Does Hoover's Name Belong on FBI Building?

On Halloween night, crusty conservative Judge Laurence H. Silberman had a scary tale to tell fellow right-wingers gathered for dinner at Washington’s University Club. He told in more detail than ever before how J. Edgar Hoover as FBI director "allowed — even offered — the Bureau to be used by presidents for nakedly political purposes." He called for the director’s name to be removed from the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover Building in downtown Washington.

"In my view," Silberman said, "it is as if the Defense Department were named for Aaron Burr. Liberals and conservatives should unite to support legislation to accomplish this repudiation of a very sad chapter in American history." That concluded his speech, but it was not followed by overwhelming applause. Nor was there volunteered support for his mission.

Silberman’s plea was not exactly what his listeners expected from him as featured speaker for the Pumpkin Papers Irregulars, who dine each year to celebrate Whittaker Chambers hiding in his farm’s pumpkins classified documents conveyed by Alger Hiss to his Soviet spymasters. The 70-year-old Silberman is a judge in senior status on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, capping a career in high government office dating back 37 years.

His most recent public service was as co-chairman of the bipartisan presidential commission on intelligence failures. Its recommendations, implemented by President Bush, included a separate national security service within the FBI. The Bureau’s initial opposition that it would undermine the attorney general’s authority over the FBI "amused" Silberman, considering his experience as deputy attorney general in the Nixon and Ford administrations.

Instructed by the House Judiciary Committee in 1974 to report on secret files kept by Hoover (who died in 1972), Silberman told the Irregulars: "It was the single worst experience of my long governmental service." He said Hoover ordered special agents to report "privately to him any bits of dirt on political figures such as Martin Luther King and their families." Silberman said Hoover used this as "subtle blackmail to ensure his and the Bureau’s power," adding: "I intend to take to my grave nasty bits of information on various political figures — some still active."

Even worse than "dirt collection," Silberman continued, was Hoover’s offering of Bureau files to presidents. He exempted only Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower from this use of FBI files, but said, "Lyndon Johnson was the most demanding."

When President Johnson’s aide Walter Jenkins was arrested for homosexual conduct in a men’s room during the 1964 campaign, Silberman said, LBJ aide Bill Moyers directed Hoover to find similar conduct on Barry Goldwater’s staff. "Moyers’ memo to the FBI was in one of the files," he continued. An "outraged" Moyers telephoned Silberman, he said, to assert that the memo was "phony." "Taken aback," said Silberman, he offered an investigation to publicly exonerate Moyers. "There was a pause on the line, and then he [Moyers] said, ‘I was very young. How will I explain this to my children?’" "Silberman’s account of our conversation is at odds with mine," Moyers told me when I asked for comment.

During the 1968 campaign, Silberman said Johnson ordered FBI surveillance on Republican vice presidential candidate Spiro Agnew, not about the bribery that eventually drove him out of office but to check whether he was in contact with South Vietnam’s government. He said LBJ also used the FBI to spy on Democrats, including his aide Richard Goodwin, whom he inherited from President John F. Kennedy but suspected was too close to Robert F. Kennedy.

"I think it would be appropriate to introduce all new [FBI] recruits to the nature of the secret and confidential files of J. Edgar Hoover," Silberman concluded. "And in that connection this country — and the Bureau — would be well served if Hoover’s name was removed from the Bureau’s building."

After polite applause, a conservative gentleman sitting at my table said he thought Hoover on balance was a force for good in America. I disagreed, contending he was a rogue and a law-breaker (though I may be prejudiced by his plans to tap my telephone that were undone by my FBI sources). Nearly a month now has passed without any conservative publicly rising to agree with Larry Silberman that J. Edgar’s memory should not be honored.