Hoover’s Secret Files
Complex man that he was, J. Edgar Hoover left nothing to chance. The director shrewdly recognized that building what became known as the world’s greatest law enforcement agency would not necessarily keep him in office. So after Hoover became director, he began to maintain a special Official and Confidential file in his office. The “secret files,” as they became widely known, would guarantee that Hoover would remain director as long as he wished.
Defenders of Hoover— a dwindling number of older former agents who still refer to him as “Mr. Hoover”—have claimed his Official and Confidential files were not used to blackmail members of Congress or presidents. They say Hoover kept the files with sensitive information about political leaders in his suite so that young file clerks would not peruse them and spread gossip. The files were no more secret than any other bureau files, Hoover supporters say.
While the files may well have been kept in Hoover’s office to protect them from curious clerks, it was also true that far more sensitive files containing top-secret information on pending espionage cases were kept in the central files. If Hoover truly was concerned about information getting out, he should have been more worried about the highly classified information in those files.
Moreover, the Official and Confidential files were secret in the sense that Hoover never referred to them publicly, as he did the rest of the bureau’s files. He distinguished them from other bureau files by calling them “confidential,” denoting secrecy. But whether they were secret or not and where they were kept was irrelevant. What was important was how Hoover used the information from those files and from other bureau files.
“The moment [Hoover] would get something on a senator,” said William Sullivan, who became the number three official in the bureau under Hoover, “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 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.”
Of course, the reason no one publicly claimed to have been blackmailed is that blackmail, by definition, entails collecting embarrassing information that people do not want public. But not everyone was intimidated.
Roy L. Elson, the administrative assistant to Senator Carl T. Hayden, will never forget an encounter he had with Cartha "Deke" DeLoach, the FBI’s liaison with Congress. For twenty years, Hayden headed the Senate Rules and Administration Committee and later the Senate Appropriations Committee, which had jurisdiction over the FBI’s budget. He was one of the most powerful members of Congress. As Hayden, an Arizona Democrat, suffered hearing loss and some dementia in his later years, Elson became known as the “101st senator” because he made many of the senator’s decisions for him.
In the early 1960s, DeLoach wanted an additional appropriation for the new FBI headquarters building, which Congress approved in April 1962.
“The senator supported the building,” Elson said. “He always gave the bureau more money than they needed. This was a request for an additional appropriation. I had reservations about it. DeLoach was persistent.”
DeLoach “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 DeLoach: “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 said, “He started backing off. . . . He said, ‘I’m only joking.’ Bullshit,” Elson said. “I interpreted it as attempted blackmail.”
Commenting on Elson’s allegation, DeLoach says, “It never happened.”
Reading the Official and Confidential files that survived makes it clear they could have been gathered for no other purpose than blackmail. For example, on June 13, 1958, the head of the Washington field office informed Hoover that, prior to marrying a member of Congress, the member’s wife had been “having an affair with a Negro [and] also at one time carried on an affair with a House Post Office employee.” More recently, the report said, the congressman’s wife “endeavored to have an affair with [an] Indonesian, who declined.”
In response to this tidbit, Hoover wrote back on June 25 that it was “certainly thoughtful of you to advise me of matters of current interest, and I am glad to have the benefit of this information.”
“This was a way of putting congressmen on notice that we had something on them and therefore they would be more disposed to meeting the bureau’s needs and keeping Hoover in power,” says John J. McDermott, who headed the Washington field office and eventually became deputy associate FBI director.
Hoover let presidents know that he had dirt on them as well. For example, on March 22, 1962, Hoover had lunch with President Kennedy. Hoover told him that through bugs and wiretaps, the FBI had learned that Jack was having an affair with Judith Campbell Exner, a twenty five-year-old divorcée. Hoover informed the president that Exner was also having an affair with Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana. Because Hoover knew such tidbits, no president would fire him.
