The Corps of
Intelligence Police
From 1917 to

ONI Message

Attorney General
Harlan Stone's

Special Committee
to Investigate

Program, 1936-38

The Search for
Japanese Spies

Special House
Committee for the
Investigation of


FBI Intelligence
Authority and

Letters To/From

Directive of
September 6, 1939

The Scope of
FBI Domestic

Between the Wars

Between the Wars


Between the Wars

End Notes


Presidential Directive Of September 6, 1939

The attorney general has been requested by me to instruct the Federal Bureau of Investigation of the Department of Justice to take charge of investigative work in matters relating to espionage, sabotage, and violations of neutrality regulations.

This task must be conducted in a comprehensive and effective manner on a national basis, and all information must be carefully sifted out and correlated in order to avoid confusion and irresponsibility.

To this end I request all police officers, sheriffs, and all other law enforcement officers in the United States promptly to turn over to the nearest representative of the Federal Bureau of Investigation any information obtained by them relating to espionage, counterespionage, sabotage, subversive activities and violations of the neutrality law.

Police Cooperation
On September 6, 1939, I issued a directive providing that the Federal Bureau of Investigation of the Department of Justice should take charge of investigative work in matters relating to espionage, sabotage, and violations of the neutrality regulations, pointing out that the investigations must be conducted in a comprehensive manner, on a national basis, and all information carefully sifted out and correlated in order to avoid confusion and irresponsibility. I then requested all police officers, sheriffs, and other law enforcement officers in the United States, promptly to turn over to the nearest representatives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation any such information.

I am again calling the attention of all enforcement officers to the request that they report all such information promptly to the nearest field representative of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is charged with the responsibility of correlating this material and referring matters which are under the jurisdiction of any other Federal agency with responsibilities in this field to the appropriate agency.

I suggest that all patriotic organizations and individuals likewise report all such information relating to espionage and related matters to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the same manner.

I am confident that all law enforcement officers, who are now rendering such invaluable assistance toward the success of the internal safety of our country, will cooperate in this matter.

(Signed) Franklin D. Roosevelt


The Scope Of FBI Domestic Intelligence

A central feature of the FBI domestic intelligence program authorized by President Roosevelt was its broad investigative scope. The breadth of intelligence gathering most clearly demonstrates why the program could not have been based on any reasonable interpretation of the power to investigative violations of law. The investigations were built upon a theory of "subversive infiltration" which remained an essential part of domestic intelligence thereafter. This theory persisted over the decades in the same way the Roosevelt directives continued in effect as the basis for legal authority. Moreover, there was a direct link between the policy of investigating "subversive" influence and the reliance on inherent executive power. The purpose of such investigations was not to assist in the enforcement of criminal laws, but rather to supply the President and other executive officials with information believed to be of value for making decisions and developing governmental policies. The "pure intelligence" function was precisely what President Roosevelt meant when he asked for "a broad picture" of the impact of Communism and Fascism on American life.

A second purpose for broad domestic intelligence investigations was to compile an extensive body of information for use in the event of an emergency or actual war. This information would supply the basis for taking preventive measures against groups or individuals disposed to interfere with the national defense effort. If such interference might take the form of sabotage or other illegal disruptions of defense production and military discipline the collection of preventive intelligence was related to law enforcement. But the relationship was often remote and highly speculative, based on political affiliations and group membership rather than any tangible evidence of preparation to commit criminal acts. As the likelihood of American involvement in the war moved closer, preventive intelligence investigations focused on whether individuals should be placed on a Custodial Detention List for possible arrest in case of war. This program was developed joint by the FBI and a special Justice Department unit in 1940-1941.

These two objectives—"pure intelligence" and preventive intelligence—were closely related to one another. Investigations designed to produce information about subversive infiltration also identified individuals thought potentially dangerous to the country's security. Likewise, investigations of persons alleged to be security threats contributed to the overall domestic intelligence picture.

