The FBI Under Political Fire

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

April 19, 1993: It may not be a day that will live in infamy, but it certainly will be one that lingers for some time in modern memory. On that day, Americans watched on television as an inferno engulfed the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, killing David Koresh and 80 or so of his religious followers.

The deadly end to the two-month standoff with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI triggered one congressional probe in 1995, with investigators clearing federal law enforcement of any wrongdoing. Now, after the Aug. 25 disclosure that FBI agents, despite previous denials, indeed launched potentially flammable tear-gas canisters into the Waco compound, Congress has its political sights set on the FBI once again, not just for its tactics but for its forthrightness.

Although perhaps out of character for the law-and-order Republicans now alleging a cover-up, the anti-FBI sentiment in Congress is not unique. The agency’s aggressive methods have been the rallying cry of civil libertarians for decades. And in the 1970s, in the last years of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the man who for nearly a half-century was the FBI, Congress finally mustered the nerve to question an agency many Americans believed had overstepped its bounds in pursuit of justice.

Birth of the G-men
President Theodore Roosevelt, who created the Bureau of Investigation, the FBI’s predecessor, in 1908, no doubt would be stunned by the controversy now plaguing the agency. Back then, the FBI was a minor agency (a director and 23 agents) in a relatively minor government department (Justice). Its powers extended only to investigating antitrust and interstate-commerce cases, according to Hoover biographers Athan G. Theoharis and John Stuart Cox.

The outburst of Prohibition-driven organized crime in the 1920s, the kidnapping of renowned aviator Charles Lindbergh’s baby in 1932 and the mid-1930s crime spree of John Dillinger all helped trigger calls for greater federal involvement in fighting crime. In 1934, Congress cleared an anti-crime package that greatly increased the reach of the FBI, the new name the agency had been given a year earlier.

As the agency’s power expanded, so did Hoover’s, who joined the FBI in 1919 — he was named to lead an investigation of communist infiltration of the United States in the wake of World War I — and became its director Dec. 10, 1924. The standing of both the FBI and its leader increased in the public eye from the 1930s into the 1950s.