Friday, July 18, 2008

The FBI's Greatest Failure

HH Note: The FBI celebrates its 100th birthday this month. The FBI has been pulling old stories out of the closet for us all to learn more about them and their past. Yes, even they can make a mistake. We thought you'd enjoy this look at one of them.

Mr. Schiff: Hi, welcome to "FBI 100, A Closer Look." I'm Neal Schiff of the Bureau's Office of Public Affairs along with FBI Historian Dr. John Fox. John, the FBI has a lot of major successes over the years that it has served the American public, but sometimes we make mistakes…

Dr. Fox: "Sure Neal. Any agency that's lasted as long as the FBI and has done as many things as it has, is going to make mistakes. Perhaps our biggest one was our involvement in the Teapot Dome Affair in the mid 1920s."

Mr. Schiff: That was a political scandal, wasn't it, John?

Dr. Fox: "At the time Warren Harding had been our President. He had brought in a number of his political cronies into office. And one of them, Albert Fall, the Secretary of the Interior, was actually involved in a big bribery scandal and the Bureau was investigating it. But the problem was, at the time, the Bureau wasn't what it is today. In many ways, it was more of a political organization. People were appointed because of patronage. And its Director, William Burns, had deep connections to a private business he was running, and often mixed the two."

Mr. Schiff: Now, Warren Harding, though, had died as this was breaking out in the news. What did the new president do?

Dr. Fox: "Mr. Harding, of course, had died of food poisoning as some of this was getting going. And Calvin Coolidge came into office and had to face a political scandal. He asked the Attorney General to resign; he ended up firing William Burns who was Director of the Bureau, and had to appoint someone basically to clean house."

Mr. Schiff: And what impact did that have on the FBI?

Dr. Fox: "It led to, among other things, the appointment of John Edgar Hoover, who then served as Director for 48 years. And Hoover was given very strict marching orders on how to reform the Bureau by Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone who came in to clean house. Hoover immediately began to purge the roles of political appointees. He reinstituted very strict hiring criteria for new agents to ensure that the training of those agents was very strong and basically revamp the entire way that the Bureau did business. It was a series of changes that really set the Bureau on the road to its emergence in the 1930s during the whole gangster era that we've talked about a couple of times. And the FBI's emergence as a professional law enforcement and national security agency."

Mr. Schiff: From the FBI's Public Affairs office, along with Bureau Historian Dr. John Fox, I'm Neal Schiff with "FBI 100, A Closer Look."

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