Hoover Planned Mass Jailing in
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,"
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
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
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
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
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
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.
J. Edgar Hoover was F.B.I. director from
1924 to 1972.
FBI & Domestic Surveillance