|Federal Bureau of Investigation|
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is largely synonymous with two things: its longtime director, J. Edgar Hoover, and the anticommunist feeling Hoover shared with the majority of his countrymen during the early cold war. It would certainly be a mistake to assert that the FBI was only concerned with questions of espionage and a self-professed goal of preventing Communist subversion; primary among FBI concerns were such activities as bank robberies, kidnapping, and mail fraud.
Nevertheless, after World War II, the agency’s primary focus centered around its efforts to contain the spread and influence of communism. Such activity largely defined the organization, and certainly accounts for much of its notoriety in conspiracy circles. Historians have argued that the FBI was “both cause and effect, as well as most obvious beneficiary” of U.S. anticommunism.
This, however, was not the intention of the FBI’s designers. The brainchild of Attorney General Charles Bonaparte, the agency was born out of Progressive Era impulses toward centralization and efficiency.
Responding to the inadequacy of local authority to address interstate crime, the FBI was originally charged with combating postal and antitrust violations, as well as other types of financially related fraud; only later did the agency’s mandate expand to include organized crime targets such as the Mafia, Prohibition, and the Ku Klux Klan. Three things happened that were to greatly expand the power of the FBI, and the first was the ascent of J. Edgar Hoover to its directorship in 1924.
Hoover radically increased both the scope and professionalism of the FBI—for example, he inherited an organization with nine field offices; six years later, there were thirty. He was head of the FBI for the next forty-eight years, and the organization’s subsequent history is in large part the biography of Hoover himself.
Second, the United States passed several pieces of legislation (including the Eighteenth Amendment, beginning Prohibition) that created interstate crimes for the FBI to enforce. In particular the Mann Act, which aimed to combat interstate prostitution trade, and the Dyer Act, which aimed to curtail car theft, provided arenas and authority for the FBI to act.
Third, during World War I, concerns over espionage justified the broadening of FBI activity to unearthing spy networks. After it, the threat posed by political radicalism set the stage for the most prominent FBI work of the century: combating communism.
Americans have long viewed radicalism as a potential threat to the stability and security of their country; anticommunism was not born in 1945, merely intensified. Accordingly, the FBI redoubled its efforts in this area, to combat the threat—real and perceived—posed by the Soviet Union.
The cold war had military and political aspects; it also had domestic ones, and the FBI was at the forefront of these. It led the way among government agencies concerned about the influences that Communists inside the United States and the U.S. government could have.
Fear of such insurgency was widespread among Americans, providing fertile ground for Joseph McCarthy. The era dubbed “McCarthyism” was characterized by a widespread hysteria throughout U.S. society, wherein many suspected Communists were hounded from jobs, public life, and homes for the most tenuous of (purported) radical sympathies.
Behind McCarthy’s ability to make accusations lay the FBI; he and like-minded politicians (many on HUAC, the House of Representatives’ Un-American Activities Committee) would hardly have been able to establish any credibility without information supplied by the FBI, and McCarthy freely admitted that he got the bulk of his information from the organization. The FBI may have been the silent partner in McCarthyism, but it was in fact the dominant one.
After Hoover died, revelations about the nature and extent of the information gathered shocked the nation. In an essay entitled “Why I Got Out of It,” a former FBI agent details the myriad ways that the agents would infiltrate potentially subversive political groups to obtain information on the members (as part of COINTELPRO, the program of domestic surveillance and infiltration begun in the 1950s). He also discusses the selection of targets—a process done with almost reckless disregard for the likely level of the threat.
Suspicion was often confined to “liberal” groups, and black ones were particularly suspect: “It seemed that every politically dissident black man was a candidate for investigation”. Under the guise of investigating potentially subversive groups for dangerous activity, the FBI acted as a political organization, investigating liberal groups with far more abandon than conservative ones.
These “FBI files,” born out of concern for alleged conspiracy, have become the center of suspected conspiracies themselves—particularly among those on the Left who have felt most threatened by the agency. Web searches can draw a raft of links detailing alleged FBI involvement in conspiracies connected to the Kent State shootings, UFOs, the Kennedy assassination, the Mafia, and the Martin Luther King assassination among many others.
There is no common thread connecting these alleged conspiracies, but the mid-1970s revelations of the FBI’s wiretapping activity has made the agency a target of conspiracy thinking itself. These revelations coincided with a declining faith in the U.S. government after Watergate and the Vietnam War. Perhaps as a result, the FBI is now perceived as a wellspring of conspiracies as much as a discoverer of them.