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Torment in the FBI

February 07, 1988

When three civil-rights workers disappeared in Mississippi in 1964, the FBI offered black Americans their only hope for justice. Its agents tackled murders, bombings and other racial atrocities on which Southern sheriffs were accustomed to turning their backs.

Enforcing federal civil-rights laws is still an important mission for the bureau, but in at least one instance it has clearly done a better job on the outside than on the inside. The FBI is being sued by a black agent whose charges of racial harassment, though still under investigation, have been substantiated in part by the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The agent, Donald Rochon, endured brutal racial harassment from white agents while he was assigned to field offices in Omaha and Chicago, according to the New York Times, based on reports from government investigations. Obscene and threatening telephone calls were placed to his home at night. His wife, who is white, answered some while she was pregnant. He was threatened with mutilation and death, his wife with sexual assault. Among numerous incidents, someone pasted a picture of an ape's head over a family photo of his son.

When Rochon complained in Omaha, the incidents were dismissed as "healthy" pranks and as a sign of esprit de corps by the special agent in charge, who did nothing about the problem. When Rochon sought a routine hardship transfer to be near his dying father in Los Angeles, he was sent instead to Chicago, where he joined a former adversary. When one tormentor finally was suspended without pay in Chicago, white agents chipped in to pay his salary.

Last week Rochon's charges were described as "extremely serious allegations" by William S. Sessions, the new FBI director who has been on the job for just three months. Sessions has promised an investigation. He should insist on a thorough and hard-hitting inquiry.

The new director has already indicated that he plans to continue the recruiting of minorities and women initiated by his predecessor, William H. Webster. There is no evidence that Webster knew of the Rochon case beyond a brief administrative memo, if that. But the black agent's charges are evidence that sterner steps are needed to erase the tainted legacy of J. Edgar Hoover.

For decades Hoover showed disdain for the rights of black Americans; his vicious campaign to discredit Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was legendary. It was, where possible, a bureau pattern to avoid antagonizing local authorities who ignored racially related murders and other horrors. The nation's most prestigious law-enforcement agency remained almost exclusively white during Hoover's tenure, long after some FBI agents became champions of civil rights.

Nearly 25 years after the passage of federal civil-rights protections, a black FBI agent is making serious charges. If investigation bears them out, Sessions will have to deal with one of the more sordid cases of racial prejudice in the files of the federal government. He will have to deal with the outlaw agents who harassed a colleague, and with superiors who condoned the illegal behavior. He must make certain that it never happens again.

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