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I was a Burglar, Wiretapper, Bugger, and Spy for the F.B.I.
By William W. Turner - 1966
From: A Muckraker's Guide to 1968 & other horrors
(RAMPARTS staff writer William W. Turner served as an F.B.I. special agent from 1951-1961, receiving several personal commendations from Director J. Edgar Hoover. He has also served as consulting editor to the Police Evidence Library series.)
“Don’t forget,” quipped the FBI’s top “burglar” who had been my instructor in the fine art of break-and-enter, “possession of burglar tools in the State of Washington can get you up to ten years.” It was 1958, and I was about to return to the Seattle FBI office outfitted with a set of Bureau-furnished lockpicking tools. The course in surreptitious entry had been part of a concentrated three-week course in the theory and practice of wiretapping and “bugging” euphemistically referred to as Sound School. Recently, when a Nevada district attorney announced he would criminally prosecute Las Vegas FBI agents caught violating the state’s anti-listening device law, I was rudely reminded of my instructor’s wry remark - and of the illegal acts I was subsequently to commit in the holy name of justice.
It was a chapter in my career I would just as soon forget. And now it appears that FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover would just as soon forget he ever authorized electronic snooping.
His Las Vegas minions were caught bugging a number of gambling casinos, a contretemps that brought the FBI a $4.5 million damage suit and probably contaminated gambling connected prosecutions for some time to come. And in Washington, the discovery that in 1964 the FBI planted a listening device in the hotel suite of lobbyist Fred Black Jr., threatened to topple his conviction of income tax evasion. Worse still, it developed that both Black and Edward Levinson, one of the casino operator-victims, had been business associates of Robert G. “Bobby” Baker, Lyndon Johnson’s erstwhile protégée. As a consequence, the impending federal prosecution of Baker stood in danger of being lost on a technical knockout.
The chain reaction added up to an acute case of “embarrassment to the Bureau” - a phenomenon I knew only too well to be the FBI’s Private Enemy Number One. Reportedly, Hoover is locked in a bitter quarrel with his nominal superiors in the Justice Department over who is to blame. Neither, it seems, had the blessing of John F. Kennedy, who, according to his aide Kenneth P. O’Donnell, “despised that kind of thing and never authorized it.” On the horizon looms a showdown between the ne’er-do-wrong director and the popular young senator from New York, Robert F. Kennedy, who was attorney general at the time that the ill-fated Las Vegas installations were made. But the pragmatic Kennedy, undoubtedly aware of the ultimate futility of extra-legal methods (he had attempted to persuade Congress to legalize wiretapping against organized crime under strict court supervision), has already indicated that the FBI cavorted on its own.
The tiff was another example of the old aphorism, “You’re only wrong when you get caught.” More than that, it illustrated the FBI’s growing contempt for democratic frills that stand in its way. During my more than ten year stint I became increasingly conscious of a cynical belief that the end justified the means.
The faceless informers of the McCarthy days did what the legal process could not do. Padded statistics on recovered automobiles and fugitives were winked at because they helped Hoover get ever larger appropriations from Congress. And electronic snooping, whatever its odium, was invaluable because it penetrated impenetrable walls.
The current FBI predicament is not without irony, for a much younger Hoover had once denounced wiretapping as a lazy man’s tool and an obstacle to the “development of ethical, scientific and sound investigative technique.”
But those were the days of Dillinger and “Ma” Barker, and the other flamboyant criminals who could be disposed of with the burst of a machine gun. Today’s organized crime is slick and subtle, and somewhat of a phantom enemy. In trying to cope with it, the FBI experienced headaches and nightmarish headlines it has never experienced before. The resort to illicit eavesdropping has been largely a desperate measure.
At one time wiretapping was at least legal if not a gentlemen’s sport. And since no trespass was necessary to install a tap, the Supreme Court had ruled that it was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure. Nevertheless, Hoover scoffed at the practice, and most wiretapping was done by local police, private detectives and Treasury agents on the spoor of tax and narcotics offenders.
