Fact, Fiction, and the FBI: Why You Need to Rethink What You “Know” about J. Edgar Hoover
by James A. Gagliano
It was just a week after Christmas in 2013. I had abruptly departed my post in México City as the FBI’s Acting Legal Attaché and was on a 90-day Temporary Duty (TDY) assignment with the Atlanta FBI Division. I had recently lost my mother to an unexpected stroke. The executives at FBI headquarters were gracious enough to grant me the time to spend with my elderly and grief-stricken father who continues to reside in the home I grew up in in the Atlanta suburbs of Decatur, Georgia. Stepping out of the Senior Executive Service (SES) position and the insanely frenetic operational pace in México, I was relieved to be attached to a Criminal Division gang squad in Atlanta. Violent street gangs were an entity I was immensely versed in, having led a tremendously successful Federal Safe Streets Task Force in upstate New York from 2008 until 2012. The squad I was now supporting had an active case against Atlanta’s Gangster Disciples. My assignment was to cover daily 6AM-2PM wire shifts on a Title-III (wire tap) into one of their main targets. With what I was dealing with in the wake of my mother’s passing, it was a perfect assignment close to home with set hours and zero complications.
The FBI special agents and local Atlanta area police officers assigned to the squad were now all crowded into a conference room in Suite 400 of the nondescript office building that houses FBI Atlanta space. Two of the Assistant United States Attorneys (AUSAs) from the Department of Justice (DOJ) assigned to the Gangster Disciple case were positioned at the front of the conference room waiting to begin their spiels. Prior to the commencement of a telephone monitoring case, the AUSAs had to “read in” all the monitors to ensure compliance with the strict Attorney General guidelines related to overhears. We were awaiting some stragglers and I settled into my chair and leaned back. From somewhere right behind me I heard a shrill female voice…
“Ewww…They should take that stupid picture down. That guy was a total piece-of-shit.”
Her voice trailed off as I took in the framed photograph she made reference to at the front of the conference room.
It was the iconic photo of the first FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, perched atop his mirror top desk, his regal image reflected in perfect symmetry beneath him. His piercing stare an impossible to ignore clarion call to duty for untold generations of American G-men.
I glanced back again at the young, African-American female special agent and listened further as she advised another young female agent and an equally youthful in appearance Asian-American male agent she was seated between:
“I am disgusted that they have his portrait up there and I have to face it. They should take it down. It’s 2014, for God’s sake.”
When her male colleague weakly added that Hoover was the founder of the FBI and posed the question that shouldn’t that alone make the photo’s emplacement appropriate, the aggrieved agent snapped:
“Look, far as Hoover was concerned, the three of us would never have been agents. They should take it down. POS!”
At just that moment, one of the AUSAs introduced herself and in a monotone voice, began the laborious process of reciting the rules and guidelines related to our monitoring efforts targeting the Gangster Disciples.
It was several weeks later when my path next crossed with the female agent who had been so disgusted with the classic J. Edgar Hoover framed photo in the conference room.
She was seated at a monitoring station, fiddling with the controls and attempting to log-in. She turned to me with a quizzical expression on her face, her headphones wrapped around her neck, and requested assistance with the confounding digital equipment.
I gave her some quick guidance and she thanked me. I then introduced myself, explaining my TDY assignment and the Latin America post I had left to be closer to home.
She immediately responded with: “Wow! A Legat (FBI shorthand for Legal Attaché) sitting a wire shift with a probationary agent. Now THAT’s pretty funny.”
I smiled and asked her how long she had been in the bureau.
“Just under a year,” came the response.
“Look,” I softly began, “I couldn’t help but overhear your purposely loud derogatory comments about Director Hoover in the conference room when we were being read into the Title-III last week. I understand that folks can have some very honest and legitimate criticisms of our first director, but I felt that your critique of him was unfair and your comments were ill-timed and inappropriate, in light of the fact that we had task force officers and DOJ attorneys in attendance, as well.”
She looked up at me, stunned, her mouth agape.
I continued: “I have some twenty-three years in the FBI. I understand that our agency and its founder have a complicated and imperfect history. But, I could quite easily challenge you on your understanding and command of the facts. The good done by the FBI in its 106-year history FAR exceeds the bad. And, if you truly want to judge the consciences and morality of figures who existed in a much different world than the one we exist in today, well, Hell, you’re really not interested in fairness or truth, are you?
She began to stammer, “Sir, I meant no disrespect…”
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