WASHINGTON – Every year for the past three years, Republican Congressman Dan Burton of Indiana has introduced a bill to strip J. Edgar Hoover’s name from the FBI’s huge headquarters building – an initiative that has been largely ignored.
Now, however, amid headlines about possibly illegal government surveillance of Americans inside the United States, the effort to rename the Hoover building is starting to attract more supporters, most recently U.S. Circuit Judge Laurence H. Silberman, who was a leader of the presidentially appointed commission on pre-Iraq war intelligence.
“This country – and the bureau – would be well-served if his name were removed from the bureau’s building,” Silberman, a Reagan appointee, told the First Circuit Judicial Conference last June. “It is as if the Defense Department were named for Aaron Burr.”
Across Washington, D.C., the names of major figures adorn scores of government buildings and federal headquarters, but few have experienced the reputation erosion that has befallen Hoover since he left the national stage.
Once widely admired for founding the modern-day FBI on principles of strict probity, Hoover later became identified with invasive eavesdropping and Bureau efforts to discredit the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. at the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s.
Hoover has also been accused of using explosive gossip collected by his agents to intimidate powerful political leaders, including presidents.
“Symbolism matters in the United States, and it is wrong to honor a man who frequently manipulated the law to achieve his personal goals,” Burton said after his Government Reform Committee held hearings in 2002 on FBI abuses.
A longtime Republican, Burton was outraged by the case of Joseph Salvati, who served 30 years in prison for a 1968 contract murder in Boston that later evidence suggested was committed by an FBI informant.
“There is no reason we should honor a man who threw everything out the window, including the lives of innocent men, in order to get what he wanted,” Burton said.
The renewal of conservative outrage about Hoover – columnist Robert Novak recently urged that his name be dropped, calling the FBI’s first director “a rogue and a lawbreaker” – is finding unusual partnership with liberals who blame Hoover for wiretapping King and quashing the FBI investigation of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four young black girls.
Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., who is working for release of King’s intelligence files, has introduced legislation to name the FBI building for Frank Church, the late Idaho senator whose Senate Select Committee on Intelligence held scorching hearings on U.S. intelligence gathering and FBI abuses under Hoover.
The last time the issue came to Congress was in 1998, when senators were debating a bill to name Washington National Airport for former President Reagan. Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada – now majority leader – offered an amendment to strip Hoover’s name from the FBI Building.
“J. Edgar Hoover stands for what is bad about this country,” Reid said. “This small man violated the rights of hundreds, if not thousands, of people, famous and not so famous.”
The Senate voted 62-36 against removing Hoover’s name.
Silberman said Friday that two senators are considering offering the proposal again.
“People are shocked that the FBI was so heavily engaged in espionage,” he said. “Liberals and conservatives should unite on this.”
It is not clear whether they will.
For one thing, the Society for Former Special Agents of the FBI has been vigilant in arguing to keep the name of the man who reigned over the FBI from 1924 until his death in 1972.
For another, many still credit Hoover with turning a backwater unit into a professional investigative agency with up-to-date technology and crime-fighting skills.