For 41 years J. Edgar Hoover’s name has graced the entrance of the FBI’s headquarters, the hulking building on Pennsylvania Avenue he lived three years too short to see completed.
But as the FBI advances plans to move to a larger, more secure campus, there’s no certainly the former director’s name will survive the transition.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, wrote the Obama administration Wednesday, asking that the FBI’s planned future headquarters specifically not be named after Hoover, whose surveillance of American citizens, notably Martin Luther King Jr., is frequently criticized by civil liberties advocates in current debates over intelligence gathering.
In the letter, sent to Denise Turner Roth, head of the General Services Administration, Leahy writes that the former director “routinely violated the law and infringed on the constitutional rights of American citizens by ordering investigations of individuals and groups who were not suspected of any criminal wrongdoing.” Roth is overseeing a proposed real estate swap that would relocate the FBI to Greenbelt, Landover or Springfield.
Among his criticisms, Leahy writes that Hoover’s FBI “illegally compiled thousands of dossiers on nonviolent civil rights groups” and “waged a concerted campaign against gay and lesbian Americans working for the Federal government and against gay and lesbian organizations,” eventually compiling more than 360,000 files.
“Given the systemic abuses carried out under Director Hoover’s leadership, it would be a mistake to associate his name with the new FBI headquarters,” Leahy writes. “If the new building will be named for anyone, the Federal government must consider individuals who represent our values and who have dedicated their public service careers to upholding the rule of law.”
Leahy would like to rework oversight of national security surveillance and it is not the first time he has invoked Hoover’s name as an example of things gone wrong. At an FBI oversight hearing in December, Leahy complimented Director James B. Comey on how he “reminds all of his new agents that the rhetoric of fear led J. Edgar Hoover to target Martin Luther King, Jr., and others during the 1960s.”
Indeed, Comey keeps a copy of Hoover’s wiretap request of King on his desk as a reminder of past missteps.
Hoover’s name was added to the current building by President Nixon, who included in the director’s 1972 eulogy a prediction that the “profound principles associated with his name will not fade away.”
This turned out to be true, but not for the reasons Nixon expected. Leahy is not the first official to suggest Hoover’s name should no longer be so publicly associated with the agency today, as Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) introduced legislation last year that would strip Hoover’s name from the current building before it is even torn down. Civil liberties advocates have drawn comparisons between surveillance activities in Hoover’s day and the FBI’s insistence that it have access to the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters.
The GSA and FBI did not immediately return a request for comment. At a House hearing last fall, Comey opted against weighing in on whether Hoover’s name belonged on the agency’s headquarters.
“Hoover did a lot of good things for law enforcement in the United States, did a lot of things that through the lens of history, we reject as improper…I’m no historian,” Comey said.
Funding for the planned headquarters, meanwhile, has picked up steam. Congress approved $390 million for the project in the 2016 budget and yesterday Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) — who wants the project in Maryland — celebrated the passage of another $646 million from the Senate Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee.
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