The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Its Leaders

to Part One of Barbara Bradley's report on J. Edgar Hoover.

to Part Two, on Hoover's successors.

July 24, 2001 All in all, this has not been a good couple of years for the FBI. News that the bureau has lost hundreds of weapons and computers -- some with highly sensitive files -- over the past decade is just the latest in a string of woes, NPR's Barbara Bradley reports on Morning Edition.

Louis Freeh
Louis Freeh announces he's resigning as FBI director
Copyright 2001
Reuters Limited

Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh's execution was delayed this spring after the FBI failed to turn over thousands of documents in the case. And this month veteran FBI agent Robert Hanssen pleaded guilty to charges of spying for Moscow for 15 years.

Outgoing FBI Director Louis Freeh presided over the nation's top investigative arm during those troubles, but his predecessors had their share of problems, too. And the bureau's missteps, as well as its successes, have helped shaped the agency's image in the media and Hollywood over the years.

The bureau has inspired everything from news shows to TV programs to movies. Television shows such as Efrem Zimbalist Jr's The FBI and the The Untouchables with Robert Stack lionized the agency.

In Part I, July 24, Barbara Bradley reports on J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director who shaped the bureau and used the media to do it. Hoover had declared a war against Hollywood after James Cagney played a renegade G-man in 1935. The bureau hated the film though it boosted the FBI's popularity. Hoover also learned to turn the camera to his advantage. He created the image of an invincible agency through his canny use of newsreels, radio, television and movies. Hoover's Crimes Records Division furnished what were called "interesting case memoranda" to the media. Cases the bureau deemed would be good for public relations. The FBI chief exercised an extraordinary veto power over the content and Hoover was ever-vigilant in pursuit of good public relations.

But the darker elements Hoover kept under wraps -- such as the FBI's harassment of Martin Luther King Jr. -- emerged in congressional hearings in 1976 and the bureau's image soured. The picture that the FBI promoted, that it was an omnipotent, all-knowing agency that never made a mistake, set the bureau up for a fall. And new films like the "Die Hard" series depicted the FBI as officious and obstructionist bureaucrats.

In Part II, Bradley looks at the men who have directed the FBI since Hoover. In the last years under Hoover, the bureau found itself the target of probes into covert break-ins, illegal wiretaps and warrantless searches. The FBI needed a fresh start with a squeaky clean director. But then-president Nixon's choice, L. Patrick Gray, got caught up in the Watergate break-in scandal: While awaiting confirmation and serving as acting director, Gray burned some Watergate-related documents. Gray admitted he was wrong -- but he was never confirmed.

Clarence Kelley, Nixon's second try, did win confirmation and the former Kansas City police chief began pushing for reforms in the bureau. He also steered the FBI toward investigating white collar crime, the mafia, terrorism, which he considered the real threats to society. But Kelley served only half his 10-year term. He resigned after it was reported FBI agents had installed window valances in his apartment.

The next chief, William Webster, stepped up the reform drive. The former federal judge was regarded as apolitical and the embodiment of integrity. The FBI under Webster also plunged into espionage cases, catching several spies. He was credited with restoring public confidence in the bureau.

Hoping to duplicate Webster's success, then-president Reagan appointed another federal judge, William Sessions. But Sessions was ultimately forced out after the Justice Department concluded he had used his office for personal gain, flying on FBI planes to ballets with his wife and using FBI funds to build a fence around his home. He also oversaw two FBI disasters: Ruby Ridge and the fire at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.

Next came federal judge Louie Freeh, a former FBI agent who had been a star federal prosecutor. Under Freeh's leadership, the FBI caught the Unabomber and Oklahoma City bomber McVeigh, tracked down the World Trade Center bombers and built the case against the terrorists who attacked an American military base in Saudi Arabia. But Freeh had some run-ins with the man who nominated him -- then-president Clinton - most notably, telling Congress he felt that an independent counsel should investigate Democratic fundraising during the 1996 election. And Freeh also presided over a series of FBI embarrassments: the bungled investigation of Wen Ho Lee, a nuclear scientist suspected of espionage; the Hanssen debacle; and finally, just weeks before Freeh's retirement, the bungled handling of documents in the McVeigh investigation.

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