Gage: COINTELPRO is the most notorious program of Hoover’s tenure as FBI director, although it was not publicly known during his lifetime. COINTELPRO stands for Counterintelligence Program. And what the FBI meant by counterintelligence was not just surveillance of activist groups, but active disruption and harassment measures. The FBI would use things like threatening anonymous letters or fake press articles making fun of the Black Panthers or other groups they viewed as threats. They even had cartoonists at the FBI who would draw fake cartoons. They would get those published because they thought it would really upset people in the organizations that they didn't like.This part of “counterintelligence” involved disruption tactics not aimed at ever bringing anyone to court or even getting information for the files, but getting movements and organizations and leaders to fight with each other, to factionalize, to kind of collapse from within. We have famous examples of what the FBI did to Martin Luther King Jr. or to the Black Panthers. The FBI was very involved in watching and trying to create disruption in the Panthers around the time of the May Day protests in New Haven in 1970 [during the murder trial of Black Panther Bobby Seale]. They were using these tactics on student activist organizations, the New Left, and others.But one thing I don’t think people know is that the FBI was also doing that sort of thing to far-right organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi organizations. Not with the same energy and enthusiasm as they were always applying to the left, but they were doing it.
MICHAEL BRENES One of the more interesting aspects of your book is that you show how liberal Democrats aided Hoover’s rise and hold on power. Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed Hoover to FBI director at the height of the New Deal; Bobby Kennedy disliked Hoover but still, in his own words, “deferred to him” many times; Lyndon Johnson and Hoover had a limited friendship that led to the “greatest political alliance of [Hoover’s] career,” as you write. Why did American liberals enable Hoover? What are the connections between American liberalism and the growth of the national security state?BEVERLY GAGE Hoover’s close relationship with liberals — and with liberalism — fascinated me as I worked on the book. Though Hoover was appointed director of the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI) in 1924, it was really Franklin Roosevelt who gave him much of his power.Under Roosevelt, FBI agents expanded their role in federal law enforcement, becoming the great heroes of the New Deal’s War on Crime. During World War II, they expanded again, this time into a national domestic intelligence force. Roosevelt also taught Hoover how to sell the FBI’s work to the public. Both men believed that the work of government was not self-evident, that the American people had to be shown and taught to have faith in federal power.Lyndon Johnson embraced Hoover, too. In 1964, he exempted Hoover from mandatory federal retirement at the age of seventy, a key decision that allowed Hoover to stay in power throughout the critical years of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Throughout his presidency, Johnson used Hoover in a variety of ways — often to contain the Civil Rights Movement, on occasion to empower it. The most outrageous FBI operation of the 1960s, its campaign of harassment and surveillance aimed at Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., took place with Johnson’s knowledge and support, even if Johnson did not necessarily know every detail of what the FBI was doing.We might think of Hoover’s relationships with these liberal titans as strange or anomalous, because we know Hoover best for his conservative social views. But it makes sense that figures like Roosevelt and Johnson, famous for their ambitions and their willingness to use the power of the state, would admire a skilled state-builder like Hoover. Those relationships also highlight the ways that liberals in power have often been suspicious of the Left and have supported efforts to contain and discredit left-wing groups.MICHAEL BRENES During the presidency of Donald Trump, we saw a curious faith in the FBI’s ability to create democratic outcomes, to deliver us from Donald Trump. Robert Mueller was treated as a savior by mainstream liberals. How do you explain the recent embrace of the FBI as an institution that can serve American democracy? After all, faith in the FBI to stop Trumpism occurred while the organization was surveilling protestors during the 2020 George Floyd protests and pondering the use of spyware to hack mobile phones — tactics that echoed back to Hoover’s era. And what does this tell us about Hoover’s legacy for American politics?BEVERLY GAGE Liberals now love the FBI! Some do, anyway. Polls show that Democrats on the whole are now far more supportive of the FBI than Republicans are. Most of that has to do with Trump, of course. But it’s also a reversion to an earlier period in FBI history, when liberals admired and empowered Hoover — and for some of the same reasons we see today. Though Trump is the key point of contention, defenders of the FBI now point to its designated role as an objective, nonpartisan, investigative force loyal to the facts and to the law — the most noble part of the FBI’s history and traditions. Of course, today’s liberals may be making some of the same mistakes that mid-century liberals did: In supporting the FBI, they may be ignoring possible excesses and abuses. That’s one of many areas where Hoover’s example ought to be instructive.