In 1934, Congress passed the Communications Act which outlawed wiretapping. Several years later, as war clouds gathered, Hoover reversed his stand. Backed by Congressman Emanuel Celler, he pushed for authorization to wiretap in matters involving “the national security.” The legislation was tabled, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who admired Hoover’s tough posturing, gave executive authority for the attorney general “to approve wiretapping when necessary involving the defense of the nation.”
By this time the prestigious FBI chief was functioning autonomously, and the attorney general’s approval became in effect a rubber stamp gesture. But the official ledger only hinted at the extent of Bureau wiretapping. Some agents in the field who had acquired the wiretap habit took it upon themselves, unbeknownst to headquarters, to install what were known, for obvious reasons, as “suicide taps.” From my experience, I suspect the practice was widespread.
The end of the war emergency did not end FBI wiretapping. Hoover, a leading protagonist of the Cold War, took to announcing the number of taps - never in excess of a modest 100 - that he had in operation at any given time to thwart the red menace of “espionage, sabotage and grave risks to internal security.” For those with the temerity to point out that FDR’s sanction might have died with him, there was a stock answer: the Bureau intercepts communications but does not divulge them outside the Justice Department; ergo, it is technically within the law.
This metaphysical view of thousands of persons acting as one was vindicated in the Bureau’s mind by the notion that the law was intended for others, but not for it. “The Act was directed against telephone company employees,” a Sound School instructor rather emphatically told us.
That the FBI taps on the one hand and is responsible for enforcing the law on the other has forced a take-it easy policy permitting wholesale tapping by police and unscrupulous private detective. In my 1958 Sound School notes are these instructions on what to do upon receipt of a wiretapping complaint. “No investigation. Send AirTel (an airmail communication in telegram form) to the Bureau. If investigation authorized, have telco (telephone company) employee inspect the tap.” Authorization to proceed was rare. For example, in the year’s period of 1959-1960, a total of 691 complaints were received, yet since 1934 there has been only a handful of prosecutions. One of those singled out for prosecution was the FBI’s old antagonist, James Riddle Hoffa of the Teamsters (he was acquitted). The hypocrisy of the situation was no better illustrated than by the fact that on the very day Justice Department attorneys were asking for Hoffa’s conviction, J. Edgar Hoover was telling a nationwide television audience that his Bureau had 90 wiretaps in operation.
My own exposure to FBI wiretapping started in 1952 when I was assigned to to central monitoring plants for the Bay Area operated by the San Francisco division. Known to initiates as the “clubs,” the elaborately equipped premises functioned behind a business facade. One fronted as a marine architect’s office, and blueprints of ship hulls were scattered convincingly about the front room. But the police were not convinced. Evidently attracted by the furtive coming and going of personnel, they staged a raid thinking they had discovered a bookie joint.
The “clubs” listened in on a dozen or so tapped lines which were fed into a bank of recorders. I suppose I heard thousands of conversations, and I began to wonder whether all the effort was worth it. Most were idle chatter, teen-age talk, or intimacies between husbands and wives or lovers. On party lines totally unrelated talk was intercepted. Occasionally a supposedly privileged exchange between a lawyer and a client came on.
At a San Francisco cocktail party recently I had the odd sensation of hearing a voice from the past that I couldn’t quite place. I studied the face - it was totally unfamiliar. Then it suddenly dawned on me: the voice was one I had heard many times while monitoring the taps in the “clubs.” It belonged to Robert Treuhaft, a prominent civil liberties lawyer and husband of noted author Jessica Mitford.
As far as I knew, virtually all of the FBI’s wiretapping during the early ’50’s was at least remotely related to “national security.” It was in fact an abortive espionage investigation that might have, in a calmer time, ended FBI tapping once and for all. In 1949 Judith Coplon, a Justice Department secretary, was accused of passing classified documents to a friendly Soviet United Nations official. She was tried on one count in Washington and convicted. During the trial an FBI officer denied that wiretaps had been used. It was a key point, since the Supreme Court had long since rules that the “fruit of the forbidden tree,” i.e. any evidence flowing from wiretaps was illegal.
