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America’s Unchecked Security State


By the 1960s [J. Edgar] Hoover had become one of the most powerful political figures in America, thanks chiefly to his ability to use the FBI’s notorious Division Five (successively named the National Defense Division, the Security Division, and the Domestic Intelligence Division) to intimidate, blackmail, or destroy the careers of people who were not accused of any crime, but whom he deemed to be dangerous.

Hoover had first exercised such powers during the Red Scare of 1919, when, as head of the Justice Department’s General Intelligence Division, he had without trial deported hundreds of aliens (along with Emma Goldman, who was arguably an American citizen) in the so-called Palmer Raids. Hoover had acted at times without consulting or informing President Wilson, in collaboration with a huge army of volunteer spies, the American Protective League, which had been organized by business executives. Hoover did not by any means act alone; to help put down a national steel-industry strike at this time, the U.S. Army imposed martial law in certain areas.

One should acknowledge that Hoover himself briefly played a different role, professionalizing the Bureau of Investigation, and accepting for about a decade the directive given him by Attorney General Harlan Stone on May 13, 1924: “The activities of the Bureau are to be limited strictly to investigations of violations of law.” Although he had been a major player in the Palmer Raids of 1919–1920, Hoover now (for over a decade) dismantled his General Intelligence Division, concentrated on solving personal crimes already committed, such as bank robberies, and never again involved the Bureau in anything like the Palmer Raids. On the contrary, in 1941 he was a leading opponent within the government of the decision (which originated with a local Army field commander) to round up and intern Japanese Americans. This wholesale internment program overrode Hoover’s own proposal for the selective detention of those Japanese already identified on the FBI’s Custodial Detention list…. It represented, in effect, an unexpected Army rebuff to Hoover.

Instead, the Bureau of Investigation, which in 1935 became the Federal Bureau of Investigation, pursued bootleggers, bank robbers, and other gangsters, from John Dillinger to Al Capone. But noncriminal intelligence files on the general public became the hallmark of the FBI after 1936, when [Franklin] Roosevelt told Hoover he was interested in “‘obtaining a broad picture’ of the Communist and Fascist movements” in America.

The use of intimidation

Roosevelt was responding to a troubling message from Hoover about American right-wing activity at the highest level. In 1935 Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler reported to Hoover that he had been approached by two representatives of Wall Street to lead a right-wing coup d’état against President Roosevelt. Curt Gentry writes that “Hoover informed Butler that since there was no evidence that a federal criminal statute had been violated, he did not have the authority to order an investigation.” We see here a key to Hoover’s political astuteness: his refusal ever to involve himself in disputes among those whose power was equal to or greater than his own. (We see this again in his refusal, for years, to involve the FBI in the investigation of either organized crime or the international drug traffic.)

However Hoover sought and obtained authority from [Roosevelt] to reestablish an Intelligence Division, after a second report from General Butler: that the indigenous American Fascist, Father Charles Coughlin, had “approached General Butler and urged him to lead an armed expedition into Mexico, its purpose to oppose the Cárdenas government and restore the church.”

This time Hoover reported Butler’s information to Roosevelt; and obtained from the president, on August 24, 1936, a verbal go-ahead to conduct investigations on a wide range of domestic political activities, Right and Left. With this go-ahead, Hoover reestablished an Intelligence Division, which eventually evolved into the source of his power over others, including law-abiding Americans.

According to Marc Aronson,

That secret conversation was the moment when Hoover’s life story changed American history. He was given real authority to protect the nation, which he slowly but surely transformed into the right to play by his own rules, even if that totally undermined the laws and principles of the democracy he was protecting.

Because no law or written document had conferred this power on him, Hoover was free to rely increasingly on illegal methods to collect intelligence, ranging from bugs, mail-openings, and wiretaps, to break-ins. He knew very well that information gathered illegally could not be used in prosecutions. But Hoover’s aim was to use information, not for prosecution, but to intimidate and control all sectors of society, especially those with other forms of power.

His method of dealing with Father Coughlin is a good example of this. Hoover kept a sharp eye on the outspoken priest, who by 1940 was probably America’s most powerful pro-Nazi anti-Semite, with a radio show reaching possibly 30 million listeners. In January 1940 the FBI raided an office of the Christian Front, a group supported by Coughlin, for plotting to overthrow the government. Two years later Coughlin was silenced and his radio show went off the air.

Coughlin’s subsequent silence, which lasted for decades, is usually attributed to an order from his bishop, after a deal negotiated with Attorney General [Francis] Biddle.  But after Coughlin’s death in 1979, his psychiatrist revealed that what silenced the priest had not been

sudden obedience to his bishop, whom he had successfully defied for several years. That cover story was circulated in May 1942 by church authorities…. Coughlin felt the effects of … J. Edgar Hoover [who] had proof of Coughlin’s homosexual activity. That proof, communicated in the verbal exchange between Hoover and Coughlin, was sufficient to silence Coughlin’s public voice until May 24, 1972…. Hoover had died just three weeks earlier, on May 2, 1972.

