More than half a century after The Nation published an expanded special issue highly critical of the FBI, we have obtained a 180-page internal FBI monograph, dated April 1959, that is entirely devoted to a refutation of it. The title–“The Smear Campaign Against the FBI: The Nation, October 18, 1958”–reveals the thesis of the monograph (obtained from the valuable website GovernmentAttic.com), which was that The Nation‘s FBI issue was part of a communist plot to discredit the bureau.
That was a frequent charge by red hunters in those McCarthyite times. Actually, the FBI’s enmity toward The Nation went much further back. The magazine’s FBI file, obtained in 1984, weighed in at a whopping 2,000 pages and covered the years 1922-82. For the racy details see the article on the file by Penn Kimball, a Columbia University professor of journalism, in the March 22, 1986, issue of The Nation. Kimball sums up his impressions as follows:
The claim that the Bureau simply transmits the data collected by its field agents without evaluation is exploded by the evidence in its own files. The gossip, hearsay and guilt by association was passed along to favored members of Congress, alumni in other executive agencies and select members of the press. The F.B.I. launched special field investigations of Nation contributors, pressured teachers who used the magazine in their classes and cooperated with government agencies seeking to discredit opponents of their policies–all in the name of Americanism.
In his memoirs, Maverick: Fifty Years of Investigative Reporting, Fred Cook, a veteran newspaperman, prolific contributor to the magazine and author of the 1958 article on the FBI, recounts his personal experience of the bureau’s retribution. After it appeared, he became the object of an FBI investigation, his friends and neighbors were interrogated by agents, his mail was tampered with. The Nation file contains an angry memo by director J. Edgar Hoover suggesting that he may have taken Cook’s piece personally:
1. I can’t understand with all our alleged contacts and informants we had had no inkling of Cook’s article in the Nation.
2. I think we should discreetly get a line on this man and his background and associations for current article just didn’t “bloom”–it is planned literary garbage barrage against FBI by a dedicated Hiss apologist. H.
The “smear” monograph, which was not in The Nation‘s FBI file, seems intended to be a massive smack down of Cook’s article. At great length and sometimes pedantic detail (which must have occupied an expensive chunk of agents’ time), the anonymous authors dismantle practically every sentence in Cook’s piece. The result is an internal memo running to some 64,000 words.
At the outset, the authors charge that the Nation article was part of a larger anti-FBI smear campaign designed to advance the Soviet Union’s objectives. These are said to be (1) to discredit the FBI as guardian of the nation’s internal security, and (2) “to force the Bureau’s actual withdrawal from the internal security field,” thus giving the Soviets a free hand to subvert America.
The authors frequently resort to guilt by association. Thus, Cook’s article “encompassed completely the views which communists have projected for years about the so-called illegal activities of the FBI.” The Nation “has always been a staunch defender of civil liberties,” we are told, and that was not meant as a compliment. Even more damning, “a number of individuals who have been employed…by The Nation in editorial or writing capacities have been identified with the communist movement.”
One section of the monograph is devoted to parallel columns of quotations from Cook and statements by Communist Party sources demonstrating that the article “shows a close parallel between his views and the official line of the Communist Party, USA, on a number of issues.” Here is an example snatched at random:
Cook: “Hoover hardly ever fails to get all the money he asks for from Congress….”
American Communists: “[the F.B.I.] always gets [the appropriation] it asks for, and each year more than the previous one.” (Source: Political Affairs, “the Party’s monthly theoretical publication”) [Since the authors express no opinion as to the truth or falsity of this particular claim, we should point out that annual FBI budgets were routinely fully subscribed by a worshipful Congress.]
Cook’s alleged libels on the FBI include “allegations that: the FBI conducts illegal investigations of political views; uses Gestapo-type tactics such as, secret informants, wire-tapping, and illegal searches, seizures, and arrests; compiles secret files; unduly publicizes itself, cloaking itself in a ‘myth of infallibility’; and dictates to Congress and the courts.” All daring charges back then, but confirmed history today.
The FBI sleuths did ferret out some factual errors in Cook’s story, none fatal. In his defense, it should be said that Cook was one of the first journalists who attempted to breach the FBI’s wall of secrecy. He was also working without the contemporary reporter’s most powerful tool–the Freedom of Information Act. And he did not have access to the inside information and historical records that the FBI authors had.
But if Cook made minor mistakes, the monograph evades or ignores his spot-on criticisms of FBI tactics that violated defendants’ constitutional rights. In particular, three early cold war espionage cases discussed by Cook in his article, when viewed in historical perspective, demonstrate the truth of his allegations that FBI investigative methods interfered with convictions, trampled on defendants’ rights and contributed to the communist spy panic in the late 1940s, which in turn led to government loyalty programs and the rise of McCarthyism.
Cook’s Nation article raised important questions about the FBI’s covert operations in the national security arena. Doing this took considerable courage at a time when Hoover was untouchable by Congress and presidents alike. Moreover, it was very brave of editor Carey McWilliams to publish it at a time when the magazine was financially stressed and under fire from McCarthyites and cold war liberals alike.
FBI research monographs belong to a well-known genre. They were frequently prepared by staff to draw together all the information in the bureau’s files on a single subject. Thus there are memos dating from the 1940s through the 1970s on topics like “Soviet Intelligence Targets in the United States,” “Stool Pigeon or Loyal Citizen,” “Unusual Investigative Techniques” and “The Struggle Against Lawlessness.”
The monographs exude the aura of investigative inquiries designed to produce the truth on a specific topic or issue, but in some cases they were tailored to fit the views and prejudices of an audience of one: J. Edgar Hoover. This can be seen in a 1963 monograph about communist “influence” on the civil rights movement, obtained via FOIA by American RadioWorks. The initial version of the lengthy study concluded (accurately), “Despite every type of propaganda boomed at our Nation’s Negro citizens, they have never succumbed to the party’s saccharine promises of a Communist utopia.” Hoover, who considered the entire civil rights movement a subversive plot, scrawled an acerbic objection. He simply could not believe that Martin Luther King Jr. operated free of red tentacles. So his men went back to the drawing board. William Sullivan, head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence division, produced a new study that concluded King was “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism.” Sullivan later admitted to Congressional investigators that those who presented findings contrary to Hoover’s prejudices could find themselves transferred or fired.