Begun as the Bureau of Investigation (BOI) in 1908, it was placed within the federal government's Department of Justice as the nation's investigative arm against criminal activity, including on American Indian reservations, and as its internal intelligence agency. The BOI became the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1935. For much of its history, from 1924 to 1972, the agency fell under the directorship of J. Edgar Hoover. During that tenure, the BOI and then FBI engaged in crime fighting but also in surveillance against espionage, especially during the Cold War, and the civil rights movement. Domestic surveillance or the counterintelligence program, called COINTELPRO, was used to spy on civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and black power movement leaders like Malcolm X.
The BOI began investigating Hawai'i's Japanese American community when workers struck against the sugar planters for higher wages and better conditions. In 1920, J. Edgar Hoover, then a special assistant to the U.S. attorney general, proposed a formal intelligence-gathering network involving the BOI, military intelligence, and the Hawaiian sugar planters' secret agents. As a result, a BOI agent, A. A. Hopkins, sent from the West Coast office cooperated with military intelligence during the 1920s, investigating the “Japanese problem,” which involved domestic labor strife and an international conspiracy to foment a race war against white supremacy, according to the BOI and military intelligence. In 1922, the BOI's Hopkins compiled perhaps the first list of Japanese American names under the title “Japanese Espionage—Hawaii.” The 157 on his list included 40 merchants and storekeepers, 31 Buddhist priests, 24 Japanese-language school principals and teachers, 19 laborers, 10 Christian ministers, and 4 professionals. Although labeled “espionage,” the list clearly identified leaders of Hawai'i's Japanese American community and not spies. After all, the BOI believed, “He [the Japanese] does not become an American, save in very rare instances, always remaining a Japanese” (Okihiro, 127).
During the 1930s, military intelligence expanded its web to Japan's activities in Central and South America, and the BOI and then FBI intensified its investigations of Japanese Americans in the United States. An August 1934 State Department report charged that Japan maintained agents in every large city in the United States, and those agents, passing as ordinary workers and civilians, will rise up, when war is declared, to commit sabotage, rendering the West Coast defenseless. In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt assigned domestic surveillance to the FBI against espionage, sabotage, and subversive activities, and military intelligence directed their efforts against threats to Army and Navy installations and their civilian workforce.
By June 1940, the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover could identify German, Italian, and communist leaders scheduled for internment during a national emergency, but confessed military intelligence knew more about Japanese Americans than his
agency. The FBI's office in Hawai'i opened only in August 1939, and its agents relied upon military intelligence for much of its information on the islands' Japanese Americans. By September 1940, however, relying upon informants, one of the FBI's agents discovered that although the issei might have strong feelings toward Japan, Japanese Americans were “not organized for purposes of sabotage or subversive activity …” (Okihiro, 180). Moreover, the agent reported, the United States need not fear an uprising from Japanese Americans or the influence of Buddhist priests and Japanese-language schoolteachers. Those fears were groundless and exaggerated, his informants told him. With agents on each of the major islands, the FBI compiled information, and attached little significance to allegations of espionage and sabotage among Japanese Americans.
Military intelligence agreed with the FBI's assessment of the situation. They believed although a large majority probably held “pro-Japan” sentiments, Japanese Americans failed to pose a security threat in the event of a war with Japan. If their leaders, including Buddhist and Shinto priests, language-school teachers, and businessmen, were interned, “there need be no fear of the reaction of the local Japanese population in the event of war with Japan,” an FBI memorandum stated (Okihiro, 182). Both the FBI and military urged a counterpropaganda campaign to secure the hearts and minds of the nisei to ensure their loyalty to the United States. In that way, the second generation would serve as a buffer against the first, and guarantee economic stability in the territory.
The FBI's director and West Coast offices shared that same mindset when the Bureau created the “ABC” list of “enemy aliens” destined for internment in the event of war. Those grouped under “A” were considered dangerous and required intense scrutiny, those under “B” were classed as potentially dangerous, and under “C,” peripherally dangerous and involved mainly in propaganda activities. By early 1941, there were more than 2,000 Japanese Americans on the “ABC” list, together with German and Italian Americans. As was the case in Hawai'i, those included on the “ABC” list were Buddhist and Shinto priests, Japanese-language school principals and teachers, and businessmen. Hoover and his FBI maintained, even after Pearl Harbor, the internment of “enemy aliens” was sufficient to secure the nation from the danger of internal subversion but politicians, especially President Franklin Roosevelt, overrode that assessment in favor of the mass removal and confinement of Japanese Americans on the West Coast under the guise of “military necessity.”
Okihiro, Gary Y. Cane Fires: The Anti-Japanese Movement in Hawaii, 1865–1945. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.