As President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “I would rather have him [Hoover] inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”
Many of the confidential files were destroyed after Hoover’s death. One such item that never came out previously was a teletype sent to headquarters from William Simon, who headed the Los Angeles field office, just after the August 5, 1962, death of Marilyn Monroe at her Brentwood, California home. According to DeLoach, who saw the teletype, it said that then Attorney General Robert Kennedy had borrowed Simon’s personal car to see Monroe just before her death.
Confirming this, Simon’s son Greg says, “My father said Robert Kennedy would borrow his white Lincoln convertible. That’s why we didn’t have it on many weekends.” Simon’s daughter Stephanie Branon also confirmed that her father lent his car to Kennedy and remembered that the attorney general once left his Ray-Ban sunglasses in the glove compartment.
As attorney general, Kennedy was entitled to be driven by an FBI security detail. The fact that he chose to use Simon’s personal car is consistent with William Simon’s report to headquarters that he lent his car to Kennedy for the purpose of clandestine meetings with Monroe. Whether his last meeting with her, possibly to break up with her, may have contributed to her suicide is legitimate speculation.
While there is ample evidence that Hoover used the information in his files for blackmail, there was usually no need for it. Simply the perception that he had such information was enough to keep politicians in line.
In the end, the answer to why Hoover did not go after organized crime until he was forced into it is the same reason he maintained files on members of Congress. Above all, Hoover wanted to keep his job. Many members of Congress—not to mention powerful local politicians—had ties to organized crime and might try to unseat him if he went after the Mafia. The Mafia was as powerful as the president. Moreover, as a perfectionist, Hoover did not want to risk losing a case against a powerful figure.
For the same reasons, for purposes of prosecution, Hoover would not investigate corrupt politicians. As FBI director, Hoover had an obligation to go after both Mafia figures and corrupt politicians. Yet until he was pressured into investigating organized crime, those two targets were sacrosanct.
On May 1, 1972, Helen Gandy, Hoover’s personal secretary, handed him the first in a series of exposés by ++Jack Anderson++[http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2010/09/15/nixon-white-house-plot-to-kill-journalist-jack-anderson.html], whose column appeared in The Washington Post. Previously, Anderson had enraged Hoover by assigning a reporter to rummage through his trash at home. The resulting column revealed that on Sundays, Hoover ate a hearty breakfast of poached eggs and hotcakes. It also revealed that he brushed his teeth with Ultra Brite, washed with Palmolive, and shaved with Noxzema shaving cream. Now, in his latest column, Anderson revealed that the FBI had conducted surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sex life.
Besides attending sex orgies, King was having an affair with a young woman in his office, says an agent who monitored wiretaps on King’s office and home phones.
“Besides his home, King had an apartment,” the former agent says. “On Tuesdays, he’d go to the apartment, ostensibly to meditate and write sermons.” In fact, King’s girlfriend would meet him there for sex.
For a man whose lifelong mantra had been “Don’t embarrass the bureau,” the continuing stream of unfavorable disclosures had to be unnerving. Yet Hoover rarely revealed his true personal feelings. Sphinx-like, he projected the same persona to his friends and family as he did to the general public. The only difference was that in person, he showed a sense of humor.
Occasionally Hoover cracked a smile or played a prank. James H. Geer, who would later head the Intelligence Division, recalled the time when a nervous new agent went to shake Hoover’s hand after graduating from training, and mistakenly introduced himself as “Mr. Hoover.”
“Very nice to meet you, Mr. Hoover,” the director responded, smiling.
Shortly before six in the afternoon of May 1, 1972, Tom Moton, Hoover’s FBI chauffeur, drove him to Associate Director Clyde Tolson’s apartment, where the two had dinner. Moton drove Hoover home at 10:15 p.m.
By 8:15 the next morning, Annie Fields, Hoover’s housekeeper, became concerned. By then, she should have heard the sound of the shower. Hoover’s toast, soft- boiled eggs, and coffee were getting cold. James Crawford, Hoover’s previous FBI chauffeur, had come over to plant some roses. Checking on him, he found Hoover’s body sprawled on the oriental rug next to his bed. He touched one of his hands; it was cold.
