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America’s Surveillance State


J. Edgar Hoover and the Anti-Interventionists: FBI Political Surveillance and the Rise of the Domestic Security State, 1939-1945, by Douglas M. Charles (Ohio State University Press, 2007), 197 pages.

The domestic surveillance state is sometimes called the electronic police state. Those in political power use law enforcement to closely monitor the opinions and peaceful behavior of citizens in order to forestall and punish opposition. Typically the surveillance involves secret files, covert wiretapping, informants, the collection of personal data such as sexual preferences, and other tactics that are odious to a free society. The domestic surveillance state is often associated with the East German Stasi or the Soviet KGB. But its roots are deep in American soil, and it is reaching full growth with the “war on terror.”

In his book J. Edgar Hoover and the Anti-Interventionists, history professor Douglas M. Charles traces the modern American surveillance state back to the great debate that occurred prior to America’s entry into World War II. In 1941, intellectual conflict raged in print and over radio waves, in Congress and in lecture halls, from pulpits and in living rooms. Should America provide aid to the Allied side of the war then consuming Europe, or should it remain noninterventionist? Apart from whether he wanted military involvement, President Franklin D. Roosevelt clearly supported massive aid to the British. Those who opposed intervention found themselves under surveillance that was not merely new in style but also new in depth.

J. Edgar Hoover and the Anti-Interventionists is meticulously researched, engagingly presented, and an original contribution to history. Charles uses recently opened FBI files as well as a careful analysis of sources from the time and of prior scholarship to rewrite a page of American history. He also displays a rare lack of bias. For example, Charles dismisses the commonly used term “isolationist” as a descriptor of those who opposed American entry into the war, because many opponents embraced international trade and relationships; as “noninterventionists” they simply resisted the war. Thus, with fresh data and well-defined boundaries, Charles proceeds to demonstrate that the American surveillance state was born in an attempt to stifle political discussion rather than to protect the public from criminal harm. He offers a different and damning perspective on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency and its complicity in and promotion of covert surveillance. Charles explains how society got here from there. And why.

A man named Hoover

J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI, is the father of the modern American surveillance state. He was uniquely qualified for that role. A supremely pragmatic bureaucrat, Hoover thrived under administrations both Republican and Democrat, remaining FBI director for almost 50 years, from 1924 until his death in 1972. At first he survived because he was useful. Later he survived because people feared him.

Hoover’s career launched when the Justice Department established the Alien Enemy Registration Section (1918) to track the activities of foreign nationals, radicals, anarchists, blacks, and other groups or individuals suspected of subversion. Charles notes, “It was in this Section … that a young J. Edgar Hoover … learned to use administrative procedures to bypass legal restraints.” He continued to suppress political opinion as the head of the Radical Bureau created by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer in response to the widespread labor strikes of 1919. Hoover was instrumental in the notorious Palmer Raids, through which foreign radicals were arrested and deported as part of the “Red Scare.”

In 1924 he became head of the Bureau of Investigation (later the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI). The bureau would be transparent, Hoover assured the public, even as he initiated the policies of secrecy that would define his decades-long stewardship. He worked unofficially with local police forces to procure “sensitive” information on targeted individuals. Along with newspaper clippings and information from informants, this intelligence went directly onto his desk and into files marked “personal, confidential,” rather than into the FBI archives. These were the files with details about sexual preferences, “immoral” behavior, and illegally procured information.

The rise of the FBI

Charles observes, “In 1934 the FBI employed 391 agents and a support staff of 451 and was appropriated $2,589,500…. Eleven years later, in 1945, the FBI had 4,370 agents, 7,422 support staff and an appropriation of $44,197,146.”

The bureau’s glory days came during Roosevelt’s presidency (1933–1945). Crime became a major concern during the Depression, with the likes of bank robber John Dillinger becoming half hero, half knave in the public eye. In 1935, anticrime bills were rushed through Congress, and the FBI was established as a federal agency with full arrest powers and permission to carry arms. Thus when Roosevelt increasingly turned his focus to foreign affairs, a powerful FBI was already in place.

Charles notes, “The FBI’s monitoring of anti-interventionists between September 1939 and December 1940 consisted primarily of passive intelligence gathering, forwarding of complaints made against them to the Justice Department, and taking action on administrative interest in anti-interventionism activity.” In 1941 that changed.

In Europe the Nazis and fascists were rising; in Asia and Russia communism had swept away the Old Order. Worried about domestic dissent and increasingly in favor of supporting the Allied nations, Roosevelt met privately with Hoover. He kept no record of this meeting,  instead abiding by his “long practice not to put anything controversial on paper.” Through such meetings and constant reports, however, Hoover kept him informed on the activities and personal lives of political opponents. Some information was clearly solicited by Roosevelt; for other information, that is not so clear. Nevertheless, the reports continued to flow and be used to political advantage.

Roosevelt’s political opponents targeted

In the period immediately preceding America’s entry into World War II, one group became the FBI’s primary focus: the America First Committee (AFC). The AFC was formed in 1940 by Yale students who went on to prominence, including future President Gerald Ford and future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. The antiwar, anti-interventionist group boasted 800,000 members at its peak and exerted nationwide pressure against Roosevelt’s pro-Allied policies. Among AFC’s most prominent members were Charles Lindbergh, Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas, and Senators Burton K. Wheeler, David I. Walsh, and Gerald P. Nye. The voices of the great debate on America’s participation in World War II dominated society. No voice rang more loudly than Lindbergh’s.

Charles observes, “Now that Lindbergh, already the most popular anti-interventionist, had joined the most influential and powerful anti-interventionist pressure group … providing Roosevelt with political intelligence or working to undermine this critic became increasingly more important to FBI officials.”

