1939 September 2

FBI Memo Launches Custodial Detention Index


World War II had just begun in Europe and national security fears swept the U.S. In response, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover on this day established a Custodial Detention Index of people to be rounded up and detained in case of a U.S. national emergency. The list reflected Hoover’s political prejudices against left-wing and liberal activists and included no due process provisions for people on the secret list. ACLU Director Roger Baldwin, for example, was on list.

On July 16, 1943, Attorney General Francis Biddle ordered Hoover to abolish the secret list. Hoover simply changed its name to Security Index and continued to maintain it. During the Cold War, the McCarran Act, passed on September 22, 1950, included a separate Emergency Detention provision that duplicated Hoover’s secret FBI list, although with some differences.

Hoover’s willful defiance of an order from the attorney general regarding the Custodial Detention list was but one example of his secret and generally illegal assault on civil liberties from 1936 until his death in 1972. Two of the Bureau’s most notorious activities under Hoover were the COINTELPRO program (approved on March 8, 1956), and its effort to “neutralize” Dr. Martin Luther King, which was launched on December 23, 1963.

The full extent of Hoover’s violations of the rights of Americans was not known until the Senate Church Committee (created on January 27, 1975) investigation in 1975–1976 (see below). The COINTELPRO program was exposed when a group of anti-Vietnam War activists burglarized the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, on March 8, 1971, and stole over 1,000 documents, which they released to the press.

Learn more: Curt Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets (1991)

And more: Athan Teheharis, The FBI and American Democracy: A Brief Critical History (2004)

Read the Church Committee report on abuses by the FBIhttp://www.aarclibrary.org/publib/church/reports/book3/contents.htm

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