From Washington Post Book World, June 24.

In Brief: Junior G-Man

Sunday, June 24, 2007; BW14

As Kenneth D. Ackerman explains in Young J. Edgar (Carroll & Graf, $28.95), the future FBI director first made his mark after the most dramatic outburst of terrorism to hit the United States before 9/11. On June 2, 1919, bombs went off in nine American cities, including Washington, D.C. In most cases, the target was the residence of a political figure or man of wealth. In Washington, it was the R Street house of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer; the house was badly damaged, anarchists were blamed, and Palmer pledged that “for the rest of his time in office, he would commit his Department of Justice to the singular task of tracking down and stopping this Red Menace.” He put his young assistant Hoover in charge.

Among the results of this campaign were the infamous Palmer Raids, which left their namesake, who had once entertained notions of succeeding Woodrow Wilson as president, so discredited that the man who got the Democratic nomination in his stead, James M. Cox, told Palmer not to campaign for him. Cox lost to Warren G. Harding anyway, but Hoover, in Ackerman’s words, “repackaged himself for the new regime.” His slickest maneuver was one that became a trademark: playing up the information to which his office made him privy. The new attorney general, Harry Daugherty, “became a convert” to Hoover’s view that the Red Menace had to be extirpated, and subsequent attorneys general, all the way up to Hoover’s death in 1972, fell into line. In Ackerman’s view, Hoover “was precisely the wrong person” for the job of leading this crusade: “Despite his clear genius for organization, Edgar lacked the other essential qualification for the job, the life experience and human context to appreciate the responsibility that came with power.”

Another J. Edgar Hoover?

From this week’s LA Times (June 14, 2007)

The Red scare spawned the tyrannical FBI chief; will a similar homegrown villain emerge from the war on terror?

WHAT created J. Edgar Hoover? He reigned with an iron fist as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for 48 years, until the day he died in 1972. By then, Hoover had evolved into an untouchable autocrat, a man who kept secret files on millions of Americans over the years and used them to blackmail presidents, senators and movie stars. He ordered burglaries, secret wiretaps or sabotage against anyone he personally considered subversive. His target list included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, even Eleanor Roosevelt.

Yet when Hoover showed up for his first day of work at the Department of Justice in June 1917, he was a bright 22-year-old, just out of law school. He still had boyish good looks and was cocky and driven. The country had just entered World War I, and Hoover had avoided the wartime draft. Instead, he was ready to help win the war at home, to save the country from spies and subversives.

What changed this young eager beaver into the crass, cynical tyrant of later years?

The fact is, Hoover learned his attitudes and worldview from teachers at the Justice Department during his early years there, when the country was going through a period much like today’s war on terror.

In March 1919, Hoover landed a dream assignment on the staff of new Atty. Gen. A. Mitchell Palmer just in time to participate in the first Red scare, in 1919-1920, and its signature outrage, the notorious Red Raids, also known as the Palmer Raids. For Hoover, it would shape his outlook for life.

On the night of June 2, 1919, bombs exploded in nine cities across the United States, leaving two people dead, including one of the bombers. One of these bombs destroyed Palmer’s Washington home, almost killing him, his wife and his teenage daughter.

These bombs capped months of escalating upheaval during which the country convinced itself that we sat on the verge of a Russian-style socialist revolution. The first Red scare came on the heels of multiple traumas: World War I, the Russian Revolution and subsequent Bolshevik uprisings in Germany, Hungary, Poland, Italy and Argentina. In the United States, the economy had collapsed, prompting waves of strikes, riots and political violence.

Americans vowed vengeance after the June 2 bombings, and the targeted Palmer pledged to crush the reign of terror. He ordered a massive preemptive strike, a nationwide roundup of radicals. To manage the operation, Palmer chose his talented new staff counsel, young J. Edgar Hoover.

Hoover seized the opportunity. With Palmer’s blessing, he laid plans for a series of brutal raids across the country. Backed by local police and volunteer vigilantes, federal agents hit in dozens of cities and arrested more than 10,000 suspected communists and fellow travelers. They burst into homes, classrooms and meeting halls, seizing everyone in sight, breaking doors and heads with abandon. The agents ignored legal niceties such as search warrants or arrest warrants. They questioned suspects in secret, imposed prohibitive bail and kept them locked up for months in foul, overcrowded, makeshift prisons.

It turned out that virtually none of these prisoners had anything to do with violent radicalism. Nearly all were released without being charged with a crime. Palmer’s grand crackdown was one big exercise in guilt by association, based primarily on bogus fears of immigrants being connected to vilified radical groups such as the recently formed American Communist Party.

Still, Hoover relished his moment on the national stage. He appeared twice at Palmer’s side during congressional hearings, and he faced off against future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter in a Boston courtroom in raid-related cases. Behind the scenes, Hoover demanded more arrests, higher bail and fewer rights for prisoners.