Internal FBI instructions described the scope of surveillance in detail. On September 2, 1939, all FBI field offices were ordered to review their files and secure information from "reliable contacts" in order to prepare reports on "persons of German, Italian, and Communist sympathies," as well as other persons "whose interest may be directed primarily to the interest of some other nation than the United States." Such information included "a list of subscribers" and officers of all German and Italian language newspapers in the United States, language newspapers published by the Communist Party or "its affiliated organizations," and both foreign and English language newspapers "of pronounced or notorious Nationalistic sympathies." FBI offices were also instructed to identify members of all German and Italian societies, "whether they be of a fraternal character or of some other nature," and of "any other organization, regardless of nationality, which might have produced Nationalistic tendencies."104

In October 1939 the FBI was investigating the Communist Party and the German American Bund, using such techniques as "the employment of informants," "research into publications," "the soliciting and obtaining of assistance and information from political émigrés, and organizations which have for their purpose the maintenance of files of information bearing upon this type of study and inquiry," and "the attendance of mass meetings and
public demonstrations." The compilation of information on other organizations and groups "expressing nationalist leanings" continued pursuant to the September 1939 instructions. In addition, the FBI was conducting "confidential inquiries" regarding "the various so-called radical and fascist organizations in the United States" for the purpose of identifying their "leading personnel, purposes and aims, and the part they are likely to play at a time of national crisis."105

In November 1939, the FBI began preparing a list of specific individuals "on whom information is available indicating strongly that (their) presence at liberty in this country in time of war or national emergency would constitute a menace to the public peace and safety of the United States Government." The list comprised persons "with strong Nazi tendencies" and "with strong Communist tendencies." The citizenship status of each individual was determined, and cards prepared summarizing the reasons for placing him on the list.106

FBI field offices were instructed to obtain information on such persons from "public and private records, confidential sources of information, newspaper morgues, public libraries, employment records, school records, et cetera." FBI agents were to keep the purpose of their inquiries "entirely confidential" and to reply to questions by stating as a cover that the investigation was being made in connection with "the Registration Act requiring agents of foreign principals to register with the State Department." FBI headquarters supervisors divided the list into two categories:107

Class #1. Those to be apprehended and interned immediately upon the outbreak of hostilities between the government of the United States and the Government they service, support, or owe allegiance to.

Class #2. Those who should be watched carefully at and subsequent to the outbreak of hostilities because their previous activities indicate the possibility but not the probability that they will act in a manner adverse to the best interests of the Government of the United States.108

This program was described as a "custodial detention" list in June 1940, and field offices were again instructed to furnish information on persons possessing "Communist, Fascist, Nazi or other nationalistic background."109

The primary subjects of FBI intelligence surveillance under this program in mid-1940 were active Communists (including Communist candidates for public offices, party officers and organizations, speakers at Communist rallies, writers of Communist books or articles, individuals "attending Communistic meetings where revolutionary preachings are given," Communists in strategic operations "or holding any position of potential influence" and Communist agitators who participate "in meetings or demonstrations accompanied by violence"), all members of the German-American Bund and similar organizations, Italian Fascist organizations and American Fascist groups such as "Silver Shirts, Ku Klux Klan, White Camelia, and similar organizations."110 Director Hoover summarized these "subversive activities" in a memorandum to the Justice Department:

The holding of official positions in organizations such as the German-American Bund and Communist groups; the distribution of literature and propaganda favorable to a foreign power and opposed to the American way of life; agitators who are adherents of foreign ideologies who have for their purpose the stirring up of internal strike (sic), class hatreds and the development of activities which in time of war would be a serious handicap in a program of internal security and national defense…111

Director Hoover claimed publicly in 1940 that advocates of foreign "isms" had "succeeded in boring into every phase of American life, masquerading behind front organizations."112 Intelligence about "front" groups was transmitted to the White House. For example, in 1937 the Attorney General had sent an FBI report on a proposed pilgrimage to Washington to urge passage of legislation to benefit American youth. The report stated that the American Youth Congress, which sponsored the pilgrimage, was understood to be strongly Communistic. 113Later reports in 1937 described the Communist Party's role in plans by the Workers Alliance for nationwide demonstrations protesting the plight of the unemployed, as well as the Alliance's plans to lobby Congress in support of the federal relief systems.114

FBI investigations and reports (which went into Justice Department and FBI permanent files) covered entirely lawful domestic political activities. For example, one local group checked by the Bureau was called the League for Fair Play, which furnished "speakers to Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs and to schools and colleges." The FBI reported in 1941 that:

" ...the organization was formed in 1937, apparently by two Ministers and a businessman for the purpose of further fair play, tolerance, adherence to the Constitution, democracy, liberty, justice, understanding and good will among all creeds, races and classes of the United States."

