Stay informed: Sign up for eNews Subscribe

There’s Something Happening Here The New Left, the Klan, and FBI Counterintelligence

Read Chapter 1

Chapter One

Counterintelligence Activities and the FBI

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the U.S. Department of Justice—the parent agency of what would later become the Federal Bureau of Investigation—was perhaps best known for its inability to effectively undertake any investigations at all. In a popular anecdote from those early days (the department had been created in 1870), a wealthy family requested that the attorney general track down their kidnapped daughter, only to be met with the reply that he would be happy to help if the family might supply "the names of the parties holding your daughter in bondage, the particular place, and the names of witnesses by whom the facts can be proved."1 Such ineffectiveness had reached new heights by 1908: during the first two decades of its existence, the Justice Department farmed out its investigative work, with considerable success, to U.S. marshals employing locally recruited posses and private detective agencies.2 In 1892, however, such practices were outlawed as a conflict of interest, and with the option of using this skilled outside help removed, a patchwork of agents from various government agencies—including the Customs Bureau, Department of the Interior, and Secret Service—were employed to investigate a wide range of crimes.

In the absence of easily obtainable evidence, this system led to the department's do-it-yourself investigative reputation, and its obvious ineffectiveness prompted Attorney General Charles J. Bonaparte (whose great uncle, incidentally, was Napoleon) to ask Congress in 1908 to authorize the establishment of "a small carefully selected and experienced force" to head investigations within the Justice Department.3 Congress's reply was curious: it was unresponsive to Bonaparte's request and instead passed an amendment prohibiting the Justice Department from doing what, to that point, had been commonplace—using Secret Service personnel for the bulk of its investigative work. (The curiousness of this policy was likely related to the indictment of two Oregon congressmen in a land fraud case cracked by Secret Service agents.4) Denied a skilled workforce but undaunted by Congress's refusal to formally authorize an investigative department, Bonaparte went ahead and hired thirty-four former Secret Service and Treasury agents to serve as special agents working on investigative matters within the Department of Justice.5 He was able to somewhat ease Congress's concern that a federal investigative body was prone to abuse its power by recommending that these agents deal exclusively with violations of antitrust and interstate commerce laws—thus placing the investigation of political beliefs and affiliations beyond their purview—and that they report directly to the attorney general.6 Reassured by these constraints, the House Appropriations Committee recommended that this federal investigative body be funded, allowing George W. Wickersham (newly elected president William Howard Taft's attorney general) to officially establish the unit as the Bureau of Investigation on March 16, 1909.

While the newly formed Bureau's "most significant work" at first involved fraudulent bankruptcies, impersonation of government officials, offenses against government property, and the like,7 it wasn't long before Bonaparte's self-imposed restrictions were being tested. In 1910 Congress passed the Mann Act (commonly known as the White Slave Traffic Act), which outlawed interstate transportation of women "for the purpose of prostitution and concubinage."8 As the act required the investigation of "every prostitute in every public house of ill fame," Bureau agents were soon busy doing so and in the process inevitably acquiring personal intelligence about the prostitutes' clients, many of whom were prominent individuals.9 Along with this expansion of agents' duties, the sheer scope of such an investigative task also required that the Bureau assign certain agents outside Washington, DC, and its first field office was established in Baltimore in 1911. By mid-century, fifty-seven other field offices would open throughout the nation, enabling the greatly expanded FBI to wield influence in most major metropolitan areas.

Meanwhile, in 1917 the United States entered World War I, spurring the growing public concern with alien subversive forces and providing the impetus for a new, Bureau-led campaign to track down those suspected of failing to register for the draft. Enlisting the help of the American Protective League (APL), a volunteer organization of "loyal citizens" devoted to assisting with wartime work—the Bureau initiated a series of "slacker raids" to round up the young draft dodgers. APL membership quickly grew to 250,000 with chapters across the country, and—wearing badges proclaiming themselves an "Auxiliary to the U.S. Department of Justice"—members worked with police and Bureau agents in a series of raids in May 1918 to track down anyone not possessing a draft card. Fewer than 1 percent of the thousands arrested were actually in violation of the draft; many were too old, young, or sick to serve, and many others were registered but happened not to have their draft cards with them at the time. But this didn't dissuade Bureau agents from repeating the raids four months later, with similar egregious results.10

Despite such inefficiency and the questionable effect on constitutional rights, the raid soon became the Bureau's tactic of choice to round up huge numbers of suspects in a short period of time. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution spawned a fear of "Reds" that quickly led to widespread paranoia, shared by members of Congress as well as the general public, that subversive Communists were in our midst.11 In 1918 Congress passed the Alien Act, designed to "exclude and expel" what members referred to as the "anarchistic classes," which included anyone who advocated the overthrow of the government or the unlawful destruction of property. As the act's definition of what actually made one an offender was vague, anyone who so much as dared to speak out against the government or the war effort was at risk of arrest and expulsion. The repressive potential of the Alien Act was realized in 1919, precipitated by a series of bombs exploding in various locations across the country, including the front of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's Washington-area home. The bombings were quickly attributed to anarchist organizations (conveniently, anarchist pamphlets were scattered ab