On the 26th July 2008,
the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation celebrated its 100th
anniversary. Since its birth in 1908, the FBI has grown from a small
group of 34 investigators to an extensive agency of about 13,000 special
agents backed by some 23,000 support personnel.
The FBI is more than just a law enforcement agency. Since the days of
pursuing infamous fugitives like Bonnie and Clyde to hunting
extraterrestrial beings on TV's fictional show "The X-Files," the FBI
and its agents have been a part of American popular culture.
This was no accident. The Bureau's place in American popular culture was
cultivated by J. Edgar Hoover, who ran the FBI with an iron hand
for nearly half of its existence.
|The Bureau of
Investigation was founded in 1908. But it was an obscure
agency mired in political corruption until Hoover,
then only 26 years old, was appointed to head it.
FBI historian John Fox says Hoover set out to clean house.
"What Hoover did was, he really went wholeheartedly into
reforming the Bureau and into making really law enforcement
in the federal government a profession rather than a
political position. He purged the rolls of the political
hacks. He set very strict standards on how investigations
were to be done, how the Bureau was to run. And he really
strove to protect it from political influence."
The word "federal" was added to the FBI's name in 1935 when
the Bureau was involved in high-profile criminal
investigations, such as the kidnapping of famed aviator
Charles Lindbergh's baby, and the pursuit of gangsters like
Historian John Fox says much of the legend of the FBI is
rooted in that era.
"It centered around that 'G-Man' [i.e., government man]
image that developed in the 1930s. And, yes, it became a
very important part of how we looked at ourselves."
Under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI developed a huge reputation
for forensic criminal investigations, and its crime lab was
considered second to none. The FBI also had a long-time role
in national security. It hunted Nazi spies and engaged in
espionage in South America during World War II. By the
1950s, the Bureau was deeply engaged in counterespionage,
and Hoover was denouncing what he saw as widespread
communist infiltration and subversion in the United States.
Hoover was vigilant about how the FBI was portrayed in books
and films, and on television. FBI historian John Fox says
Hoover was deeply concerned with cultivating the Bureau's
"I don't know if
obsessive is too strong. Certainly, it becomes what we would say was
obsessive to the point of all the stories about 'Don't embarrass the
Bureau' and some of those. And some of that's myth, and some of that’s
exaggeration. But there is a grain of truth in there."
Former agent Stan Pimentel, who joined the FBI five years before
Hoover's death in 1972, says an agent who tarnished the Bureau's image
could expect severe disciplinary action and perhaps transfer to what was
often called "the FBI gulag" - a small field office in the western state
"Mr. Hoover had a reputation that if you screwed up, if a job
was not done correctly or if a problem evolved from that investigation
you were doing or….. let's say a personal indiscretion, the office that
he would send you to would be Butte, Montana. He'd figure that's really
out there and it's a long winter and that will teach you..er.. for
having screwed up while living in Miami or San Francisco or whatever."
The FBI's image took a hit in the 1970s when it was revealed that its
agents not only had spied on American civil rights and antiwar groups,
but had also tried to curb their activities in the 1960s and early 1970s
under a counter intelligence program called "COINTELPRO". It also
came to light that the Bureau had engaged in illegal break-ins,
"surreptitious entries" in FBI parlance, to look for information about
groups like the violent Weather Underground.
Ed Miller headed FBI domestic intelligence under J. Edgar Hoover. Now 85
years old, Miller says COINTELPRO was "broadly misunderstood". He says
the break-ins were necessary and that, moreover, he had the
authorization of then-acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray.
"Primarily what it was, was a disruption program. In other words, the
Communist Party was very active and 80 percent of the COINTELPRO
situations were conducted against the Communist Party USA."
Gray denied authorizing the burglaries, and Miller and another FBI
official, Mark Felt, were tried and convicted in 1980 for the illegal
break-ins. Both men were later pardoned by President Ronald Reagan.
Stan Pimentel says the excesses that somewhat tarnished the image
that J. Edgar Hoover so carefully cultivated have in the end made the
FBI a better law enforcement agency.
"I think everything that has happened to the FBI, and…with the good
and the bad, it has brought out the very best of the people in the FBI.
It’s made, I think, the organization,..er.. that included myself, a
better person, I believe. It made us more fully aware of the individual
rights of individuals."
The FBI started as a law enforcement agency and it has never
relinquished that role. But there have been shifts in emphasis
during the Bureau's history. The emphasis now is on counterterrorism.
Mindful of civil liberties concerns, FBI agents refused to participate
in the controversial aggressive interrogation techniques employed by
some military and intelligence officers at the U.S. terrorist detention
facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
--- *This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA
(to run s.t. with) an iron hand = con mano de hierro
mire (verb) = enlodar, enredarese, atascarse
a grain of truth = un grano de verdad
to screw up (phrasal verb) = fastidiar
to come to light = salir a la luz, revelar
break in (noun) = robo / to break in = forzar la entrada
to tarnish = deslustrar
relinquish = renunciar a