The man who had files on everyone

Rigging elections, blackmailing JFK and hounding Charlie Chaplin out of America: FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was the man holding all the power.

Peter Iantorno March 30, 2015

The phones are tapped, mail is being intercepted and the FBI is leaving no stone unturned in building a dossier of juicy information tailor-made for blackmail. The sophisticated surveillance operation of one of the world's biggest film stars is underway.

This may sound like something straight from the revelations about the US National Security Agency (NSA) that came out with the Edward Snowden leaks in 2013, but although this operation is similar to the NSA stories, the people involved and methods employed aren't quite what you would expect.

For a start, the phones have been tapped not with clever computer coding, but with an actual wire tap, which has been physically fitted to the phone line in the dead of night. And the mail that's been intercepted? It's not email that's triggered a keywords surveillance system - it's old-fashioned snail mail, which has been caught at the post office, steamed open, read and then closed again, leaving the target non the wiser. And the star the FBI is so suspicious of that it is going to such great lengths to surveil? None other than the great Charlie Chaplin.

Suspecting of Chaplin of being a subversive communist, newly installed director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, had, as one of his first actions as the bureau's chief in 1924, ordered a full-scale surveillance operation on the star.Charlie ChaplinWhile nothing was ever proven and the only charges Chaplin ever faced were to do with a paternity case, which saw him pay child support to an ex-lover, the constant questions over his allegiances and political leanings saw Chaplin all but driven out of America, spending the next 20 years in Switzerland.

This kind of thing wasn't at all unusual for Hoover, who built up a fearsome reputation for ruthlessly perusing his targets, pushing the boundaries of surveillance far beyond what the law actually allowed. Over his almost half a century in charge, Hoover built up a comprehensive dossier of sensitive -and in many cases embarrassing - information about some of the most powerful people in America, which he would not hesitate to use to his advantage should his position be threatened in any way. Forget the president, J. Edgar Hoover was the man holding all the power.

The making of the man 

At 18 years old, Hoover got his first job: an entry-level position as a messenger in the orders department at the Library of Congress. Responsible for keeping tabs on incoming and outgoing orders, and relaying the information on to his superiors, Hoover later claimed that the job had taught him "the value of collating material", and credited it as the inspiration for the way he conducted his business in the years to come.

While working at the library he studied his Masters degree in Law, and after graduating, he was hired by the Justice Department to work in the War Emergency Division. He rose up the ranks rapidly, and by the beginning of the First World War in 1914, he was heading the Division's Alien Enemy Bureau, which then President Woodrow Wilson gave the authority to arrest and jail foreigners who they considered "disloyal", without even a trial. J Edgar Hoover youngHoover took to this work with gusto, and over the following years he monitored - and in some cases arrested and deported - various people who he and the government had identified as being potentially subversive. And this success rewarded, first in 1921 when he was promoted to Deputy Head of the FBI and then in 1924, when he was finally named director.

What then followed until Hoover died almost half a century later, was a masterclass in espionage, tactical positioning and complete and utter domination of not only the FBI, but some of the most powerful people in America. First of all, to stamp his authority on proceedings, Hoover would wield his power to have any agents who opposed, outshone or even displeased him, sent away on dead-end assignments to small-town locations, effectively calling time on their careers.

And his powers stretched far and wide, as he used the long arm of the Bureau to pry into the personal lives of anybody who didn't share his way of thinking. He snooped on JFK's affair with Judith Campbell Exner, the evidence of which he is alleged to have used to blackmail the president into letting him surveil Martin Luther King, who Hoover was convinced had communist connections.

That is just a small sample of Hoover's complex web of surveillance, which also included the distribution of a dossier on Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson’s alleged homosexuality (which saw the senator lose the 1952 election) and the aforementioned unfaltering pursuit of Charlie Chaplin.Judith Campbell ExnerHoover's methods were at best opportunistic and at worst crooked. His personal life was peppered with accusations - from speculation on his sexuality to apparent hidden political agendas of his own. But such was his power and control, his position as Director of the FBI became so secure that he outlasted an incredible seven presidents, with none daring to remove him for fear of the repercussions, despite many wishing they could.

There was only ever going to be one way that J. Edgar Hoover was going to be removed from power, and that was in a coffin, which is exactly what happened when he died due to the effects of heart disease, on May 2, 1972.

At the time of his death Hoover had been at the head of the FBI for 48 years, during which time he'd hounded a cherished comic out of the country, swung a presidential election and blackmailed the president. Just imagine what he'd have done with the kind of firepower at the disposal of today's NSA.