After examining Hoover’s nude body and consulting with his doctor, the District of Columbia medical examiner, Dr. James L. Luke, attributed the director’s death to “hypertensive cardiovascular disease.” As part of the speculation about his love life, a rumor had gone around that Hoover had an underdeveloped sex organ. That was not true, Dr. Luke tells me.
When Hoover’s will was probated, it turned out that Tolson received his estate, estimated at $560,000, including his home. It was the equivalent of $2.9 million today. Gandy received $5,000, Annie Fields $3,000, and James Crawford $2,000. The bequest to Tolson was the final word on the closeness of their relationship.
Hoover preached that even the appearance of impropriety must be avoided. He disciplined agents for losing their handcuffs. Yet after the death of the imperious FBI director, a Justice Department and FBI investigation found that over the years, Hoover had FBI employees build a front portico and a rear deck on his home at 4936 30th Place, NW, in Washington. They installed a fish pond, equipped with water pump and lights, and they constructed shelves and other conveniences for him. They painted his house, maintained his yard, replaced the sod, installed artificial turf, and planted and moved shrubbery. They built a redwood garden fence and installed a flagstone court and sidewalks.
FBI employees also reset Hoover’s clocks, retouched his wallpaper, and prepared his tax returns. Many of the gifts Hoover received from FBI employees, such as cabinets and bars, had been built by them on government time. Hoover also ordered FBI employees to write Masters of Deceit for him under his name. He pocketed part of the proceeds.
When the FBI and Justice Department finally investigated the abuses in the mid- 1970s at the direction of FBI Director Clarence M. Kelley, “a number of these agents had already retired from the bureau, and we were running all over the country interviewing them,” says Richard H. Ash, who headed the FBI task force. “The agent being interviewed would say, ‘Wait a minute.’ And he would go over to his files, pull out a log about all these things they had done, because it was eating at them that they were being used that way.”
“Hoover [and some of his aides] would be prosecuted under today’s standards. No question of it. And should have been,” Buck Revell, formerly the bureau’s associate deputy director over investigations, says. “Hoover for the money he kept from the books he supposedly wrote but didn’t write. Using government funds and resources for personal gain. And use of government employees to maintain his residence. Again, that is fraud against the government. Taking vacations and putting in vouchers for expenses. Agents have been prosecuted for that. Those things that were somewhat taken for granted back then would be prosecuted today.”
“Hoover did a good job for many years,” says John McDermott, the former Washington field office special agent in charge who became deputy associate FBI director. “He went wrong along the way. He became a martinet. In seeking to prevent embarrassment to the bureau, he equated the bureau with himself. Everyone told him how good he was. He came to believe the exorbitant praise he was receiving. Anybody who can be conned by a flatterer has a character weakness.”
Hoover ran the FBI for forty-eight years. Never again would one man so dominate the bureau.
In 1975 and 1976, the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, headed by Senator Frank Church, held hearings on FBI and CIA abuses. These included surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr., illegal wiretapping and mail openings, and surreptitious entries or “black-bag jobs.”
Prior to that, members of Congress took the position they did not want to know what the FBI and CIA were doing. The Church Committee hearings, as they became known, exposed real abuses and a lack of focus that undercut the mission of those agencies. The hearings ultimately improved both agencies and established an effective oversight mechanism.
When creating the FBI on June 29, 1908, as an unnamed investigative bureau of thirty-four special agents within the Justice Department, Congress had been leery of creating a national police force. Because of that, agents initially were not even empowered to carry weapons.
Despite limitations on its power, questions arose very quickly about the extent of the bureau’s authority and methods. Yet whenever a new threat arose, those questions would be set aside, and Congress would entrust the bureau with new powers.
Reproduced with permission from Crown Publishers.