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'Newseum' Highlights Mysteries of J. Edgar Hoover

Ronald Kessler By Wednesday, 02 July 2008 08:25 AM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

Security concerns after 9/11 shut down the FBI tour, which was a popular destination for school groups and out-of-town visitors. The highlight was a deadeye shooting demonstration by a real live agent.

Now the Newseum, two blocks away in its new digs on Pennsylvania Avenue, has revived and updated the essence of the old tour with its new exhibit “G-Men and Journalists: Top News Stories of the FBI's First Century.” And while there’s no bang-bang, shoot ‘em up, the thrills and chills are of a subtler nature.

On display in the 250,000-square-foot museum are the Unabomber’s cabin, John Dillinger’s death mask, and the electric chair in which convicted Lindbergh baby kidnapper Bruno Hauptmann was executed.

But because the mysteries surrounding former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover are endlessly fascinating, the exhibit’s Hoover artifacts may prove to be the biggest draw. Among them are the desk, chair, telephone, and office accessories that Hoover used; a Hoover memo urging wiretapping of the telephone of New York Times reporter William Beecher; and a Ten Most Wanted poster that resulted from Hoover’s Most Wanted Fugitives Program.

Father of Modern FBI

The father of the modern FBI, Hoover was a Jekyl and Hyde figure. On the one hand, he brilliantly conceived what has become the most admired law enforcement organization in the world. Hoover created the field offices that respond to orders from headquarters.

He gave agents broad training so they could be shifted, as needed, from espionage to kidnapping investigations or from Mafia to terrorism investigations.

When forensics was in its infancy, he created the FBI laboratory. When police brutality was common, he insisted that FBI agents treat suspects with dignity.

Long before the Supreme Court's 1966 decision in Miranda v. Arizona, Hoover required FBI agents to warn suspects of their rights when they were arrested. Reports had to be written honestly and without typos.

Before computers, he created a filing and indexing system that effectively kept track of massive amounts of information.

Hoover understood the importance of the press. It could enhance the power of the FBI by creating a glowing image of its agents as supermen. If people believed in the bureau, they were more likely to cooperate with agents and trust them.

There was no better example of Hoover’s PR savvy than his creation on March 14, 1950 of a Ten Most Wanted list. An International News Service reporter asked Hoover to name the “10 toughest guys you would like to capture.” From that question — memorialized in a 1949 Washington Daily News story on display in the FBI exhibit — evolved a program that has led to the capture of 150 fugitives based on tips from the public.

But during his nearly 50-year career as FBI director, Hoover also presided over massive abuses. As detailed in my book “The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI,” Hoover ordered illegal wiretapping of domestic targets, blackmailed presidents and members of Congress to keep his budget and his job, spied on political opponents for presidents, and illegally used the FBI to maintain and refurbish his home.

[Editor's Note: Get Ron Kessler's book. Go here now.]

Hoover outrageously violated the rights of Martin Luther King Jr. FBI memos show that Hoover knew that Joseph Salvati was in prison for a murder in Boston he did not commit and did nothing about it.

Hoover had massive blind spots. It took the well-publicized 1957 meeting of Mafia leaders at Appalachin, N.Y. for him to finally go after the Mafia. He also refused to investigate political corruption.

Because he confused political dissidents with spying, Hoover did a poor job of uncovering real spies and violated Americans’ rights in the bargain.

As Hoover grew older, his leadership style became more rigid. When Howard D. Teten began teaching police officers who attended the FBI National Academy the rudiments of what became known as criminal profiling, Teten and his supervisors were afraid that Hoover would veto the innovative idea. They never told him what they were doing.

As Hoover aged, he imposed even more of his quirks on the bureau. Hoover outlawed drinking coffee on the job. Apparently, drinking coffee conflicted with the image of hard-working supermen who never took a break. As a result, agents took more time off from work in search of a coffee shop.

When it came to keeping his position as director, Hoover wanted to be in complete control. The secret to his power was the FBI files, which contained embarrassing tidbits on everyone from Marilyn Monroe to John F. Kennedy.

“The moment [Hoover] would get something on a senator,” said William Sullivan, who became the No. 3 official in the FBI, “he’d send one of the errand boys up and advise the senator that ‘we’re in the course of an investigation, and we by chance happened to come up with this data on your daughter. But we wanted you to know this. We realize you’d want to know it.’ Well, Jesus, what does that tell the senator? From that time on, the senator’s right in his pocket.”

