The New York Times reported in an article published today that J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, had a plan to suspend habeas corpus and imprison over 12,000 Americans he believed were a “threat” to the United States. That was over 50 years ago.
What is most disturbing is that those in government who find the Hoover idea absurd are the very ones that so strongly advocate for the government’s actions to suspend certain rights after 9/11 in the name of “safety” and “national security.” Earth to those people: it’s the same damn thing.
We have seen this after 9/11 with President Bush’s attempt to suspend habeas corpus with those he declared to be “enemy combatants” (for their sake, the Supreme Court had their say about the habeas corpus issue as to American citizens). We have seen this with extraordinary rendition. We have seen this with waterboarding. All this is supposedly in “our interest” . . . safety, after all, is paramount, right?
We should gladly acquiesce to our rights being suspended? Father Government, please protect us from the terrorists! And, by the way, here is a blank check to do whatever you need to do? It will only be temporary, right, once we win the war on terror? Earth to those people: don’t you know that it’s not temporary?
The Framers of the constitution had a much different view. The biggest danger to society is not outside enemies like terrorists but the government itself. How do you control the government? How do you prevent them from trampling on the Bill of Rights?
The Framers created a simple, yet effective, method of checks and balances to prevent the tyranny of government from taking hold in the name of our safety and protection. Of course, you can have both a democratic government and safety, but a government that puts safety in front of democracy and the rule of law … well, that no longer is a democracy or one that operates under the rule of law.
The lesson of the Hoover documents not only show what a nut job he was, but how government has used threats to America’s security as a justification for suspending the constitution and the rule of law. There will always be threats. 9/11 today. 9/11 tomorrow. War on terror today. War on terror tomorrow.
Our perspective on terrorism and how we deal with it has clearly changed since that fateful day, but the rules on which the government operates certainly has not. Somehow the Bush administration and the Congress, both democrat and republican, have forgotten that.
It’s time to remind them.
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.