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The perils of unchecked power

A former attorney general remembers the bugging of Martin Luther King Jr.

January 16, 2006|Nicholas deB. Katzenbach | NICHOLAS DEB. KATZENBACH served in senior Justice Department positions between 1961 and 1965. He was appointed attorney general by President Johnson in February 1965 and served until October 1966.

THE RECENT controversy over warrantless national security telephone taps, coupled with Martin Luther King's birthday, remind me of my time in the Department of Justice in the 1960s. It was a period of turbulent demonstrations, marches and sit-ins, many of them led by King in support of the constitutional rights denied by Southern law enforcement to black citizens. And it was a time of growing animosity between King and J. Edgar Hoover, who had created the Federal Bureau of Investigation and led it since 1924. That animosity created a growing problem for Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy and those of us on his staff.

Hoover had built a great institution in the FBI, essentially from nothing. In the public eye it stood for fair and decent law enforcement -- the rule of law -- and was a model of integrity and efficiency. Hoover was a national hero, responsible for putting killers like John Dillinger behind bars. Kids wore Junior G-Man badges. During World War II, he fought Nazi spies, and during the Cold War he went after members of the communist conspiracy.

But Hoover was getting old. He believed the world was questioning and rejecting the values he held out as fundamental -- patriotism, respect for law and order, sexual mores grounded in marriage and family, the work ethic. He detested what he saw as a growing culture of permissiveness, and, as a conservative Southerner, he seriously questioned the idea of racial equality.

Hoover was troubled by the activities of King. He did not approve of the constant sit-ins and demonstrations that he saw more as breaking laws than as a protest against their unfairness. The FBI worked regularly with local law enforcement, and he wished to preserve that relationship.

What bothered him even more, however, was the frequent public criticism by King and his followers of the FBI for not protecting demonstrators from local sheriff's deputies. One did not have to be long in the Justice Department to learn that to criticize the FBI was an inexcusable sin in Hoover's eyes.

In October 1963, Hoover requested Atty. Gen. Kennedy to approve a wiretap on King's telephone. At that time, taps had to be approved by the attorney general and did not require court approval in the form of a warrant. The basis for the tap was King's close association with Stanley Levison, who Hoover said was a prominent member of the Communist Party with great influence over King in civil rights matters.

Bobby was furious. Hoover's charge that King was a pawn of the communists could potentially taint the whole movement and bring into question everything we were doing to vindicate the constitutional rights of black citizens. It was hard to think of an issue more explosive.

To understand just how explosive, one has to remember that Hoover was both popular and enormously powerful, with great support in Congress. Some of that support was based on admiration, some on fear that he had damaging personal information in his files. Much support came from conservative Southern Democrats, opposed to King, who chaired virtually every important congressional committee. Hoover was formally a subordinate of the attorney general who could, technically, fire and replace him. That's a big "technically." No attorney general, including RFK and myself when I succeeded him, could fully exercise control over him. And none did.

When Hoover asked for the wiretaps, Bobby consulted me (I was then his deputy) and Burke Marshall, head of the Civil Rights Division. Both of us agreed to the tap because we believed a refusal would lend credence to the allegation of communist influence, while permitting the tap, we hoped, would demonstrate the contrary. I think the decision was the right one, under the circumstances. But that doesn't mean that the tap was right. King was suspected of no crime, but the government invaded his privacy until I removed the tap two years later when I became attorney general. It also invaded the privacy of every person he talked to on that phone, not just Levinson.

But what we didn't know during this period was that Hoover was doing a lot more than tapping King's phones. As King's criticism of the FBI continued, and as Hoover became more and more convinced there must be communist influence even though no evidence ever materialized, he determined to discredit and destroy King. He went further, putting bugs in King's hotel bedrooms across the country. (He claimed that Atty. Gen. Herbert Brownell had authorized him to use such listening devices in cases involving "national security" back in the 1950s, and that he did not require further permission from the current attorney general, who in any case had no idea that the FBI was doing it.)

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