Hoover’s silencing of Coughlin demonstrates that he used his intelligence files, not just against the Left, but against any force threatening the somewhat corrupt status quo maintained by his own secret powers.

Armed in 1936 with Roosevelt’s verbal authorization, Hoover proceeded to amass a list of files on tens of thousands of Americans. He was not timid in selecting targets. In 1946, bypassing Attorney General Tom Clark, who he knew would be disapproving, Hoover reported in a memo to Truman via George Allen, a wealthy businessman who was a friend, that “There is an enormous Soviet espionage ring in Washington,” including “a number of high officials”— specifically including Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson and former Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy.

When Truman proved uninterested in Hoover’s dire warnings, Hoover turned instead to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS), sharing his files above all with two selected spokesmen, young Congressman Richard Nixon of HUAC in 1947, and later Sen. Joseph McCarthy of the SISS in 1950. Armed with information from Hoover to capture headlines, first Nixon and later Ronald Reagan were launched into careers of public prominence that led them to the White House. Both men, in different ways, would then contribute to the further institutionalization of the covert intelligence powers first developed by Hoover.


Hoover eventually collected information on all those with political influence, from members of Congress to the very wealthy; and he retained personal control over this information in his files to protect his position. For example he reportedly had “closely held case files on the business activities of Joseph P. Kennedy, starting with the bootlegging years and including coverage of several illegal — treasonous, even — transactions brought off while Kennedy was Ambassador to the Court of Saint James.”

By all accounts, Hoover’s wealth of such information is what enabled him to retain his office as director for life, and perhaps influence other major political decisions.

The election of Eisenhower in 1952 enhanced Hoover’s status in Washington, and also that of his projects.

Hoover’s men … oversaw internal security purges throughout the government, destroying lives and careers over suspicions of disloyalty or homosexuality…. With the full backing of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, an FBI agent [personally approved by Hoover] named R.W. “Scott” McLeod took a job as internal security chief at State. His political purges of Washington and embassies and consulates overseas used FBI methods, including wiretaps, to force liberals and suspected leftists out of the foreign service. Between May 1953 and June 1955 only 8 persons were dismissed as security risks but 273 submitted their resignations…. The result was a self-censorship which undoubtedly had an effect on American foreign policy, few daring to express their opinions freely for fear they would be accountable to McLeod and, eventually, McCarthy, with whom he shared the findings of his investigations. Through McLeod and his cadre, Hoover was tapped into every part of the State Department. Aides say he knew many of [John Foster] Dulles’s decisions even before the president did.

The victims particularly affected were old “China hands,” like John Paton Davies, who had offended the China lobby by their negative assessments of Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang. Thus was officially instituted a system whereby one part of government, the FBI, gained the power to install its agents in another, for the purpose of affecting its policies by purging its personnel. The resulting demoralization and re-orientation of State long outlasted the fall of McCarthy. It led to two decades of unreal China policy, accompanied by a long-lasting inability of State to oppose reckless CIA and Pentagon escalations of anti-communist violence in Southeast Asia. State Department veteran James C. Thomson, after resigning in 1966 over the Vietnam War, wrote an important article blaming America’s errors and failures in Southeast Asia on the purging of expertise in the McCarthy era, along with Democratic Party remembrance of the “loss of China” charges.

Criticizing this state of affairs from the perspective of someone who had witnessed the SS purges in Nazi Germany, political science professor Hans Morgenthau in 1955 deplored the condition of a similar “dual state” in America, in which the “authorities charged by law” were subordinated to a hostile right-wing clique with “an effective veto over the decisions of the former.”

Swedish professor Ola Tunander, expanding on Morgenthau’s critique, called the second state a “deep state.” Following him in 2007 and 2008, I also defined the deep state somewhat restrictively, as an unrepresentative “restricted locus of top-down power,” or as a parallel “hard-edged coalition,” consisting primarily of the covert agencies (like the CIA) that are “responsive … to the overworld, but with little or no other public constituency.”

… I now use the term “deep state” for the larger aggregation of extralegal powers inside and outside government that Hoover helped consolidate, including not just covert agencies like the FBI, but also their media allies and other allied elements both in the wealthy overworld and the criminal underworld. In short my “deep state” is roughly the “deep political system” I defined in 1993 as “one which habitually resorts to decision-making and enforcement procedures outside as well as inside those publicly sanctioned by law and society.” Since 1963 this system has included at least some elements responsible for covering up the assassination of a president.

This article was published in the September 2016 edition of Future of Freedom and is excerpted from Chapter 11 of his book The American Deep State: Wall Street, Big Oil, and the Attack on U.S. Democracy. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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Peter Dale Scott is a Canadian-born poet, academic, and diplomat. His website is PeterDaleScott.net. This article is an excerpt from Chapter 11 of his book The American Deep State: Wall Street, Big Oil, and the Attack on U.S. Democracy.