1940, May 21 – FDR Okays Continued FBI Wiretapping

President Franklin Roosevelt, on this day, told Attorney General Robert Jackson to ignore a recent Supreme Court ruling on wiretapping, claiming it did not apply to national security. The Court, in Nardone v. United States (December 11, 1939), ruled that wiretapping was illegal under the 1934 Communications Act.

President Roosevelt’s instructions to the attorney general on this day represented just one of several examples in modern American history when presidents claimed a “national security exception” to existing laws. On August 24, 1936 FDR authorized J. Edgar Hoover to resume political spying by the FBI, and then to investigate “subversive activities” on September 6, 1939. On May 20, 1954, for example, President Eisenhower’s Attorney General Herbert Brownell advised the FBI on how to evade a recent Supreme Court decision on eavesdropping.

In short, while many of the FBI’s actions under J. Edgar Hoover were secret and unknown to his superiors, many others were directly authorized or passively approved by the attorney general or the president. The notorious COINTELPRO program, for example, which arguably involved the most abusive FBI actions, was approved by the National Security Council on March 8, 1956, with both the president and the attorney general giving their silent assent.

The most famous recent instance is when President George W. Bush, on October 4, 2001, ordered the National Security Agency to secretly conduct wiretapping, in violation of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (October 25, 1978). Bush’s action was exposed by The New York Times on December 16, 2005.

FDR to Hoover: “However, I am convinced that the Supreme Court never intended any dictum in the particular case it decided to apply to grave matters involving the defense of the nation.”

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

For documents and analysis on the history of secret government spying, see Athan Theoharis, From the Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1992)

ht/ fdr in hell

6 Comments on 1940, May 21 – FDR Okays Continued FBI Wiretapping

  1. Huh! So when the Obama defenders said the president “couldn’t” order surveillance without a court order, they were…mistaken? What do ya know.

  2. Two years ago yesterday the news broke of Hillary’s private email server.
    Ding dong, the witch was dead and didn’t even realize it.
    Good times, good times! 🙂

    I think on March 10, 2015 she gave her famous UN “news conference.”


  3. The Republican Congress should pay attention to what the president is doing: HE’S PLAYING OFFENSE!!!!

    Just as he did throughout the campaign when everyone said he was making a huge mistake. President Trump is smarter than anyone from the other side gives him credit.

    President Trump is playing chess, while the Democrats and the media are playing checkers.

    Loving it.

  4. Follow-up. I just saw a quote from Pelosi saying that requesting an investigation into wiretapping is an act of an Authoritarian.

    REALLY!!! What have you idiots have been doing since 20 January????

    Idiot Maxine Waters has been calling for impeachment before the 20th of January. Does she know what it takes to impeach? Doubt it. Read the Constitution you moron.


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