In recent decades, most Americans have come to think of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as a politically neutral agency. That’s in large part due to reforms that were made following revelations that its first director, J. Edgar Hoover, had used the agency to carry out surveillance of civil rights groups and leftist organizations. Hoover had also arranged for the FBI to leak information to Thomas E. Dewey, in a failed attempt to tip the 1948 presidential election in the Republican candidate’s favor.
The FBI’s more recent neutral image was called into question when FBI Director James Comey waded into the public spotlight at a crucial moment in the 2016 presidential election campaign to announce that the agency had reopened its probe into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Many people accused him of asserting himself into the political process.
Comey returned to the spotlight earlier this week when he appeared before the House Intelligence Committee and announced that the FBI was investigating President Donald Trump’s ties with Russia.
“[Comey] was known to be a Republican when President Obama selected him,” says Rhodri Jeffrey-Jones, the author of The FBI: A History. “I think Obama’s aim here was to return to the situation where the FBI was regarded as being above politics.”
Yet, Jeffrey-Jones says that the FBI, and its precursor organizations have never been above the political fray. He points to President Abraham Lincoln’s creation of the Secret Service, which was later given the task of eliminating the Ku Klux Klan in the 1870s. The Bureau of Investigation was also involved in the Red Scare of 1919-1920, he says.
Hoover took great pains to cultivate the image of a politically neutral FBI in order to retain his own position in the agency following the 1948 election. “He had to do that for his own political survival otherwise he’d become part of the spoils of office process in American politics where there’s a huge turnover of personnel every time a new president comes in,” Jeffrey-Jones says.
“I think [Comey] is going to find it virtually impossible to extricate himself from the charge that he has been a politically partisan director of the FBI,” he says. “He could equally, before the election, have released info [on Trump’s connection to Russia], but he chose not to.”
Written by Molly Smith.