Ultimately, the public recoiled in disgust at the excesses and illegality of the raids, and Palmer saw his political career destroyed. But his young assistant fared much better.

Hoover never lost his anticommunist religion, nor his disdain for and distrust of “liberals” who defended “subversives” on grounds of free speech and civil liberties. He also never lost his sense of entitlement to bend the rules, either to protect the country or to protect himself.

Almost 90 years later, today’s war on terror exists in an echo chamber of the 1919 Red scare. The federal government demands more powers at the expense of individual rights: secret CIA prisons, enhanced interrogation techniques, suspension of habeas corpus. Even the president openly claims powers that are beyond the reach of laws such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The same kinds of teachers who transformed the straight-laced, young Hoover in 1919 seem to be on the loose again in Washington. And that raises a troubling question: Are we today creating a whole new generation of young J. Edgar Hoovers, dedicated government agents learning the wrong lessons from the war on terror, who will stick around to haunt us for decades to come?

Alberto Gonzales: The Worst Attorney General Ever?

So here’s my thought over coffee today: If Democrats follow through on their plans, then Alberto Gonzales will soon become the first US Attorney General in American history ever to face — and probably lose — a no confidence vote in Congress. But is he really the worst Attorney General ever?

The competition is fierce. To start with, two Attorneys General actually were indicted and stood trial from crimes committed in office. John Mitchell (1969-1972), who held post under President Richard M. Nixon, served 19 months of a four-year prison sentence after being convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury for his role in the Watergate scandals. Five decades earlier, Harry Daugherty (1921-1924), who held the post under President Warren G. Harding, escaped prison only by the grace of two hung juries when he was prosecuted on fraud charges growing out of his part in the Teapot Dome Scandal of the 1920s.

But that’s not all. Even putting aside the criminals, you then come to the likes of A. Mitchell Palmer (1919-1921), who presided over the Great Red Scare after World War I. As his signature achievement, Palmer ordered a coast-to-coast round-up of 10,000 suspected leftists, primarily immigrants from Eastern Europe suspected of belonging to the then-recently-formed Communist Party. Almost all of them turned out to be utterly innocent — victims of guilt by association and bungled intelligence. In the process, Palmer’s Justice Department struck without search warrants or arrest warrants, kept suspects locked up for weeks or months with no access to lawyers or family members in overcrowded, makeshift prisons, and ultimately released them without ever charging them with a crime.

Congress considered impeaching Palmer, but its investigation descended into partisan finger pointing. Only Palmer’s young protege, J. Edgar Hoover, who as a 24 year-old staff lawyer in Palmer’s office actually managed the operation, managed to survive the backlash. Hoover, of course, then went on to lead the FBI for 48 years.

Finally, my choice to round out the bottom five would be Roger B. Taney (1831-1833) , who held the AG post briefly under President Andrew Jackson and helped Jackson engineer his controversial scuttling of the Bank of the United States. But Taney did his real damage to the country after Jackson promoted him to Chief Justice of the United States in 1836. Here, Taney gave us such gems as Dred Scott v. Sandford (1856) upholding the Fugitive Slave Law and bringing the nation to the brink of Civil War, and Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842) justifying kidnapping and adduction if done for the sake for keeping slaves.

How does Alberto Gonzales stack up in this exciting race for the bottom? He’s never been indicted for a crime, and has not had the chance to twist the constitution on the Supreme Court. Still, Gonzales has a record on civil liberties that is striking by any standard: his opinions as White House counsel justifying torture, use of secret prisons, ignoring of the Geneva Conventions and of the FISA statute, and his recently-disclosed pressing of John Ashcroft in his hospital bedroom to sign off on even-more-extreme measures . Add to this his record as AG pressing for the suspension of habeas corpus — something even Mitchell Palmer in his wildest zeal never cosidered — and the politicization of the US attorney corps under his watch. It certainly makes him a contender, and he still has over a year left in office to beef it up his claim– so long as his friend in the White House doesn’t fire him and Congress doesn’t impeach him in the meantime.

So best of luck to all the entries. Please weigh in with your favorites.
Meanwhile, all the best. –KenA

Catching Up.

So it was Amy Rose, my astute sister-in-law, who finally confronted me over it. What kind of sorry excure for a Blogger am I to not have entered a single Post in over a month and a half? My last one was March 26 — seven weeks ago. Use it or lose it!! That was the message.

So here I am today, tail between my legs, trying to make amends. Yes, there’s been an ocean of water under the bridge since my last Post, lots having to do with me — good, bad, and indifferent, all mixed together.

