National Geographic Goes Inside the FBI

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Hoover Legacy Sounds Cautionary Note

By the late 1930s, the war on gangsters had earned Hoover and his FBI national acclaim and a reputation for invincibility. But away from the public eye the bureau's leader embarked on a darker mission.

In a fight against what he saw as an insidious fifth-column of communists, Hoover created secret files on many Americans, which were meant to intimidate his enemies and silence his critics. Information was gathered by means legal and illegal, and used by Hoover to blackmail "subversives" he found everywhere from Congress to Hollywood. One such instance involved Martin Luther King, Jr., whom Hoover monitored with over 14 secret microphones. King was blackmailed with the FBI's knowledge of his extramarital affairs. Those dark days left a legacy that has many concerned as the fight against terror intensifies.

"The ability of the FBI to learn more about you than you probably even know about yourself can be very, very frightening," Senator Patrick Leahy, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, told National Geographic Television. "And I think the American public wants to know they're going after criminals, [that] they're not prying into people for the sake of prying into people. Give tools to the FBI, I'm all for that, but don't give unlimited and unchecked power to the FBI, because they'll make mistakes. And that's what we have to do here to make sure they don't go back to the kind of outrageous procedures we saw during J. Edgar Hoover's time."

Protecting both Americans' safety and their civil rights is just one of the many juggling acts in which FBI agents must engage. Perhaps the most challenging, day to day, is the balance between resources and responsibilities. The bureau must carry on the fight against terror, and enforce some 200 federal laws, with only 11,500 special agents. New York City, by comparison, employs some 40,000 police officers.

Kessler suggests that increasing the size of the bureau should be a top priority, but is enthusiastic about the job the existing agents are able to do. He considers them the bureau's greatest resources. "The agents are really first rate," he said. "They're dedicated, they're smart, and they are very determined. They do a great job."

That job is a tough one that requires sacrifice, but Mueller explains that it holds a unique satisfaction. "With that sacrifice agents understand that they are blessed by knowing that when they go to work everyday, they go to work to protect the people of the United States," he said.

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