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Taking new aim at a legacy of the FBI's creator

Bid to erase Hoover from building grows

WASHINGTON -- For the past three years, Representative Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, has introduced a bill to strip J. Edgar Hoover's name from the FBI's huge headquarters building. The initiative had been largely ignored.

Now, however, amid headlines about government surveillance of Americans inside the United States, the effort to rename the Hoover building is starting to attract more supporters, most recently Judge Laurence H. Silberman of the US Circuit Court of Appeals, who was a leader of a commission on pre-Iraq war intelligence, appointed by the White House.

''This country -- and the bureau -- would be well served if his name were removed from the bureau's building," Silberman, a Reagan appointee, said before the First Circuit Judicial Conference in June. ''It is as if the Defense Department were named for Aaron Burr."

Across Washington, the names of major figures are chiseled on scores of government buildings and federal headquarters. Few have befallen the reputation erosion of Hoover.

Hoover, a founder of the modern FBI who died in 1972, has become identified with eavesdropping and efforts to discredit the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., at the height of the civil rights movement. Hoover has also been accused of using gossip to intimidate presidents.

So some are now wondering why Hoover's name is there.

''Symbolism matters in the United States, and it is wrong to honor a man who frequently manipulated the law to achieve his personal goals," Burton said after his Government Reform Committee held hearings in 2002 on the FBI.

A veteran Republican, Burton was outraged by the case of Joseph Salvati, who served 30 years in prison for a contract murder in Boston in 1968, which evidence suggested had been committed by an FBI informant.

''There is no reason we should honor a man who threw everything out the window, including the lives of innocent men, in order to get what he wanted," Burton said.

There has been a renewal of conservative outrage about Hoover; Robert Novak, the syndicated columnist, urged recently that his name be dropped from the building. Novak called Hoover, the FBI's first director, known to have ordered eavesdropping, ''a rogue and a law-breaker."

But Hoover's legacy is finding unusual partnership with liberals who say Hoover wiretapped King and quashed an FBI investigation of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four young black girls.

Representative Cynthia McKinney, a Georgia Democrat who is working for the release of King's intelligence files, has introduced legislation to name the FBI building for Frank Church, the late Idaho senator whose Senate Select Committee on Intelligence held scorching hearings on US intelligence gathering and FBI abuses under Hoover.

''It's a reflection of her concern that the building should not be named after the person who was responsible for the excesses," a McKinney aide, John Judge, said Friday. ''It should be for the person who stood up to them."

The last time the issue came to Congress was in 1998, when senators debated a bill to name the Washington National Airport for former President Ronald Reagan. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada offered an amendment to strip Hoover's name from the FBI Building.

''J. Edgar Hoover stands for what is bad about this country," Reid said. ''This small man violated the rights of hundreds, if not thousands, of people, famous and not so famous."

The Senate voted, 62 to 36, against removing Hoover's name.

On Friday, Silberman said that two senators are considering offering the proposal again. ''People are shocked that the FBI was so heavily engaged in espionage," he said. ''Liberals and conservatives should unite on this."

It is not clear whether they will.

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