Here are a few headlines:

— On the personal level, yes, my new book Young J. Edgar is finally out, with very respectable pre-pub reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, a nice segment on The Bob Edwards Show on XM radio, good, solid opening events in NYC at the NY Historical Society (James Risen of the NY Times shared the stage with me, a real kick) and in Washington, DC, at the best bookstore around, Politics and Prose. C-Span Booknotes has invited me to tape a segment for “Afterwords,” and I’m still waiting to hear from the major book reviews and media. So on all these many fronts, so far so good.

Yes, mine is one of the books tangled up in the Perseus-Avalon-Carroll and Graf denoument that was making big headlines in publishing circles late last week. How it will affect Young J. Edgar, I still don’t really know. Best I can tell, it’s cause to worry, but not to panic. The new owners seem ready to stand behind it. What will happen next, stay tuned….

— As for the world at large, there has been politics galore since my last Post, good grist for cynics of all stripes. Yes, Alberto Gonzales is still Attorney General of the USA seven weeks after I last weighed in on it, long after most Washington cognoscenti had pronounced him all washed up. I guess, if you’re going to have just one friend in the world, it’s good to have it be that fellow in the White House with all the power and the heavy stubborn streak.

My own personal favorite moment in politics over the past month was the one that came during that debate of the ten Republican presidential candidates when Chris Mathews asked if any of them actually did not believe in evolution, and three raised their hands — including a sitting US Senator and two former governors. It is tempting to make a snide joke here about ignorance in high places. But don’t we all feel a wee bit embarrassed as a country that three contenders for the White House would consider it good politics to deny the validity of the last 150 years of science because it contradicts the book of Genesis? Now don’t get me wrong. I happen to consider Genesis to be a very fine book, wonderfully written, rich in imagery, bursting with noble themes, and well deserving its first-in-the-Bible status. But in a day and age when jihadists are murdering people over the Koran and religion is dividing the planet into warring tribes, isn’t this a good time to stand up for science and secular government? Even Turkey and France seem to get this point better than we do, based on recent events there.

In any event, that’s my rant for today. My coffee is cold now, so I’ll stop. Don’t be a stranger, and I’ll try to post more often as well so my sister-in-law Amy will stay off my case over this. Meanwhile, here’s to good caffeine. All the best. –KenA

What does history say about George Bush, Alberto Gonzalez, and the eight fired Prosecutors? Just ask Richard Nixon and Warren G. Harding.

So, armed with my cup of Starbucks (shade-grown Mexican), let me start off this new Blog by jumping straight into the middle of the today’s big hullabaloo: the storm over Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and his firing of eight federal prosecutors under circumstances that suggest political coercion. Yes, federal prosecutors serve at the much-cited “pleasure” of the President, but tampering with the wheels of justice for political ends can be unethical at best and criminal at worst. And Gonzalez has already been caught making several public misstatements on the affair. Hence the big controversy.

Does history give us any useful guide for judging this episode? News commentators have been pointing all week to the numbers of federal prosecutors fired by various prior presidents over the years, the fact that Clinton and Reagan both fired the whole bunch of them at the beginnings of their respective terms, so on. But this misses the point. Nobody has ever argued that an administration does not have the right to make room for new political appointees by dropping some of the old ones. The concern, rather, is that someone in the Justice Department or White House might have been trying deliberately to influence the outcome of specific pending cases – to put people in jail, have them indicted, or protect lawbreakers from prosecution – based on politics. That’s where things get sticky.

Perhaps the starkest example comes from President Richard M. Nixon and the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. Nixon’s case of tampering with a federal prosecutor was a blockbuster – known ever since as the Saturday Night Massacre. His target was Archibald Cox, the bowtie-wearing Harvard law professor and former Solicitor General who had been appointed by Nixon’s own Justice Department as a Special Prosecutor for the Watergate case in May 1973. When Cox decided to ignore the president’s objections and insisted on trying to get his hands on important evidence in the case, specifically recordings of relevant Oval Office conversations that Nixon had secretly taped, Nixon decided to give him the boot. On October 20, 1973, Nixon ordered Attorney General Eliot Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused, as did his deputy Attorney General William Ruckleshaus, both of whom resigned rather than carry out the order. That left Solicitor General Robert Bork, the third-ranking official in the Justice Department, to do the deed.

Cox, too, technically served at the “pleasure” of the president; his independence was based solely on assurances given by Richardson. Still, when Nixon acted to break those asurances, the conflict was so apparent and the public’s reaction so hostile that Congress in 1978 passed a permanent law authorizing Independent Counsels on an ongoing basis in politically charged cases – a step intended to block future presidents from firing federal prosecutors in these situations. Neither side liked the result; Republicans complained about independent counsel aimed against them, such as Lawrence Walsh and his eight-year pursuit of the Iran-Contra scandal, just as Democrats complained about Kenneth Starr and his pursuit of the Whitewater-Monica-gate affair. Nobody shed any years when the permanent law expired in 1999.

