A Chorus of Hoover Critics
Every year for the last three years, Rep. Dan Burton, a Republican from Indiana, has introduced a bill to strip J. Edgar Hoover’s name from the FBI’s headquarters -- an initiative that has been largely ignored.
Now, however, amid headlines about possibly illegal government surveillance of Americans inside the United States, the effort to rename the Hoover building is starting to attract more supporters, most recently U.S. Circuit Judge Laurence H. Silberman, a Republican who was a leader of the presidentially appointed commission on pre-Iraq-war intelligence.
“This country -- and the bureau -- would be well served if his name were removed from the bureau’s building,” Silberman, a Reagan appointee, told the 1st Circuit Judicial Conference in June. “It is as if the Defense Department were named for Aaron Burr.”
Across Washington, the names of major figures adorn scores of government buildings and federal headquarters, but few have experienced the reputation erosion that has befallen Hoover since his death in 1972.
Once widely admired for founding the modern-day FBI on principles of strict probity, Hoover later became identified with invasive eavesdropping and bureau efforts to discredit the likes of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the height of the civil rights movement. Hoover also has been accused of having used explosive gossip collected by his agents to intimidate political leaders, including presidents.
So as the names of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush join the federal landscape, some are wondering why Hoover’s is still there.
“Symbolism matters in the United States, and it is wrong to honor a man who frequently manipulated the law to achieve his personal goals,” Burton said after his Government Reform Committee held hearings in 2002 on FBI abuses.
Burton was outraged by the case of Joseph Salvati, who served 30 years in prison for a 1968 contract murder in Boston that later evidence suggested was committed by an FBI informant. “There is no reason we should honor a man who threw everything out the window, including the lives of innocent men, in order to get what he wanted,” Burton said.
The renewal of conservative outrage about Hoover -- columnist Robert Novak recently urged that Hoover’s name be dropped from the building, calling the FBI’s first director “a rogue and a lawbreaker” -- is finding an unusual partnership with liberals who blame Hoover for wiretapping King and quashing the FBI investigation of the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that killed four black girls.
Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney (D-Ga.), who is working to get intelligence files on King released, has introduced legislation to name the FBI Building for Frank Church, the late Democratic senator from Idaho whose select committee held scorching hearings on U.S. intelligence gathering and FBI abuses under Hoover.
“It’s a reflection of her concern that the building should not be named after the person who was responsible for the excesses,” McKinney aide John Judge said Friday. “It should be for the person who stood up to them.”
Before Burton’s efforts, the last time the issue came to Congress was in 1998, when senators were debating a bill that would name Washington National Airport for President Reagan. Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada -- now minority leader -- offered an amendment to strip Hoover’s name from the FBI Building.
“J. Edgar Hoover stands for what is bad about this country,” Reid said. “This small man violated the rights of hundreds, if not thousands, of people -- famous and not so famous.”
The Senate voted 62 to 36 against removing Hoover’s name.
Silberman said Friday that two senators were considering offering the proposal again.
“People are shocked that the FBI was so heavily engaged in espionage,” he said. “Liberals and conservatives should unite on this.”
It is not clear whether they will.
For one thing, the Society for Former Special Agents of the FBI has been vigilant in arguing to keep the name of the man who reigned over the FBI from 1924 until his death. For another, many still credit Hoover with turning a backwater unit into a professional investigative agency with up-to-date technology and crime-fighting skills.
“We feel that the legacy and image of Hoover is indirectly but successfully blocking the bill,” said Stephen Schatz, Burton’s press secretary.
Hoover came to power as a reformer and tirelessly promoted the bureau’s image in print, movies and radio dramas. But over time, he became a law unto himself. He ruled the FBI with an iron hand, sometimes exiling agents to remote field offices and blighting their careers for minor infractions of rules that included how agents had to dress and act.
For many years, critics said, he refused to acknowledge the seriousness of the threat posed by organized crime, concentrating instead on crimes such as bank robbery and interstate car theft because doing so burnished the bureau’s success rates. Another serious complaint was that Hoover collected scurrilous information on public figures that he used to protect and enhance his own power.
“As far as the building goes, I have mixed feelings,” said Curt Gentry, author of “J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets.” “Maybe we should leave it up to remind us of that monster.”
Gentry said that directors who succeeded Hoover, such as former federal judge William Webster, “did quite a bit to change the old bureau from its ways.”
Some changes enacted after the Church committee hearings were lifted after Sept. 11, 2001, when law enforcement and other officials complained that a failure to communicate -- and to spy -- had thwarted counterintelligence. Now, some think a new backlash against what some see as invasions of privacy and domestic spying by executive order might put the renaming of the FBI Building back on the table.