A synopsis of the report stated, "No indications of Communist activities."115 In 1944 the FBI prepared a more extensive intelligence report on an active political group, the Independent Voters of Illinois, apparently because it was the target of Communist "infiltration." The Independent Voters group was reported to have been formed:

"...for the purpose of developing neighborhood political units to help in the re-election of President Roosevelt and the election of progressive congressmen. Apparently, IVI endorsed or aided democrats for the most part, although it was stated to be "independent." It does not appear that it entered its own candidates or that it endorsed any Communists. IVI sought to help elect those candidates who would favor fighting inflation, oppose race and class discrimination, favor international cooperation, support a "full-employment program," oppose Fascism, etc."116

Thus, the Bureau gathered data about left-liberal groups in its search for subversive "influence." At the opposite end of the political spectrum, the activities of numerous right-wing groups like the Christian Front and Christian Mobilizers (followers of Father Coughlin), the American Destiny Party, the American Nationalist Party, and even the less extreme "America First" movement were reported by the FBI. 117

The Bureau even looked into a Bronx, New York, child center which was "apparently dominated and run" by Communists to determine whether it was
being used as a "front" for carrying out the Communist Program.118

One example of the nature of continuing intelligence investigations is the FBI's reports on the NAACP. The Washington, D.C. Field Office opened the case in 1941 because of a request from the Navy Department for an investigation of protests against racial discrimination in the Navy by "fifteen colored mess attendants." FBI agents used an informant to determine the NAACP's "connections with the Communist party and other Communist controlled organizations."119

FBI headquarter sent a request to the Oklahoma City field Office in August 1941 for an investigation of "Communist Party domination" of the NAACP in connection with the development of "Nationalistic Tendency Charts." The field office report concluded, on the basis of an informant's reports, "that there is a strong tendency for the NAACP to steer clear of Communistic activities. Nevertheless, there is a strong movement on the part of the Communists to attempt to dominate this group through an infiltration of communistic doctrines. Consequently, the activities of the NAACP will be closely observed and scrutinized in the future.120

FBI informants subsequently reported on NAACP conferences at Hampton, Virginia, in the fall of 1941 at Los Angeles in the summer of 1942. These investigations were conducted "to follow the activities of the NAACP and determine further the advancement of the Communist group has made into that organization."121 Similar reports came to headquarters from field offices in Richmond, Virginia; Springfield and Chicago, Illinois; Boston, Massachusetts; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Indianapolis, Indiana; Savannah, Georgia; and Louisville, Kentucky, in 1942-1943. Informants were used to report on efforts "to place before the NAACP certain policies or ideas which …may be favorable to the Communist Party."122 An informant attended an NAACP convention in South Carolina in June 1943 and reported on his conversations with NAACP counsel Thurgood Marshall. The informant believed that Marshall was "a loyal American" and "would not permit anything radical to be done."123

Informants for the Oklahoma City Field Office reported on Communist efforts to "infiltrate" the NAACP and advised that the Communist Party would "be active" at a forthcoming NAACP conference.124 On the other hand, an informant for the Chicago office reported "no evidence that there is any Communist infiltration in the Chicago branch."125 And informants for the Detroit office advised that there were "numerous contacts by the CP members and NAACP members, some collaboration on issues which affect negroes, presence of CP members at NAACP meetings, interest of CP in NAACP, but no evidence of CP control."126

FBI investigation of the NAACP reflected in these and other reports to headquarters produced massive information in Bureau files about the organization, its members, their legitimate activities to oppose racial discrimination, and internal disputes with some of the chapters. One thirty-five page report contained the names of approximately 250 individuals and groups, all indexed in a table of contents.127 The reports and their summaries contained little if any information about specific activities or planned activities in violation of federal law.

The scope of the information compiled through these investigations of alleged Communist "infiltration" is indicated by FBI estimate that by 1944 "almost 1,000,000 people knowingly or unknowingly had been drawn into Communist-Front activity."128


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