Other prominent AFC members soon found themselves targeted by covert FBI activities as well. The surveillance techniques came to characterize Hoover’s leadership. The activities included wiretapping and trespassing illegally, using informants and anonymous accusers, monitoring personal correspondence, sharing information with foreign governments, bypassing Justice Department restrictions and civil liberties, launching tax or other government investigations, enforcing obscure laws selectively, investigating dissidents via grand juries, and disrupting meetings. (Note: The surveillance was conducted before invocation of the Espionage Act, which could only come into force after a declaration of war.) Of course, reports derived from such tactics were kept in secret files and often delivered to interested others as “blind memoranda”; these were memos without letterhead and with no indication of the sender or recipient.  

“On 11 April 1940,” Charles writes, “Hoover instituted the ‘Do Not File’ procedure whereby specially marked memorandum were not indexed and serialized in the FBI’s central records system. Instead they were maintained by Assistant FBI Director Ladd’s Domestic Intelligence Division to employ sensitive investigative techniques, such as illegal break-ins and wiretaps … and to create written records about them that would be secure.”

The sort of data collected included sexual preferences, especially homosexuality; information on family members, including children; tax and other financial records; names of friends, associates, and funders; travel and events attended; transcripts of letters and phone calls; and mental and physical health records. The information was used in several ways. Perhaps first and foremost, the FBI wished to establish that the AFC or any of its members had received foreign funding. If so, they could be prosecuted as “unregistered foreign agents.” The FBI also searched for prosecutable treason, such as a statement of desire to assassinate Roosevelt; the Smith Act of 1940 allowed prosecution of those who sought to violently overthrow the U.S. government. In the meantime the FBI used the information gathered to smear Roosevelt’s opponents through leaks to popular and cooperative media men like the radio phenomenon Walter Winchell. A common smear aimed at those on whom the FBI could not discover dirt was to accuse them of being spies in the pay of the German government.

Notably, no criminal or otherwise prosecutable activity was revealed on the major targets, although the FBI, in Charles’s words, “extensively and systematically monitored administration critics while seeking to undermine them.”

Charles painstakingly chronicles the rise of FBI powers through recounting the specific surveillance and other tactics used against Lindbergh, Wheeler, Walsh, Nye, and Roosevelt critic Rep. Hamilton Fish. For example, Walsh was accused of visiting a male brothel; Fish was accused of tax evasion.

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed the American naval installation at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Shortly thereafter, America was at war with the Axis powers, and the AFC disbanded. Nevertheless, FBI investigations continued. To justify continued surveillance, Hoover claimed the AFC had only gone underground, although all FBI field reports concluded that the AFC had indeed disbanded.

Charles narrates this period by presenting three cases pursued by the FBI. “What is particularly striking about the three FBI targets to be analyzed here…,” he writes,

is that their cases preceded, and were a clear step toward, the much more publicized “great sedition trial,” which serves as a marker for the peak of the domestic security state. The trial involved thirty alleged fascists who in January 1944 were charged with a “plot to incite mutiny in the armed forces.”

The three targets were the ultraconservative Ethel Brigham, the revisionist historian Harry Elmer Barnes, and noted female aviator Laura Houghtaling Ingalls. The administration was finally able to prosecute Ingalls after discovering that some of her lectures had been partially funded by a German supporter. Thus she could be charged with being an “unregistered agent of a foreign power.” Through these cases, Charles demonstrates how the FBI evolved from a political arm of the White House to an aggressive agency that acted with something close to autonomy. Certainly during the Cold War years, the FBI abandoned public prosecution in favor of secret and illegal programs such as COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program).

History has disproportionately dealt with the FBI’s activities during the Red Scare and the Cold War largely because the FBI files on the great-debate period before World War II were closed to research until recently. If Douglas M. Charles did nothing more than chronicle this hitherto unknown history, his accomplishment would be impressive. Douglas does much more. He demonstrates how the domestic surveillance and counterintelligence programs of the Cold War were rooted in the backlash against noninterventionism. That’s when aggressive illegal tactics and secrecy procedures became entrenched; that’s when Hoover became an autonomous and untouchable player on the American political scene; that’s when extensive data sharing with foreign governments became common practice.

“The FBI’s secretive relationship with British intelligence also illustrates the embryonic origins of the institutional side of the later national security state,” Charles writes. “A hallmark of the Second World War, Cold War, and War on Terrorism, the intimate intelligence relationship between the United States and Great Britain had its origins during the Great Debate.”

The FBI’s almost invulnerable autonomy could not survive Hoo-ver’s death, however. “Following Hoover’s death in 1972, and revelations of intrusive FBI domestic surveillance activities, FBI investigations were formally restricted to prevent the bureau from investigating politically oriented groups.”

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, however, powerful forces within the Bush administration “believed these restrictions impeded FBI counterterrorism efforts by preventing the employment of undercover agents to monitor, without probable cause, religious and political groups.” Accordingly, FBI activities were expanded to include broad wiretapping and other investigative authority. Through the PATRIOT Act, the agency regained its ability to conduct political domestic surveillance. The FBI’s surveillance authority has done nothing but expand since then.

“It is during this critical period [the great debate]…,” Charles concludes,

that FBI officials [first] acquired increased investigative authority and resorted to sensitive investigative techniques, like wiretapping, and violated investigative restrictions — all in the name of combating “subversive activity,” but too often, in reality, with the prime objective and end result being the monitoring of domestic political activity while violating the civil liberties of foreign policy critics.

Douglas M. Charles has produced an invaluable work of scholarly excellence.

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).