1939 September 6

FDR Authorizes FBI to Investigate “Subversive” Activities


President Franklin Roosevelt on this day placed the FBI in charge of all investigative work related to national security, and asked all state and local law enforcement agencies to turn over to the FBI any information they had about possible “espionage, sabotage, and violations of the neutrality laws.” The third paragraph of his statement, however, also contained an additional reference to “subversive activities.” While the other three activities all involved criminal law violations, “subversive activities” is an undefined term and was used by the FBI to cover political beliefs, expression, and associations that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover did not like. This included a broad range of liberal, left-wing, civil rights and civil liberties groups and activities. It is likely that Hoover quietly slipped the reference to subversive activities into the third paragraph in order to give him and the Bureau broader investigative authority.

Previously, on August 24, 1936, President Roosevelt had given Hoover private and informal authority to investigate “subversive” activities. Historians generally agree that for decades to come, Hoover used Roosevelt’s order on this day as official authorization for his investigations of, and spying on, political groups. Hoover perfected a talent for “stretching” presidential directives or understandings to justify a range of activity beyond anything that was imagined.

The violations of civil liberties by the FBI were not fully known until the 1976 Senate Church Committee investigations and reports in 1975-1976 (see below).

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

Read Roosevelt’s statement: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/print.php?pid=15804

Learn more; Read the Senate Church Committee report on FBI abuse:  http://www.aarclibrary.org/publib/contents/church/contents_church_reports_book3.htm

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

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