J Edgar Hoover was, by most accounts, not a pleasant man. Rabidly anti-homosexual, despite probably being gay himself, he was also paranoid, controlling, vindictively racist and violently opposed to anything or anyone he perceived to be radical, subversive, on the left, a bit odd or in any other way failing to live by the narrow set of values that he believed should define America.
Puffed up by early successes against organised crime, most famously the killing of notorious gangster John Dillinger in the 1930s, Hoover began consolidating his position by building secret files on anyone he perceived to be a threat – to his position as well as to the country. Perhaps he saw them as being one and the same.
Anyone that caused a blip on Hoover’s twisted and paranoid moral radar was liable to be placed under surveillance.
This included civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr, celebrities like John Lennon and Marilyn Monroe, scientist Albert Einstein and of course politicians.
The presence of these secret files was no doubt crucial to Hoover’s remarkable longevity – he held on to his leadership of the FBI for a record-breaking 48 years, despite making many enemies and seeing off eight presidents in his time. Indeed, so reluctant were politicians to confront Hoover that his secrets remained intact until after his death.
J. Edgar (left) and friends enjoy a well-earned break after a hard day’s persecution
WH “Boss” Hoover was not related to J Edgar Hoover, but his most famous dirt-sucking product, the eponymous vacuum cleaner, has been frequently invoked as the current surveillance scandal rolls on.
The chummy interrogation of the UK’s intelligence chiefs last week by a committee of MPs, and the government’s attempts to turn the big guns on the messengers such as Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian, suggests that they, the spy chiefs and their operations, have little to fear from their supposed parliamentary masters.
Whether or not the spooks have been doing a “J Edgar” on UK politicians we will probably never know. We certainly know that similar things have been done in the past, as former PM Harold Wilson could testify were he still around. We also know that the unelected branch of government has the method and very possibly the motive to do it again should it see fit.
And of course we now know that they have been Hoovering up stuff about all of us in a way that makes J Edgar’s preferred modus operandi – burglary, forgery and fitting up – seem laughably amateurish.
This is automated, indescriminate Hoovering on a colossal scale. It’s silent Hoovering, digital Hoovering and, until recently, top-secret Hoovering.
Forced to justify their snooping on all of us, the spymasters and politicians rummage around in the giant Hoover bag and pull out their own Dillingers: a foiled bomb plot here, a jihadist cell disrupted there. “Look!” they say. “It’s for your own good.” Maybe so, maybe not; we only have their word for it. We were never asked about the correct balance between surveillance and security, and only since the cat’s been out of the bag have they been keen on having any sort of public debate. What potential dirt they have sucked up about the rest of us, for how long it is stored and how it is processed remains under wraps.
“I never comment on matters of intelligence,” smirks William Hague before deflecting the question.
By 1960, the FBI had files on some 432,000 Americans, many of whom found themselves smeared, harassed, black-listed or even deported.
Hoover also had close ties with Texan oil barons, benefiting from their largesse while turning a blind eye to their dubious business dealings.
The Mafia, meanwhile, managed to turn the tables on Hoover having got hold of a compromising photo of him and a male colleague, which gave them free rein to indulge their taste for racketeering over many years.
So, while Hoover’s dragnet might have hauled in a few genuine spies and conspiritors, the vast majority of his victims were simply people he disagreed with or disliked. Meanwhile, despite the horrendous human and monetary cost of this secret surveillance, genuine villains and murderers got away scot free.
The data held on all of us in the giant Hoover bag may, like J Edgar’s secret files, survive many changes of government. Who knows what shade of regime will hold sway in 20 or 30 years’ time, what technology will be at their disposal, and what useful dirt they might find in there.
If you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nothing to fear.