Lawrence J. Heim, who was in the FBI’s Crime Records Division, confirmed to me that the bureau sent agents to tell members of Congress that Hoover had picked up derogatory information on them.

“He [Hoover] would send someone over on a very confidential basis,” Heim said. As an example, if the Metropolitan Police in Washington had picked up evidence of homosexuality, “He [Hoover] would have him say, ‘This activity is known by the Metropolitan Police department and some of our informants, and it is in your best interests to know this.’ But nobody has ever claimed to have been blackmailed. You can deduce what you want from that.”

Unsavory Tactics

Of course, the reason no one publicly claimed to have been blackmailed is that, by definition, blackmail entails collecting embarrassing information that people do not want public.

One exception to the code of silence is Roy L. Elson, the administrative assistant to Sen. Carl T. Hayden. For 20 years, Hayden headed the Senate Rules and Administration Committee and later the Senate Appropriations Committee, which had jurisdiction over the FBI’s budget.

Elson will never forget an encounter he had with one of the FBI’s top officials. As the bureau’s liaison with Congress, the official routinely came to meet with Elson in his office next to Hayden’s. In the early 1960s, the FBI wanted an additional appropriation for a new FBI building, which Congress approved in April 1962. Elson had reservations about the request, but the FBI official was persistent.

The FBI official “hinted” that he had “information that was unflattering and detrimental to my marital situation and that the senator might be disturbed,” said Elson, who was then married to his second wife. “I was certainly vulnerable that way,” Elson said. “There was more than one girl [he was seeing] . . . The implication was there was information about my sex life. There was no doubt in my mind what he was talking about.”

Elson said to him: “Let’s talk to him [the senator] about it. I think he's heard about everything there is to hear about me. Bring the photos if you have them.” At that point, Elson recalled, “He started backing off . . . He said, ‘I’m only joking.’ Bulls***,” Elson said. “I interpreted it as attempted blackmail.”

While Hoover engaged in such misuse of the FBI’s power until he died in office in 1972, two claims about him are not true: that he was a cross-dresser who wore a red dress to a Mafia party at the Plaza Hotel in New York and that his deputy, Clyde Tolson, was his lover.

The red dress claim was made by a woman who had been convicted of perjury and was quoted in Anthony Summers’ “Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover,” published in 1993. Summers claimed that Hoover did not pursue organized crime because the Mafia had that sort of blackmail material on him.

Oliver “Buck” Revell, a former associate director of the FBI, notes that if the Mafia had had anything on Hoover, the FBI would have picked it up in wiretaps mounted against organized crime after the Appalachin meeting. There was never a hint of such a claim or even rumors along those lines, Revell said.

Hoover was more familiar to Americans than most presidents. The director of the FBI simply could not have engaged in such activity at the Plaza, with a number of witnesses present, without having it leak out.

While no one except Hoover and Tolson knew for sure the nature of their relationship, extensive evidence points to its simply being an unusually close friendship. If Hoover was gay, he likely suppressed his orientation.

Beginning in the 1950s, the FBI regularly assigned agents from the Washington Field Office to discreetly follow Hoover and Tolson as a security precaution.

R. Jean Gray, one of the agents assigned to what was called HOOWATCH, told me the surveillance consisted of agents in two Bu-cars, as they were called, who would follow Hoover and Tolson as they left the Justice Department at the end of the day. While the two knew that agents watched over them, they usually did not spot them.

“We followed them to Harvey’s or to the Mayflower, where they had dinner,” Gray said. “Then we took them to Tolson’s apartment on Cathedral Avenue, where Tolson got out. Then we went to Hoover’s home. We stayed overnight. The next morning, agents would follow Hoover as he picked up Tolson and went through Rock Creek Park and down Constitution Avenue to the Justice Department,” Gray said.

“We speculated about Edgar and Clyde,” Gray said. “But if anything scandalous had happened with the director, it would have gone coast to coast within the bureau in 30 minutes.”

“When Hoover buzzed Tolson, he jumped like everyone else,” said Joseph D. Purvis, who headed the Washington Field Office from 1964 to 1970. “It would have been impossible for Hoover and Tolson to carry on a gay relationship without agents knowing.”

Pamela Kessler contributed to this article.

Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
e-mail. Go here now.

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Security concerns after 9/11 shut down the FBI tour, which was a popular destination for school groups and out-of-town visitors. The highlight was a deadeye shooting demonstration by a real live agent. Now the Newseum, two blocks away in its new digs on Pennsylvania Avenue,...
Wednesday, 02 July 2008 08:25 AM
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