Another case of political manipulation in Federal prosecutions goes back to the Teapot Dome scandals of the 1920s. Warren G. Harding was president then and Harry Daugherty, his Attorney General, presided over a Justice Department riddled with corruption unmatched either before or since – bribes, kickbacks, extortion, blackmail, you name it. When two United States Senators, Montana Democrats Thomas Walsh and Burton Wheeler, got wind of the scandals and threatened to investigate, Daugherty sent agents from the Department’s Bureau of Investigation (led by its then 27 year-old Deputy Director J. Edgar Hoover) to investigate the Senators, shadowing them and their families, wiretapping their phones, pilfering their offices, and tampering with their mail. They convinced a Grand Jury in Montana to indict Senator Wheeler for influence peddling, a charge later found to be baseless both by a Montana jury and a Senate investigating panel. When the truth finally came out, Daugherty and his circle were history, and Daugherty himself avoided prison only by the grace of hung juries in two separate criminal trials.

All of which brings us back to George W. Bush and his Attorney General, Alberto Gonzalez.

Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre and Harry Daugherty’s harrassment of Senators Walsh and Wheeler were extreme cases. Nobody suggests, based on the facts revealed so far, that the firings of the eight federal prosecutors rise to the eggregious levels of these benchmarks. Still, they make a point. If evidence ultimately shows that the firings were part of a system designed to pressure federal prosecutors into twisting the outcome of particular cases, to shield friends from prosecution, use grand juries to settle political scores, or to create phony issues in hotly-contested political elections, then all bets are off. The history gives us some clear lessons to keep in mind: First, federal prosecutors might serve at the “pleasure” of the president, but, pleasure or not, there are lines of ethics, propriety, and law that a president may not cross. Second, in the end, the truth always comes out. You can count on it. And finally, the Washington classic: it’s not the crime, but the coverup that gets you in trouble.

Welcome to my Blog

Well, I’ve finally taken the plunge and started a blog. Friends have been telling me for months to try it, and I’ve always refused, thinking I was too old, too technologically backward, too boring, too disorganized, or too pressed for time to do it right. And I wouldn’t want to embarrass myself all over the Internet by doing it badly.

But here I am, armed with a cup of coffee to give it a try.

First, an introduction. My name is Ken Ackerman (that’s me looking back at you from the snapshot), I live just outside Washington, D.C. and you can learn almost anything else about me on my websight (also a new item of the past few days) at www.kennethackerman.com. Why all these new things suddenly in my life at this moment? The answer is largely self-serving. Among other things, I write books, non-fiction histories, complex epics about forgetten times in America like the Gilded Age or World War I, and I happen to have a new one coming out in May. It’s called YOUNG J. EDGAR: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties, and (to be very mercinary about it) here’s a link to the Amazon.com page where you can pre-order up a copy if you’d like http://http://www.amazon.com/Young-J-Edgar-Assault-Liberties/dp/0786717750/ref=sr_1_4/105-7924771-2805203?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1174065283&sr=1-4.

The book tells the story of the notorious 1919-1920 Palmer raids, a civil liberties travesty in which some 10,000 Americans, mostly recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, were rounded up by the Justice Department, crammed into overcrowded makeshift prisons for weeks or months, cut off from lawyers and families, often roughed up and rushed through sham hearings, and then almost every one of them released with no charges ever brought. The reason — much like today — was a war on terror. The Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, like most other Americans at the time, feared that the country stood on the brink of a commmunist-led uprising, sparked by a wave of anarchist bombings in April and May 1919. One bomb in particular on June 2, 1919, exploded in Palmer’s own home near Dupont Ciircle in Washington, D.C., almost killing Palmer, his wife, and his daughter who were in their bedrooms.

To lead the crackdown, Palmer choose the brightest young man in his office, a 24 year-old upstart named J. Edgar Hoover who would later rise to fame as director of the FBI for five decades. For Hoover, leading the Palmer raids was a coming-of-age adventure that shaped his life. I tell the story as much as possible through his eyes, but I also feature the handful of admirable people who had the backbone to oppose Hoover and Palmer at the height of the crisis, including lawyers like Clarence Darrow (of Scopes monkey trial fame) and future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and radicals like Emma Goldman.

How do the Palmer raids of 1919 compare with George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” today? Which was worse, then or now? That’s one of the things I’ll talk about on this Blog, and I hope you’ll chime in as well. I’ll give you a hint: There’s no simple answer. Real life doesn’t work that way.

So that’s who I am and that’s what I’m doing. When you have a chance, please come by and have a cup of coffee with me and tell me what you think. I’ll do the same.

Meanwhile, all the best. –KenA