In a hearing prior to a second trial in New York, an FBI employee unwilling to perjure himself admitted that he had monitored wiretaps in the case. It developed that taps had been placed on Miss Coplon’s Washington and New York phones and on the phone of her parents, and that they had been continued through the legal proceedings, thus permitting the FBI to overhear privileged conversations between the defendant and her attorney. As is normal procedure, the information had been attributed in reports to a “confidential informant of known reliability” - in this case a code name “Tiger.” Recordings made of the taps had been precipitously destroyed on the orders of Howard Fletcher, a top aide to Hoover.
In a flap remarkably similar to the current one over who instigated what, Justice Department prosecutors professed astonishment at the existence of the taps while the FBI tried to exonerate itself by claiming it had authorization from the attorney general. “Such authorization,” fired back New York trial judge Sylvester Ryan, “does not clothe with legality the unlawful activities of the wiretappers nor detract at all from the interdiction of the Supreme Court on evidence secured by this type of investigation.” As both the New York and Washington convictions went down the drain, the venerable appeals judge Learned hand observed that while Miss Coplon’s “guilt was plan,” the government had sabotaged its own case.
It was a hard lesson but it hardly fazed the FBI: Hoover went right on proclaiming the number of taps in operation. Wiretapping, however, was fast becoming obsoleted by the surging technology of concealed microphones. The “bugs” were far more insidious - they heard everything, not just guarded telephone conversations. And unlike wiretaps, their installation usually required the surreptitious invasion of a man’s office or his home.
Since no covenant with the attorney general governed bugging, the FBI had a free hand. My Sound School notes, while stressing that wiretaps must be approved by the attorney general, bear the cryptic entry: “Authority for mikes: Bureau authority only.”
Capitalizing on the lacuna, the FBI installed a plethora of bugs while maintaining full public decorum. Once, for example I was instructed by headquarters to disconnect a wiretap whose allotment was needed in a more urgent case; in the next breath I was ordered to put in a bug in its place. Thus the books were primly in balances as far as the public was concerned - Hoover could in all half-truthfulness state that he had not more than 100 taps going. But the under-the-table switch required that I pick a lock and sneak inside a man’s home in order to plant the bug. Mr. Hoover was impressed with my feat and sent me a letter of commendation. (See below.)
The promiscuous use of bugs in criminal cases dates to 1957 and the Apalachin conclave of organized crime. That it too a solitary New York State police sergeant to detect the crime czar’s converging from all over the nation profoundly embarrassed the vaunted federal sleuths. It underscored, in dramatic fashion, a shameful fact: the FBI and organized crime had flourished simultaneously.
In an overnight attempt to make up lost ground, the FBI pulled out all the stops in launching a hush-hush “Top Hoodlum Program” aimed at putting the syndicate Mr. Bigs under the magnifying glass. One important facet of the program was bugging. In a 1959 inspection trip to the Los Angeles office, I noted that bugs had been secreted in the homes of several gangland figures.
Although by the time Bobby Kennedy became attorney general in the spring of 1961 the FBI’s ardor for the organized crime fight had cooled, the brash young racket buster lost no time in pushing his aging subordinate into the pool and making him swim for it. Before long Hoover, who once belittled the existence of an American Mafia, was trumpeting: “The battle is joined. We have taken up the gauntlet flung down by organized crime. Let us unite in a devastating assault to annihilate this mortal enemy.”
The fervid call to arms clearly failed to impress attorney Edward Bennet Williams, who labeled the FBI’s Las Vegas bugging caper “a studied, well-organized, amply financed criminal conspiracy.” If the FBI itself ever thought of the practice in such harsh terms; it was not conveyed to those of us in Sound School. The curriculum consisted of matter-of-fact discourses on electronic eavesdropping and on countertechniques to preserve the security of Bureau space, and was not encumbered with ethical considerations.
Indeed, the Bureau technical program is thoroughly administered. Sound Schools are held regularly when the supply of qualified sound men - there must be at least one in each of the 55 field offices - is in need of replenishment. In the session I attended there were about a dozen agents, all with some degree of electronic background. Presumably I had been drafted because of my entirely technical education.
