of weeks before he shot Kennedy, Oswald left a note for Hosty telling him that if he didn't stay away from Marina, he would blow up the FBI office and the Dallas Police Department. After the assassination, Hosty claimed he destroyed the note on the order of his superior.

According to Powers, "The Bureau's initial internal investigation after the assassination convinced Hoover that the FBI's handling of the case was so deficient that the only way to minimize criticism...was to fix all blame on Lee Harvey Oswald as a lone assassin, unaided by any conspiracy." Later, when Hoover learned that the CIA's bungled attempts to assassinate Castro had not ended in 1962, but had continued up to two months before the assassination, he kept the information away from the Warren Commission. Powers reports that "on September 7, 1963, Castro gave an unusual interview to an Associated Press reporter in which he stated that he knew about planned attempts on his life, and said, 'We are prepared to fight and answer in kind. United States leaders should think that if they are aiding terrorist plans to eliminate Cuban leaders, they themselves will not be safe."

Despite the warnings of his public relations people, Hoover took strong action against the FBI employees that contributed to the Oswald intelligence failure. "I do not intend to palliate the actions which have resulted in forever destroying the Bureau as the top level investigative organization," he said in a surprising statement to two FBI executives.

Also suppressed from view were statements made by various mobsters that Kennedy was going to be hit. If Hoover had hoped that an FBI report would be sufficient to answer the nation on the subject of JFK's assassination, he was deluding himself. On November 29, Johnson warned him that he was establishing the Warren Commission as an independent investigating group.

The Bureau had picked up a lot of threats against the Kennedys in its surveillance of organized crime. In the summer of 1962, Jimmy Hoffa told another Teamster leader that "I've got to do something about that son of a bitch Bobby Kennedy. He's got to go." They then discussed the logistics of assassinating the attorney general. Hoover warned both Kennedys of the threat. Subsequently, the Teamster leader that had talked with Hoffa became an FBI informant. Also in the summer of 1962, a wealthy Cuban met with mobster Santos Trafficante, Jr., and complained about Bobby Kennedy. The mobster told the wealthy Cuban than JFK was going to be hit, referring to the Hoffa plan.

The most interesting information came from New Orleans where Oswald had lived when he returned from Russia. Carlos Marcello, the Louisiana mob boss, hated Bobby Kennedy for kidnapping him and having him deported to Guatemala. When Carlos sneaked back into the U.S., Bobby nailed him again.

"Take the stone out of my shoe!" he cursed to his friends in Italian. "Don't worry about that little Bobby son of a bitch. He's going to be taken care of." The friend realized that Marcello's assassination plan was already developed because he said he was planning to use "a nut" to carry out the plan, rather than one of his own men.

Gentry points out that Marcello was not talking about getting rid of Bobby, but the president: "'The dog will keep biting if you only cut off its tail," Marcello explained. "If they hit Bobby, Jack would retaliate with the Army and the Marines. But if the dog's head were cut off, he added, the whole dog would die."

Jack Ruby's ties to organized crime were very significant, although the FBI heard about them from a reporter rather than its own files. Ruby also had close ties with Marcello's organization, as did Oswald's uncle in New Orleans. Oswald's own mother was a close friend of gangster Sam Termine who worked for Marcello.

The Warren Commission was not burdened with this information. The Warren Commission that depended primarily on information supplied by the FBI, reported that Ruby had no ties to organized crime. Later, the House Select Committee on Assassinations saw a pattern in Ruby's phone calls before he shot Oswald that the FBI had either not noticed or had suppressed. Ruby had made a number of calls to gangsters and Teamsters officials.

In 1979, long after Hoover's death, the House Select Committee determined that "the FBI's investigation into a conspiracy was deficient in the areas that the committee decided most worthy of suspicion organized crime, pro- and anti-Castro Cubans, and the possible associations of individuals from these areas with Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby."

Hoover & LBJ
Hoover & LBJ

LBJ as president meant a whole new lease on life for Hoover. Under Kennedy, it was probable that when Hoover reached mandatory retirement age in 1965, that he would be forced to leave. Johnson, however, was one of his oldest and closest friends in government. Hoover had every reason to believe that Johnson would exempt him from the retirement rule.

LBJ had been one of Hoover's neighbors when he and Lady Bird bought a house on the same block as Hoover's home. LBJ's two daughters grew up with Hoover watching over them. Hoover used to help LBJ find his dog when it frequently escaped from their yard. Hoover often had breakfast with the Johnsons on Sunday mornings. The relationship between the two men was very warm and friendly.

Normally, when the government kept people on the job past their retirement age, they had to be rehired every year. Instead, Johnson arranged it so that he waived the retirement age for Hoover, so that a president would have to remove Hoover from office to get rid of him in the future. In a White House Rose Garden ceremony, LBJ told him, "the nation cannot afford to lose you. Therefore ... I have today signed an Executive Order exempting you from compulsory retirement for an indefinite period of time."

Hoover reciprocated by giving LBJ his unswerving loyalty. Everything that Johnson asked him to do was done. And, like the FDR years, the Bureau was used to collect political information on Johnson's enemies and eventually, to disrupt the activities of any organization that Johnson perceived as a threat.

