TO: Attorney General John Ashcroft

FROM: Richard Cohen

RE: Attempts to refurbish the FBI's image

I have just finished reading your speech to the FBI about how some recent mistakes have caused the public to lose trust in the bureau. As much as it hurts me to say so, sir, I have to agree. The arrest and conviction for espionage of Robert Hanssen, an actual FBI agent, coupled with the misplacement of files in the Timothy McVeigh case and that mess in Waco have, truly, given your agency a bit of a black eye. It is, therefore, with appropriate humility that I revive a suggestion I first made in 1977, which would, perforce, improve the FBI's image in a flash:

Take J. Edgar Hoover's name off the headquarters building.

For a minimal cost (some sandblasting) you would be sending a message that you are a new-broom sort of guy. You would be saying to every tourist on Pennsylvania Avenue that the FBI is no longer the sort of police agency that violates civil liberties, harasses civil rights leaders, plays footsie with organized crime, looks the other way at racist violence and blackmails public officials. You will note, sir, that I have said nothing about reports that Hoover occasionally wore a dress -- a black, fluffy number, according to a biography of the former FBI director.

I often wonder when I pass the building just what it is we are honoring. Hoover is the same guy -- is he not? -- who authorized the bugging of Martin Luther King Jr.'s hotel room (at the Willard) and the tapping of his telephone. The fruits of this illegal invasion of privacy were employed by Hoover in a blatant attempt to drive King out of public life or, better yet, to force him to kill himself.

"This will destroy the burrhead," Hoover said.

King knew precisely what was happening. "They are out to get me," he said of Hoover's FBI. "They are out to get me, harass me, break my spirit." It did not work, of course, but Hoover did his level best to kill King's spirit even before James Earl Ray got to him with a bullet. It is about as ugly a chapter in American history as you can imagine.

But there is more on Hoover. He used the vast files of the FBI to, essentially, blackmail politicians. Robert F. Kennedy, Hoover's nominal boss as attorney general, took the hint when Hoover sent him information about members of the Kennedy family.

"He's sending me stuff on my family and my friends and even me, too, just so I'll know they are into this information," RFK once said.

Hoover didn't care in the least about civil liberties. He cared even less about civil rights. The Mafia didn't bother him, and for a long time he insisted it didn't even exist. Maybe he actually believed that. Maybe the mob had something on him. It doesn't matter anymore. All that really matters is that he was wrong -- inexplicably, unforgivably wrong.

Now, sir, I have to confess to some feelings of hesitancy about writing this memo. It's not that I have changed my mind about Hoover, it's rather that his name on the FBI building serves an ironic purpose: It reminds us all to be wary of police power. It reminds us to stay ever vigilant toward people who carry guns and wear badges. When the FBI goes bad, it's hard to think of whom to call. Certainly not the FBI.

There is something to be said for consistency. All over Eastern Europe, the old police and torture agencies have new names. This is true in Russia itself, where the KGB is no more. Its name has been changed, but maybe not much else. It's the same with various Communist parties. They now have new names, but maybe not a new way of thinking.

Sir, an incorrigible candor compels me to confess that this crusade of mine gets nowhere. Congress always fails to act. Maybe this is because it's too busy naming everything after Ronald Reagan, or maybe in these days of family values and total nuttiness about sex, the officially asexual Hoover is held in higher regard than the rambunctiously sexual King. I don't know.

But I do know, sir, that if you really want to send a message to the FBI and, incidentally, improve your miserable standing in the black community, you might consider recommending that the FBI building change its name.

Martin Luther King Jr. has a nice ring to it, don't you think?