Investigation. Education. Accountability. Reform.

Hoover Planned Mass Jailing in 1950

December 23, 2007
By Tim Weiner

A newly declassified document shows that J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime director
of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, had a plan to suspend habeas corpus
and imprison some 12,000 Americans he suspected of disloyalty.

Hoover sent his plan to the White House on July 7, 1950, 12 days after the
Korean War began. It envisioned putting suspect Americans in military prisons.

Hoover wanted President Harry S. Truman to proclaim the mass arrests necessary
to “protect the country against treason, espionage and sabotage.”
The F.B.I would “apprehend all individuals potentially dangerous”
to national security, Hoover’s proposal said. The arrests would be carried
out under “a master warrant attached to a list of names” provided
by the bureau.

The names were part of an index that Hoover had been compiling for years. “The
index now contains approximately twelve thousand individuals, of which approximately
ninety-seven per cent are citizens of the United States,” he wrote.

“In order to make effective these apprehensions, the proclamation suspends
the Writ of Habeas Corpus,” it said.

Habeas corpus, the right to seek relief from illegal detention, has been a
fundamental principle of law for seven centuries. The Bush administration’s
decision to hold suspects for years at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has made
habeas corpus a contentious issue for Congress and the Supreme Court today.

The Constitution says habeas corpus shall not be suspended “unless when
in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require it.”
The plan proposed by Hoover, the head of the F.B.I. from 1924 to 1972, stretched
that clause to include “threatened invasion” or “attack upon
United States troops in legally occupied territory.”

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush issued an order
that effectively allowed the United States to hold suspects indefinitely without
a hearing, a lawyer, or formal charges. In September 2006, Congress passed a
law suspending habeas corpus for anyone deemed an “unlawful enemy combatant.”

But the Supreme Court has reaffirmed the right of American citizens to seek
a writ of habeas corpus. This month the court heard arguments on whether about
300 foreigners held at Guantánamo Bay had the same rights. It is expected
to rule by next summer.

Hoover’s plan was declassified Friday as part of a collection of cold-war
documents concerning intelligence issues from 1950 to 1955. The collection makes
up a new volume of “The Foreign Relations of the United States,”
a series that by law has been published continuously by the State Department
since the Civil War.

Hoover’s plan called for “the permanent detention” of the
roughly 12,000 suspects at military bases as well as in federal prisons. The
F.B.I., he said, had found that the arrests it proposed in New York and California
would cause the prisons there to overflow.

So the bureau had arranged for “detention in military facilities of the
individuals apprehended” in those states, he wrote.

The prisoners eventually would have had a right to a hearing under the Hoover
plan. The hearing board would have been a panel made up of one judge and two
citizens. But the hearings “will not be bound by the rules of evidence,”
his letter noted.

The only modern precedent for Hoover’s plan was the Palmer Raids of 1920,
named after the attorney general at the time. The raids, executed in large part
by Hoover’s intelligence division, swept up thousands of people suspected
of being communists and radicals.

Previously declassified documents show that the F.B.I.’s “security
index” of suspect Americans predated the cold war. In March 1946, Hoover
sought the authority to detain Americans “who might be dangerous”
if the United States went to war. In August 1948, Attorney General Tom Clark
gave the F.B.I. the power to make a master list of such people.

Hoover’s July 1950 letter was addressed to Sidney W. Souers, who had
served as the first director of central intelligence and was then a special
national-security assistant to Truman. The plan also was sent to the executive
secretary of the National Security Council, whose members were the president,
the secretary of defense, the secretary of state and the military chiefs.

In September 1950, Congress passed and the president signed a law authorizing
the detention of “dangerous radicals” if the president declared
a national emergency. Truman did declare such an emergency in December 1950,
after China entered the Korean War. But no known evidence suggests he or any
other president approved any part of Hoover’s proposal.

Source URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/23/washington/23habeas.html