First and foremost of Johnson's perceived enemies was Robert Kennedy. The president was afraid that Bobby would launch some kind of coup to overthrow him. Immediately Hoover moved the direct line to Kennedy that the attorney general had installed in Hoover's office to his secretary's desk. Then he began to bypass Kennedy and attack him bureaucratically.

The Justice Department in the Kennedy-Johnson years had an entirely different approach to crime than did J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. Under Kennedy, the focus had been to understand the root causes of crime and attack those causes through various social and welfare programs. Hoover had always seen crime as a deviation from common morality which should be rigorously punished.

As social unrest escalated in the form of student protests, urban riots, civil disobedience, and militant black nationalists movements, Hoover's approach was much more popular with the average American. "Soft on crime," liberals were becoming a liability for Johnson.

Powers describes the gap between the Bureau and the Justice Department: " One of the important clashes between Hoover and the Johnson attorney generals [Nicholas Katzenbach and Ramsey Clark] was over the response to urban riots: Hoover wanted to use covert methods to combat them; the Justice Department wanted negotiation and open contacts with protesters. Hoover treated the rioters and their leaders as subversives out to overthrow the government and destroy society; the Justice Department saw them as the products of unjust social conditions."

Hoover himself saw the rising crime rate as a failure of traditional morals: "Poverty is not the sole factor contributing to crime, but sociologists emphasize the role of poverty and are always asking for large sums of money for programs which will not strengthen the community's defenses against crime...Focus attention on youth, take away 'hero' glamour and have parents appear in court where they can face the humiliation which is due them when the facts of inadequate home life and lack of discipline are revealed."

Perhaps LBJ's greatest accomplishment as president was to crush the rampant racial terrorism going on in the South. In this monumental effort, Hoover played a very significant part. "Hoover directed massive investigations of racial violence and he forestalled more violence by disrupting and eventually destroying the South's network of murderous Klans." (Powers).

Considering Hoover's personal bigotry, it was quite an achievement on LBJ's part to motivate Hoover to turn the Bureau into a civil rights enforcement hammer. It was a demonstration of Hoover's loyalty to LBJ that he put aside his own prejudices and focused the Bureau on breaking the power of the Klans.

One public relations triumph occurred in late March of 1965, when Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights activist, was murdered by Klan members. The Bureau solved the crime in one day, much to President Johnson's pleasure. LBJ appeared on television with Hoover, lauding him and the FBI for their stellar performance.

The method that Hoover used against the Klans was the same one that he used so successfully against the Communist Party in the U.S. the COINTELPRO. It went far beyond information gathering and investigating violations of federal laws. It was a program whose objective was to destroy the entire organization and discredit it thoroughly.

There were a lot of advantages to the COINTELPRO (counter intelligence program) over enforcement of federal laws. For one thing, police officials and juries in the South often produced discouraging results when criminals were identified and brought to trial. Also, because the programs were covert and did not result in any criminal cases, Hoover could avoid Justice Department interference and the need to involve law enforcement groups in the South.

COINTELPROs were initiated against more than just the Ku Klux Klan. Under Johnson, the programs were put in place against radical groups such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); black nationalists organizations such as the Black Panther party; the New Left groups such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and eventually every major anti-Vietnam-War group.

As much as LBJ wanted to prove that these groups were funded and directed by foreign Communists, Hoover knew it was not the case. At the end of the day, these COINTELPROs directed against the New Left, radical black groups and anti-war protesters did nothing to prevent violence or prosecute criminals. Instead, they were measures to disrupt and destroy groups whose ideologies were obnoxious to both Hoover and LBJ.

Hoover did everything he could to discredit Martin Luther King. The more he got to know King through his intensive microphone surveillance of King partying, drinking and engaging in extramarital sex, the more Hoover hated him. "One tape had King in a hilarious mood describing the sexual accomplishments of his friends, mixing sexual and religious allusions, and telling a joke about the sex life of John F. Kennedy that involved Mrs. Kennedy and the presidential funeral." (Powers)

Despite Hoover's best efforts to destroy King, the black leader increased in popularity and importance. In October of 1964, he was selected to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Hoover went ballistic and initiated a smear campaign aimed at keeping influential people from endorsing and associating with the civil rights leader.

As much as Hoover hated King, when King was assassinated in 1968, Hoover initiated the largest manhunt ever in FBI history, using over 3,000 agents on the one case, and resulting in the capture of James Earl Ray a couple of months later. Not surprisingly, Hoover did not enthusiastically jump into the case, but was dragged in to it by Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

When LBJ withdrew from the 1968 presidential campaign, Hoover wrote him a letter expressing his sadness:

"My Dear Mr. President:

I wanted to send you this personal note to let you know of the deep feeling of sorrow which overcame me last night when I heard you announce your decision to retire from office next January. No one can question that you and your family deserve the opportunity to spend more time together and to enjoy some of the pleasures which have been denied during a brilliant career of public service. Nonetheless, the Nation can ill-afford to lose so devoted and gifted a leader..."

This personal sadness of Hoover's was compounded by the deteriorating health of his close friend Clyde Tolson. Tolson had suffered strokes in 1966 and 1967 and was having a great deal of difficulty discharging his all-consuming responsibilities for Hoover and the Bureau. Hoover became increasingly bitter and frenzied about the disruption in American society which threatened the values he held so dear. He became more and more isolated and erratic which affected his ability to keep the Bureau under control.

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