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Breaking the Story: How Eight Ordinary Citizens Took Down the FBI

When is civil disobedience necessary? Can ordinary citizens really make a difference? Learn how eight ordinary citizens broke into an FBI office and exposed wrongdoings by stealing files and turning them over to major newspapers. Find out how reporter Betty Medsger, who received the files and covered the story in 1971, discovered the secret identities of the burglars four decades later  — something the FBI failed to do in its manhunt.

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Hoover dubs Brandeis a “Radical”

By Betty Medsger

After the discovery of Hoover’s suppression of dissent through dirty tricks and massive spying from the 1950s until he died in 1972, it was widely assumed by FBI scholars and others that Hoover started such practices during the Cold War. Access to files made possible by the 1974 reform of the federal Freedom of Information Act led to evidence that those habits started much earlier – even before he was appointed in 1924 as the director of what would become the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

As the 23-year-old head of the Radical Division at the Department of Justice in 1919 and 1920, he amassed a list of 450,000 people he considered subversives who should be monitored, a remarkably large feat in the pre-computer age, as the leading scholar of Hoover’s early career, Kenneth D. Ackerman, has observed. Later, Hoover took that list to the FBI and it became the foundation of the massive secret files he would build over five decades. Despite the fact that Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone, who appointed Hoover director, told the young director to destroy the list, Hoover kept it.
The list grew and grew under young Hoover at the Radical Division. In addition to many immigrants, whom he regarded as subversives and enemies to be deported without access to due process, the list included countless other people whose politics he opposed.

One of the people on Hoover’s earliest list was none other than Justice Louis Brandeis. The presence of a sitting U.S. Supreme Court justice on such a list starkly illustrates Hoover’s assumption that he could secretly use his power against Americans, even those at the highest levels of government. It also illustrates his early disregard for the law, a disregard he embraced throughout his half century in office as the respected leader of the country’s most powerful law enforcement agency.

Hoover’s placement of Brandeis on a list of people to be watched because of their political beliefs was not the last time he assumed it was appropriate for him to secretly intrude at the U.S. Supreme Court. In fact, his early interest in the esteemed Brandeis is early evidence of Hoover’s perception that he could intrude into and influence the inner works of institutions beyond his mandated responsibility, even the judiciary, the branch of government that was supposed to be the most independent. Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court and court staff members should, he thought, be willing to violate laws and their codes of ethics in order to serve his interests. In a few instances, members of the court staff and at least one justice did so.

During court appeals in the espionage cases of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 for conspiring to pass atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, Hoover received daily intelligence reports from inside the court, where all information exchanged that is not filed publicly is supposed to be confidential. According to a 1953 FBI memorandum, during the Rosenbergs’ appeals, the captain of the Supreme Court police “furnished immediately all information heard by his men stationed throughout the Supreme Court building. He kept special [FBI] agents advised of the arrival and departure of persons having important roles in this case.” As soon as the Rosenbergs were executed, the director authorized sending a letter of appreciation to two Supreme Court officials “for their whole-hearted cooperation in this case.”

A 2,076-page FBI file on the U.S. Supreme Court reveals that in addition to using Supreme Court employees as sources, the bureau investigated Hoover’s suspicions of communist influence on the court in the 1950s, a time when Earl Warren was chief justice of the court and when the court issued numerous opinions Hoover opposed. The file became public as a result of a Freedom of Information request by Alexander Charns, a Durham, North Carolina, attorney and the author of the 1992 book Cloak and Gavel: FBI Wiretaps, Bugs, Informers, and the Supreme Court.
In 1965, deputy FBI director Cartha Deloach, acting on Hoover’s behalf, secretly asked for and received direct assistance on Hoover’s behalf from Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas regarding a case then pending before the court that involved the bureau. After Fortas, in response to Hoover’s inquiry, violated a court rule that prohibits justices from discussing pending cases with anyone outside the court, Hoover wrote in a memo to Deloach that Fortas had demonstrated he was “a more honest man than I gave him credit for being.” It was a strange interpretation of honesty. Hoover said he had feared Fortas “would try to weasel out [of helping Hoover] on grounds it was improper for him as a member of the court to even discuss the matter” – as, of course, it was. To Hoover, it was more important that the justice serve Hoover’s interest than it was that he maintain the integrity required by the court.

In those early years, when Hoover was beginning his long reign over two FBIs – the FBI the public knew as its protector and defender of laws, and the secret lawless FBI the Media burglars would uncover a half century later – Brandeis became one of the people Hoover thought the bureau should watch. At the same time, another government agency that would be unveiled in the 1970s for illegally conducting domestic surveillance, the U. S. Army, also was monitoring him.

Military Intelligence agents shadowed Justice Brandeis. They did so, for instance, on a trip back from Europe in 1919. Reports based on unnamed informers questioned Justice Brandeis’s loyalty because the informers thought he favored the Soviet Union. They also tracked what they referred to as his Zionist activities.
Like hundreds of thousands of Americans who were being watched by Hoover’s FBI, it is unlikely that Justice Brandeis, who deeply revered the right to privacy and the right to dissent, realized his own rights were being trampled by Hoover and the U.S. Army.