EVER SINCE FBI Director James Comey staggered into the spotlight during last year's presidential campaign, critics have been comparing him to the most infamous man ever to hold Comey's job. "I think this is sort of a flashback to the days of J. Edgar Hoover," the journalist turned academic Sanford Ungar told The New York Times last October. "I don't mean to smear Comey, and it may be an unfair comparison. But Hoover would weigh in on issues without warning or expectation."
Comey's comments about the Hillary Clinton email investigation do highlight how a law enforcement agency can improperly influence public opinion. But there are some pretty big differences between his behavior and that of his predecessor. For one thing, his actions last year were public, a fact that triggered a national debate over their propriety and eventually led the Justice Department's inspector general to launch an investigation of how his agency handled its probe of Hillary Clinton's emails. For another, that probe was a legitimate criminal investigation.
Hoover's FBI, by contrast, secretly monitored the non-criminal personal and political conduct of U.S. citizens. Among them: first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy, Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and syndicated columnist Joseph Alsop. Hoover even ordered his agents to conduct a content analysis of Walt Kelly's comic strip Pogo to ascertain whether one of the strip's animal characters, based on the FBI director, portrayed him in a positive or derogatory light.
The information acquired in these surveillance expeditions was maintained in closed FBI files, and much of it was used to advance Hoover's political agenda through leaks to favored reporters, governors, members of Congress, and the White House--on the strict condition that the recipient not disclose the FBI's assistance.
The scope of Hoover's abuses did not become widely known until the unprecedented hearings conducted by the socalled Church Committee in 1975-76. It has been advanced since then through a mixture of journalism, scholarship, and Freedom of Information Act requests. Now a new book, edited by Sylvester Johnson of Northwestern University and Steven Weitzman of the University of Pennsylvania, adds another dimension to our understanding by recounting the bureau's long history involving religious activists and institutions.