Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life and Career of J. Edgar Hoover


Hoover & Nixon (UPI)
Hoover & Nixon (UPI)

"Dick, you will come to depend on Edgar. He is a pillar of strength in a city of weak men. You will rely on him time and time again to maintain security. He's the only one you can put your complete trust in." On December 12, 1968, that's what Lyndon Johnson told the President-elect Richard M. Nixon.

Not that Hoover needed Johnson's kind words. Back in 1947 when Richard Nixon was a fledging congressman, Hoover helped him immensely by supporting him on the Alger Hiss case. Hoover gave Nixon his first big political boost with that case. Also, over the intervening years, Nixon had been friendly with Hoover. Not the close, long-term friendship that Hoover enjoyed with LBJ, but an important friendship nonetheless.

Not particularly known as a warm, open person, Nixon, as described by Powers, "came to the presidency deeply scarred by his close loss to Kennedy in 1960 and the disastrous defeat for the California governorship in 1962. He had learned he could never relax against his political enemies, no matter how secure his position seemed ... To his mind, he was a victim forced forever to defend himself against unrelenting and unscrupulous enemies."

Nixon saw Hoover as a man who could help him fight those many enemies just the way he had done for Lyndon Johnson and other presidents before him. "Edgar," he told him, "you are one of the few people who is to have direct access to me at all times. I've talked to [Attorney General John] Mitchell about it and he understands." That really wasn't completely true since Nixon didn't want Hoover dropping in his office all the time, but he wanted to show respect for the man to whom he had owed his start.

Nixon's respect for Hoover did not extend to Nixon's staff who considered Hoover a tired old relic who lived entirely in the past. Hoover's direct liaison to the White House was John Ehrlichman, who had poorly concealed contempt for both Hoover and the FBI. The "Wizard of Oz" was what he called Hoover behind his back and complained how he had to listen to the old bore rant and rave on his past glories. "I know," Nixon consoled Ehrlichman, "but it's necessary, John. It's necessary."

Things were better with Attorney General John Mitchell, who had been Nixon's campaign manager and law partner. Mitchell was a strong law-and-order advocate and generally agreed with Hoover on policy. Strangely enough, Nixon asked Hoover not to do a background investigation on Mitchell, probably to spare the documentation of his wife Martha's continuing struggle with alcoholism.

Despite the unfriendliness of Nixon's staff, things were going very well for Hoover when Nixon took office. Hoover continued his COINTELPROs against the Black Panthers and the New Left. Gentry says that "top priority was given to creating schisms in the Panther leadership, and in particular between Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver...The Bureau used bogus communications and missing correspondence to widen the split, so successfully playing on their ideological differences, egos, and paranoia that each man believed the other had marked him for assassination."

One of the most tragic stories coming out of these programs to disrupt and discredit the Panthers was what happened to actress Jean Seberg. The Bureau found out that she was carrying the child of a Black Panther and broke the story to the Hollywood gossip columnists. The goal was to embarrass her and try to cheapen her image. Hoover approved the plan, "Jean Seberg has been a financial supporter of the BPP [Black Panther Party] and should be neutralized."

The negative publicity was devastating to her. Seberg attempted suicide. A few days later, her baby daughter was born prematurely and died. Afterwards, Seberg became psychotic and had to be institutionalized. After many attempts, she finally succeeded in committing suicide in 1979.

Like Johnson, the biggest problems that Nixon had to deal with early in his administration were leaks and demonstrations. Richard Powers explains how leaks and demonstrations threatened Nixon's ability to govern the country: "Having to wage a massive, undeclared war in Asia, while simultaneously trying to negotiate with the North Vietnamese, made both Johnson and Nixon depend on secrecy to mask their moves. They had to keep the enemy from knowing about their negotiating positions and to keep the antiwar opposition from mobilizing to frustrate their war strategy."

Nixon counted on Hoover to control these leaks and demonstrations that were undermining his presidency. Hoover convinced him that in addition to physical surveillance and background checks, wiretapping and electronic surveillance were the best ways to solve the problem. Nixon arranged for Henry Kissinger to provide Hoover the names of those individuals suspected of leaking critical information.

As the leaks continued, the list of names grew longer and Hoover was becoming nervous that the wiretapping and electronic surveillance would be discovered. Finally, when Nixon wanted to wiretap columnist Joseph Kraft, Hoover refused. From his viewpoint, these wiretaps were reckless and very dangerous if the American public ever got wind of them.

The problem of the leaks continued and Hoover was continuously pressured to increase surveillance, which he resisted. By 1970, relations between the White House and Hoover were very strained. The country was in terrible turmoil on many fronts. New Left groups had become militant with bombings and takeovers of college campuses. When Nixon authorized American troops in Cambodia, the college campuses around the country exploded. A few days later, National Guardsmen wounded nine students and killed four others at Kent State University in Ohio.

While Hoover was in sympathy with Nixon on controlling the student activists and black nationalists, he was not about to jeopardize his own position by involving the Bureau in any widespread intelligence gathering programs, except for ones that he closely supervised, such as his COINTELPROs.

Nixon was not pleased and on June 5, 1970, called the heads of all of the intelligence agencies to the White House to chew them out for being disorganized and ineffective in providing intelligence on the antiwar movement. A committee was formed and Hoover was the chairman. However, the plan that was drawn up by the other committee members proposed widespread surveillance methods aimed at all anti-war groups. Hoover insisted that someone higher up than himself approve this highly controversial and reckless program. Nixon would not do it, so the program died.

On March 8, 1971, an event occurred which allowed the American public to get a peak at what the FBI had been up to with its secret programs. A small FBI office in Media, PA, was burglarized by a group that called itself the "Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI." Hundreds of documents were taken. Most were like time bombs for the Bureau's image.

