J. Edgar Hoover, The NSA Scandal and the Problem of Secrets

It’s hard to keep up with the scandals that are engulfing the Obama administration.

This week we learned that the National Security Agency (NSA) which is currently building a one million square foot data storage facility in Utah, is also engaged is secretly monitoring the phone records of millions of Americans while retrieving monstrous amounts of data from various social sites.

We are told that the purpose of this espionage is “national security” but legitimate concerns are being raised about the practice which could infringe upon our 4th amendment rights to privacy.

Simply put, the Federal Government has been caught red-handed “spying” on nearly all of us.

That allegation brings to mind the work of America’s original spy master, J. Edgar Hoover, and some vital lessons that we can learn from his life.

I recently read a 750 page biography entitled J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets by Curt Gentry. It’s a detailed and fascinating read on the man who created the modern Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and probably knew more “national secrets” than anyone in history.

Before we analyze the NSA scandal and how it applies to us, let me share some highlights from the life and times of America’s number one spy master.

1. John Edward Hoover, who changed his name to J. Edgar so he wouldn’t be confused with a fraudulent check writer who shared his name, was born on New Year’s Day 1895 and died at the age of 77 in 1972. He served under ten different American presidents including eight as head of the FBI. He ran the American spy division for nearly one quarter of America’s history.

2. Hoover was born in Washington, D.C., only left the country once to visit Mexico, lived with his mother for half of his life, never married, and was buried in Congressional Cemetery only a few blocks from his home. For a spy, he certainly never traveled the world–but stayed close to his roots in the nation’s capital.

3. After overcoming a childhood stutter by deliberately speeding up his speech cadence, Hoover became valedictorian of his high school class, an accomplished high school debater, and marched in the inaugural parade of Woodrow Wilson as a member of the Central High School Cadet Regiment. He nearly became a minister, but changed to law and government service because of a “lifelong conviction that he had been ordained to distinguish right from wrong.”

4. In 1916, he went to work at the Library of Congress where he meticulously learned the merits of the Dewey Decimal System which he would later adapt and apply to the voluminous record-keeping of the FBI. He had an “eye for detail, the ability to dominate conversations and in the process almost always manage to get his own way.” Hoover set “impossibly high standards for himself and achieved them.”

5. Many believe Hoover was a closet homosexual who had a lifelong friendship with his second in command, Clyde Tolson. As bachelors, they ate many meals together, took vacations to Florida and California in each other’s company, and often enjoyed the local race track on weekends. Personally, I  doubt the homosexual theory. Hoover was a very principled, religious Presbyterian who seemed to detest all aspects of sexual sin including homosexuality while keeping files on many American leaders who didn’t practice what they preached.

6. One of those leaders, whose FBI file contained hundreds of pages, was John F. Kennedy. He became a target of FBI surveillance in 1942 when he became involved, as a Navy ensign with Inga Arvad, 28-year old former Miss Denmark, Miss Europe, and a married woman. Inga’s real claim to fame was meeting Adolph Hitler at Hermann Goering’s wedding (Hitler was the best man) and then was invited to be Hitler’s personal guest at the 1936 Olympic Games.

Hoover’s commitment to weed out Fascist and Communist sympathizers in the US led to the surveillance of Arvad who ended up having intercourse with Kennedy numerous times in a South Carolina hotel. JFK was smitten and wanted to marry Arvad, but his father Joseph knew the relationship to Hitler would damage his son’s political aspirations and so he squelched the marriage plans.

Arvad divorced her second husband and ended up marrying a third–an aspiring actor named Tim McCoy. She died of cancer at the age of sixty in Arizona. When her first son, Ronald, was in his twenties, she confessed to him that she wasn’t sure if his father was “Jack or Tim.”

Hoover’s Kennedy file contained many other Kennedy affairs and secrets including the Marilyn Monroe trysts, the “real story” of the drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne in Senator Ted Kennedy’s automobile, and a strong dislike for Bobbie Kennedy and his brash and informal style as Attorney General where he served as Hoover’s boss for three years.

4. Hoover also distrusted Dr. Martin Luther King because of alleged Communist leanings and associations–but especially for his immoral lifestyle. MLK had said to the world during the famous “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963 that “my four little children will one day be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

It was a great line, but Hoover’s FBI taps had listened in that same evening as Martin Luther King  engaged in immoral and “orgiastic sex” with numerous women who were not his wife at a Washington, D.C. hotel.

