Hit & Run

Wiretapping: Not Always Right and Just, Surprisingly

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Over at the L.A. Times, reason Contributing Editor Julian Sanchez serves up an exhaustive history lesson about wiretap abuses. The gist: If the executive branch doesn't abuse the powers given to it in the name of national security, "it would be a first."

Political abuse of electronic surveillance goes back at least as far as the Teapot Dome scandal that roiled the Warren G. Harding administration in the early 1920s. When Atty. Gen. Harry Daugherty stood accused of shielding corrupt Cabinet officials, his friend FBI Director William Burns went after Sen. Burton Wheeler, the fiery Montana progressive who helped spearhead the investigation of the scandal. FBI agents tapped Wheeler's phone, read his mail and broke into his office. Wheeler was indicted on trumped-up charges by a Montana grand jury, and though he was ultimately cleared, the FBI became more adept in later years at exploiting private information to blackmail or ruin troublesome public figures. (As New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer can attest, a single wiretap is all it takes to torpedo a political career.)

In 1945, Harry Truman had the FBI wiretap Thomas Corcoran, a member of Franklin D. Roosevelt's "brain trust" whom Truman despised and whose influence he resented. Following the death of Chief Justice Harlan Stone the next year, the taps picked up Corcoran's conversations about succession with Justice William O. Douglas. Six weeks later, having reviewed the FBI's transcripts, Truman passed over Douglas and the other sitting justices to select Secretary of the Treasury (and poker buddy) Fred Vinson for the court's top spot.

"Foreign intelligence" was often used as a pretext for gathering political intelligence. John F. Kennedy's attorney general, brother Bobby, authorized wiretaps on lobbyists, Agriculture Department officials and even a congressman's secretary in hopes of discovering whether the Dominican Republic was paying bribes to influence U.S. sugar policy. The nine-week investigation didn't turn up evidence of money changing hands, but it did turn up plenty of useful information about the wrangling over the sugar quota in Congress—information that an FBI memo concluded "contributed heavily to the administration's success" in passing its own preferred legislation.

On the other hand, the terrorists haven't attacked us since 9/11. (I'd like to pose a little more of the pro-wiretapping argument, but I think that's all there is.)