The Massive Case Of Collective Amnesia: The FBI Has Been Political From The Star The fact is, controversy about the FBI is anything but new. And political goals of one kind or another have been part of the reason for the agency since its inception.
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The Massive Case Of Collective Amnesia: The FBI Has Been Political From The Start

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The Massive Case Of Collective Amnesia: The FBI Has Been Political From The Start

The Massive Case Of Collective Amnesia: The FBI Has Been Political From The Start

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The FBI has been embroiled lately in a controversy involving one of its agents and a Justice Department lawyer working on the investigations during the 2016 presidential election cycle. Some Republicans say that the FBI is tainted with prejudice against President Trump, while Democrats are defending the bureau as too professional for politics. So we thought we'd ask for a little lookback at the bureau's history with a man we call professor Ron.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: You may know him as NPR's senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: If you grew up in the United States anytime in the last 100 years, these letters meant crime, drama and excitement.



ELVING: But you didn't have to wait until Alan Rickman said it like that in 1988's "Die Hard." You saw those letters on page one of the paper, heard them on the news, saw them at the movies...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Now for the first time, you will see the real, the authentic, the fascinating inside story of the FBI.

ELVING: There were primetime network TV shows.



ELVING: And in the new century, we've had New Age FBI agents Scully and Mulder guiding us into the realm of the unknown.


GILLIAN ANDERSON: (As Dana Scully) Mulder, I've seen it.

ELVING: The pop culture image of the bureau has often cast its agents as super-cool superhumans immune to the emotional weaknesses of the rest of us. And the bureau has long promoted a self-image of professionalism and political neutrality. At the same time, it has long operated in the real world of political objectives, enforcing national policies created by politicians. It has had enormous power.

And from time to time, it has been exposed for overreaching and abusing that power. Much of the dark side of the story eminates from one man, J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI from 1924 until his death in 1972 - nearly half a century. Hoover was not only the man at the helm, but seemingly had no check on his power and authority. President Johnson declared Hoover FBI director for life in 1964.


LYNDON B. JOHNSON: I have just now signed the executive order exempting you from compulsory retirement for an indefinite period of time.

ELVING: But in a sense, the bureau had politics in its DNA all the way back to its creation in 1908. That was when Teddy Roosevelt wanted to hire some professionals who could read balance sheets and expose the practices of corporate monopolies. The original Bureau of Investigation chased spies in World War I and then got into trouble when it went after Americans with unconventional ideas, as well.

Later, it got a black eye in the Teapot Dome scandal in 1924, which was when Hoover took over. Hoover brought down high-profile gangsters like John Dillinger and, later, some Nazi spies. But along the way, his agents in World War II also arrested innocent Japanese Americans who resisted going to internment camps and persecuted other citizens and activists suspected of disloyalty in the Cold War era.

There were times when the FBI practiced disruption of both the Ku Klux Klan and the civil rights movement in the South. But in the 1960s, Hoover's counterintelligence program, shorthanded as COINTELPRO, featured a sustained attack on the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and a variety of anti-war protesters, feminists and black power groups such as the Black Panthers. Hoover had earlier conducted a purge of federal employees suspected of being gay or lesbian. In the 1970s, a Senate investigation of the FBI's activities exposed many of the excesses of this time.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: That have freely employed the tactics of snooping, sabotage and other forms of skullduggery and harassing civil rights, black liberation and leftist groups.

ELVING: It was also in the 1970s that one FBI official named Mark Felt played a crucial role as the anonymous informant known as Deep Throat. He was the man who helped The Washington Post expose the Watergate scandal that eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

In more recent decades, under a succession of directors, the bureau strove to live down the reputation of the Hoover years and rehabilitate itself. It can be argued that the bureau, once the exclusive bastion of white males, has changed as it's come to look more like the rest of the country. Most in the FBI were glad to recede from the political spotlight until, in the last presidential election cycle, director James Comey was tasked with investigating candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Comey has since heard himself blamed for Clinton's loss and since been fired by President Trump last May. That firing is now part of a larger investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, the man who was Comey's predecessor as director of the FBI. Ron Elving, NPR News, Washington.


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