The stolen documents told the story of widespread surveillance and wiretapping of the Black Panthers, the SDS and other New Left organizations, the Jewish Defense League, and the Ku Klux Klan. Copies were sent to Senator George McGovern and Congressman Parren Mitchell of Maryland, but both men turned the documents over to the FBI. Finally, excerpts of the documents were published in a leftist journal.

The public now knew that the FBI was guilty of extensive invasion of privacy. A top FBI executive saw the burglary as a "watershed event that changed the FBI's image, possibly forever, in the minds of many Americans."

Carl Stern, a newsman for NBC, noticed the word "COINTELPRO" on the top of one of the stolen documents and decided to find out what it meant. It took him two years to find out and by that time Hoover was dead.

The FBI was under siege. Earlier in 1971, there had been a series of negative articles and revelations about the Bureau, its large expenditures on bullet-proof limousines, its poor record on minority hiring, the capricious firing of an agent whose wife was dying, sagging morale. Hoover was no longer untouchable. He was becoming a target.

In April, Hoover had to fend off a full-scale investigation of Bureau practices. Senator Edward Kennedy was calling for Hoover's resignation. Senator Sam Ervin, chairman of the Senate Committee on Constitutional Rights was given the opportunity to investigate the FBI, but he declined saying, "I think [Hoover] has done a very good job in a difficult post."

That same month, Hoover dismantled the COINTELPROs. The risk of exposure was just too great to continue them. While this did not mean that all domestic intelligence programs were ended, only a few selected operations would be allowed in highly controlled situations.

In June of 1971, documents called the "Pentagon Papers" were leaked to the New York Times. The "Pentagon Papers" was a history of U.S. decision making processes on Vietnam policy during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Mitchell ordered Hoover to find out who leaked this top-secret document. It came out quickly that Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department employee, had leaked the information, but it was not known if he did this on his own or with accomplices.

Hoover gave it a low priority. When Nixon found out, he was furious because he saw Ellsberg's action as part of a large conspiracy to undermine his policies. Ellsberg's wealthy father-in-law was a friend of Hoover's and Hoover refused to interrogate him. This was the last straw for Nixon: "I wanted someone to light a fire under the FBI investigation of Ellsberg...If a conspiracy existed, I wanted to know, and I wanted the full resources of the government brought to bear to find out. If the FBI was not going to pursue the case, then we would have to do it ourselves."

In July, Nixon had Ehrlichman find a way to get things done outside the FBI. Ehrlichman had Egil "Bud" Krogh put together a team which included ex-FBI man G .Gordon Liddy and ex-CIA agent Howard Hunt to stop the leaks of secret government information. Appropriately enough, the group to stop the leaks was called "The White House Plumbers." Nixon later blamed Hoover for pushing him down the path to Watergate.

The fall of 1971 was not a good time for Hoover. William Sullivan, the dynamic leader who Hoover had been grooming as his successor, betrayed the director. Among other activities that made Hoover doubt him, Sullivan wrote a long letter to his boss: " ... What I am trying to get across to you in my blunt, tactless way is that a number of your decisions this year have not been good ones; that you should take a good, cold, impartial inventory of your ideas, policies, etc. I do not want to see your reputation built up over these many years destroyed by your own decisions and actions...I do not want to see this FBI organization I have gladly given 30 years of my life to ... fall apart or become tainted in any manner..."

Hoover in fall of 1971<br />(Yoichi Okamoto)
Hoover in fall of 1971
(Yoichi Okamoto)

Several days later, Hoover argued with Sullivan for hours and requested his resignation. The separation was very bitter and the story in its entirety got back to Nixon. The publicity surrounding Sullivan's departure was very unfavorable to Hoover. Reluctantly, Nixon made a decision to get rid of Hoover, but lost his nerve when Hoover refused to take Nixon's gentle prodding to resign.

By the end of the year, Hoover was still firmly in the saddle. "With Mark Felt as his right-hand man, he had once again established firm control over the FBI. He had ended the COINTELPRO operations that had posed the greatest danger to himself and the Bureau, and he had resisted all efforts to draw the FBI into reckless new ventures." (Powers)

Nixon's aides tried one other dramatic attempt to get Hoover to support one of their schemes. A scandal had erupted over an internal memo that ITT lobbyist Dita Beard had written to ITT officials. In writing, she claimed that Attorney General John Mitchell had agreed to settle antitrust actions against ITT in exchange for a $400,000 Republican campaign contribution.

A plan evolved that had Beard swear the memo was a forgery and then have the FBI laboratory "prove" that it was. One of the president's men, John Dean of Watergate fame, was sent to Hoover to request the involvement of the FBI laboratory. Hoover agreed readily. The only problem was that the memo was not a forgery and the FBI laboratory had proven it. Very much to Hoover's credit, he refused to change the lab report.

Hoover told Mark Felt, "Call Dean right back and tell him to go jump in the lake! I want to cooperate when I can, but this request is completely improper!" Eventually, the report was released and Nixon was furious. Again there were talks about "promoting Hoover" out of his current position to the "director emeritus," but nothing came of it.

In May of 1972, Hoover was nearing his fifty-five-year anniversary with the Justice Department. May 10, 1924, Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone had given Hoover the responsibility of reforming the corruption-ridden Bureau of Investigation. After all the threats and compromises that he had been forced to make over the decades, he was still able to say that the FBI remained the organization that he built upon his own principles and standards a unique achievement in the history of the federal government.

Hoover never made it to his fifty-five-year anniversary. He died at the age of seventy-seven on May 2.

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