Hoover despised hypocrisy.

5. J. Edgar Hoover grew the FBI from a small $30,000 agency of intelligence gatherers in the 1920s to a 300 million dollar colossus by the time he died in 1972. Over the years his agency waged war on famous criminals (John Dillenger, Ma Barker, and numerous gangsters), multiple Mafia families during the fight against organized crime, fascist and communist sympathizers during the 30s and 40s, and the rioters and anti-war movements of the 1960s.

6. Hoover gave personal approval to the 60s “FBI” television series where Efrem Zimbalist Jr. played his role in a way that Hoover greatly admired. In fact, real FBI agents in training were encouraged to emulate the “skills and commitment” of the actor. The FBI needed to approve every script of the popular television series and also received royalties from the series.

7. When John Edgar Hoover died of a heart attack at his home on May 2, 1972, many of his government secrets died with him. His long-time secretary, Helen Gandy, spent the next two and a half months combing through and destroying most of his personal files.

John Edgar Hoover took many of his secrets on ten presidents, countless public officials and numerous organizations, corporations and individuals to the grave with him.

He was truly America’s spy master–the original “G Man.”

I learned a lot from Gentry’s book–though his view was a bit cynical on the character and policies of the famed FBI director. Gentry thought Hoover often went too far and was a power hungry man. I believe, rather, that Hoover had a sense of destiny, strong character and work ethic, and generally used intelligence gathering in legal and ethical ways for the good of the US government and national security.

It’s true that Hoover became somewhat of an “institution” in his later years with great respect and standing within the halls of government. But what he lawfully “knew” about people in high places was an overall restraint on sin and abuse. He made mistakes, and sometimes bent the rules in spying on people and pushing his theories. But he kept a consistent moral compass that helped deliver America from many evil plots and schemes.

I’m an overall fan of J. Edgar Hoover, partly because I, too, have an uncompromising commitment to “distinguish between right and wrong.”

That brings us to some final thoughts on the NSA scandal and secrets in general:

  • The current NSA debacle of collecting information on millions of Americans is not the same as the targeted write taps, bugs, and surveillance of Hoover’s FBI. It’s far too broad and literally invites abuse by evil people in high places. It should be exposed for what it is–a gross violation of the 4th amendment and ordinary people’s right to personal freedom and privacy.
  • On the other hand, it’s important for all of us to realize that in this digital age, it is very difficult to keep everything secret. So be careful of the “dark areas” you have in your life. They may come back to haunt you.
  • Governments do have a need to track evil-doers to protect society from criminals. I’m in favor of national security spying–but it must be targeted, legal, moral and have many necessary checks and balances to keep it from becoming a greater evil in itself.

And finally, the Hoover book greatly sobered me that “things are not really not what they seem” in this sin-sick world. A person’s image may be just that–a carefully choreographed caricature (like that of JFK) that bears little resemblance to reality. Many of our lives are riddled with “secrets” that do not tell the true story of who we really are.

All of us can be deceived by the secrets that we keep. Proverbs 9:17 highlights this temptation: “Stolen water is sweet; food eaten in secret is delicious!”

But that’s a lie from the author of lies. The truth is that secrets tend to destroy–and in the end, they will all be exposed for everyone to see.

One of the glories of the rule of God and the coming heavenly world will be the exposure and destruction of all secrets and lies. We may live in a foggy, lying world now, but one day the Righteous King will sweep away all the secrets and falsehoods and banish them from his presence.

There will be no reason then to spy because only truth will prevail.

When Jesus returns and this world is at an end, 1 Corinthians 4:5 tells us:

“Don’t make judgments about anyone ahead of time–before the Lord returns. For he will bring our darkest secrets to light and will reveal our private motives. Then God will give to each one whatever praise is due.”

Accordingly, it would be wise to deal with your own “secret” problems now. One day they will all be known. You can’t hide from them or your Maker.

That’s a good thing which would meet the approval of J. Edgar Hoover.





  1. Eric Hamm on June 12, 2013 at 7:14 am

    Great blog! Americans need to wake up and start caring about rights.

  2. Stan Morris on June 12, 2013 at 12:20 am

    Great post about the life of J. Edgar Hoover. I really enjoyed you insights and wisdom you put out about what is going on in our government.

    Great Job


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.