Q&A with historian Beverly Gage about the history of conflicts between FBI directors and the executive branch

Historians in the News
tags: FBI, James Comey

Related Link In Firing Comey, Did Trump Unleash the Next Deep Throat? By Beverly Gage (NYT)

Vann R. Newkirk II: I’ll start with the big question. Is James Comey’s firing by Donald Trump an unprecedented clash between president and FBI?

Beverly Gage: The answer is yes and no. It is unprecedented in its extremeness—no president before this moment has fired an FBI director who was engaged in conducting an ongoing and politically sensitive investigation of his own campaign. On the other hand, this sort of conflict between the FBI and the executive branch is not itself totally anomalous. It's something that we've seen over the course of American history. During J. Edgar Hoover's day, he had repeated conflicts with presidents, and he had a kind of autonomous power that allowed to withstand and sometimes win those conflicts, for better or worse. Since then, most presidents have been cautious about this kind of direct confrontation.

Newkirk: Since the height of Hoover's expanded powers, how have the powers of the office of FBI director changed?

Gage: When Hoover came to office in 1924, the FBI wasn't called the FBI yet, and was really just a tiny investigative agency within the Department of Justice (the Bureau of Investigation). It had a few hundred employees, and wasn't very well known. Hoover was brought in to clean up and professionalize it. He then had the good fortune of being there as the government underwent a massive expansion overall. Starting with the New Deal through World War II, the Cold War years, McCarthyism, and the struggles over civil rights in the 1960s, the FBI expanded enormously under Hoover's reign. But partly because nobody saw that coming, there were very few constraints on Hoover's power. There were no intelligence committees in Congress. No one had the right to access FBI files outside of the FBI itself. There was no Freedom of Information Act, and there were no formal limits on the tenure of the FBI director.

Hoover stayed in office for 48 years, and he actually died in office in 1972. He served under eight presidents. Around the 1960s, when people began to question the wisdom of unlimited tenure, Congress passed new laws that limited the time the FBI director could serve to a maximum of 10 years (Director Robert Mueller had his term extended to 12 years in 2011, citing extraordinary security concerns). In the 1970s, we had the development of congressional committees and other forms of accountability that have really constrained—mostly for the better—the power of the FBI director. ...

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