J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972) was director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for 48 years, serving under every president from Calvin Coolidge to Richard M. Nixon. His supporters praised him for building the FBI into one of the world’s outstanding law-enforcement agencies. His critics accused him of abusing power, failing to combat organized crime, intruding the FBI into state and local cases in order to take credit for other organizations’ work, avoiding crimes that the FBI might not be able to solve, and violating individuals’ First Amendment rights.

Hoover was a lifetime resident of Washington, D.C. After earning a law degree from George Washington University in 1917, he joined the Department of Justice. He served (1919–1921) as special assistant to the attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, and played a leading role in the “red raids,” a mass roundup and deportation of suspected Bolsheviks and anarchists who had emigrated from Europe but who had not acquired U.S. citizenship. When Coolidge became president, Hoover was appointed head of what was then the Bureau of Investigation. Hoover eliminated partisan politics from the organization’s appointments and improved recruiting and training methods. In 1924 he expanded the agency’s fingerprint files, which became the world’s largest such collection.

In the 1930s Hoover won fame for tracking down so-called public enemies — bank robbers and gangsters such as John Dillinger and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. In 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the FBI wide intelligence and counterespionage functions. These powers originally were directed largely against the Nazis. Hoover extended their functions to include monitoring and disruption of groups that he thought were affiliated with communists. He later published an anticommunist book, Masters of Deceit (1958).

For years Hoover’s FBI was widely suspected of using questionable or illegal methods to gain information. The existence of a Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, became known in 1971. COINTELPRO penetrated suspect organizations and used FBI resources to disrupt and discredit them. The full extent of Hoover’s misconduct became clear in 1975, after his death, through the work of a Senate select committee on intelligence activities, commonly known as the Church Committee, after its chair, Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho. The committee documented Hoover’s surveillance of groups and individuals with whom he disagreed — many of whom had done no more than exercise their First Amendment rights to criticize the government. Congressional investigators disclosed that Hoover had often abused his powers: committing burglaries, spying illegally on U.S. citizens, and persecuting those who opposed his agency. Hoover believed that communists used racial discontent to further their cause and that they were behind the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He used COINTELPRO and other means to try to prove that Martin Luther King Jr. was a communist tool, but with no success.

Hoover’s longevity as FBI director can in part be attributed to his secret files. These enabled him to intimidate even sitting presidents by threatening to leak damaging disclosures about them. He died in office.

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