The FBI is in the media spotlight over its probe into Gen. David Petraeus and an alleged sexual affair with his biographer, a scandal that this week led to his resignation as CIA director. And while that investigation is ongoing, and there is no evidence to date that agents overreached, suspicions about the FBI delving into the private lives of public figures is rooted — fairly or unfairly — in the agency’s history.
Under very different circumstances, the FBI throughout its history, has investigated the powerful: including the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 1960s.
FBI’s investigative history
The Federal Bureau of Investigation was created in 1908 under President Theodore Roosevelt as a federal crime fighting agency, a special investigative agency under the Department of Justice. The late J. Edgar Hoover assumed the leadership of the FBI in 1924, serving eight presidents until his death in 1972.
From his earliest days rounding up suspected communists and anarchists during the Red Scare of the 1910s, and cataloguing over 450,000 ”subversives” in the U.S., Hoover built an agency marked by secrecy, violations of civil liberties, and the politically motivated targeting of politicians and other high profile individuals.
On July 7, 1950, less than two weeks after the start of the Korean War, Hoover submitted a plan to President Truman to suspend habeas corpus—the right to seek relief from illegal imprisonment—and ”permanently detain” 12,000 American citizens accused of disloyalty in military prisons. Under the proposal for mass arrests, which Hoover said was necessary to “protect the country against treason, espionage and sabotage,” the FBI would “apprehend all individuals potentially dangerous” to national security using a master arrest warrant of names furnished by the bureau.
Under Hoover’s watch, the FBI maintained Official and Confidential files on members of Congress, for the purpose of blackmailing them with potentially embarrassing information on their personal lives, including sexual dalliances and homosexual conduct. This served to keep politicians in Hoover’s back pocket and ensure they would promote the bureau’s interests.
For example, in the early 1960s, the FBI congressional liaison attempted to blackmail the staffer of Senator Carl T. Hayden with information about the senator’s alleged marital infidelities. The purpose of the blackmail was to secure increased appropriation for the new FBI headquarters.
In 1958, the head of the Washington field office notified Hoover that the wife of a member of Congress had been “having an affair with a Negro [and] also at one time carried on an affair with a House Post Office employee” prior to their marriage. Further, according to the report, the lawmaker’s wife “endeavored to have an affair with [an] Indonesian, who declined.”
Sitting U.S. presidents were not beyond the Hoover’s reach, which is why no president would fire the powerful FBI boss. He wanted to keep his job. Hoover maintained files on the supposed Communist ties in the family of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and suspected first lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a lesbian.
Hoover once informed President John F. Kennedy that the bureau knew of his affair with a woman named Judith Campbell Exner, who was also dating Chicago Mafia boss Sam Giancana. And right before the death of Marilyn Monroe in her Brentwood, California home, the bureau reported that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had secretly visited the actress.
Between 1956 and 1971, the FBI used the Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) to disrupt the activities of domestic political groups.
Five such groups were targeted for investigation by COINTELPRO, including the Communist Party, the Socialist Workers’ Party, White Hate Groups, Black Nationalist Hate Groups and the New Left. This included so-called “subversive” organizations such as the NAACP, the National Lawyers Guild, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, American Indian Movement and antiwar protestors.