For the course we were sequestered to a room high in the Bureau’s Identification Building, away from random eyes. The subject matter was fairly sophisticated, including a permutation method of finding a subject’s wire location in the event an uncooperative telephone company refused to release the information. There was, I recall, a jerry-built room where we practiced hooking up concealed bugs, a feat that required some skill in carpentry and plastering. On Saturdays, when the Justice Building was practically deserted, we experimented in finding a particular wire out of the spaghetti-maze traversing the conduits.
We were issued telephone installers’ tool kits and transported to the FBI radio station in the Virginia countryside to learn the knack of pole climbing. At the site there is a cluster of towering radio antennas that completely dwarfs a solitary wooden practice pole. Once I “flared out” when both spikes missed and went plummeting painfully down the pole.
On of the foremost responsibilities of a sound man, we learned, was to develop close ties with telephone company agents and operating personnel. The cozier the arrangement, the easier it was to get confidential data on subscribers’ lines and to lease lines without question. In most locales - New York City is the most notable exception - this was no problem. For example, on one occasion an agent handling a prostitution investigation inportuned me to place a temporary “suicide tap.” When a telephone lineman accidentally discovered, it, I received a call from one of the telco special agents. “Know anything about some wires in the Ballard area?” he inquired. “Guess I do,” I replied. “Ok, forget I called,” he said. The tap stayed in.
Now is appears that at least one telephone company may pay a stiff price for playing along with the FBI. In February 1964, The Central Telephone Company of Nevada was socked with a $6 million suit by Las Vegas casino operators charging breach of contract, conspiracy and invasion of privacy. Company officials grudgingly admitted that during the 1961-63 period they had filled FBI orders for 25 leased lines which were used to channel wires connected to bugs in the Stardust, Riviera, Dunes, Desert Inn, Fremont and Sands hotels. In preparing to pay the fiddler, the officials might have seen sardonic humor in the fact that the FBI hid behind the cover of the Henderson Novelty Co., a “musical rental service.”
The most tight-lipped subject on the Sound School agenda was lockpicking. At the tag end of the three-week session, we were herded into a small room in the attic of the Justice Building, given non-inventory sets of lockpicking tools and several days’ instruction in how to use them. The purpose of all this was assumed to be self-evident.
Breaking and entering a subject’s premises to install a bug or photograph documents is known in the trade as a “bag job,” a term derived from the equipment kit that is taken along. An actual bag job is not unlike the one described by mystery writer Rex Stout in The Doorbell Rang, with the exception that agents never carry badges, credentials or other items that might identify them with the FBI. All possible precautions are taken to preclude surprise discovery. It is verified that the normal occupants are well away from the premises, and an FBI agent sits with the police radio dispatcher to ensure that prowler calls from the target neighborhood are ignored.
During my career I went on a number of bag jobs and I didn’t relish any. It wasn’t a fear of compiling a criminal record if caught - the FBI is the national keeper of criminal records. It was more a visceral thing like the time I narrowly missed being discovered by a friend of the subject who had a key to the house. It was one of those dilemmas that agents on bag jobs dread: discovery and arrest or...the alternative is to act like a burglar by knocking the man out and fleeing. It is the alternative that most old hands recommend. Yet I never intended to resort to it. Perhaps I would have compromised by throwing a body block and dashing out.
Although the FBI high muckamucks keep their hands clean of break-and-enter dirty work, they are quick to acknowledge the fruits of a successful bag job when submitted to Washington in carefully paraphrased form. Often the risk taking agent is rewarded with an “incentive award” of $500 or $1000 in cash. A few recidivist “badgeless burglars of the Bureau” make a steady supplemental income this way.
Probably because of the FBI’s formidable image and its ability to cry “national security” when confronted, its illegal activities have not been challenged by a timid Congress. A case in point is the Subcommittee on Administrative Practice and Procedure headed by Senator Edward V. Long of Missouri. For over a year now the subcommittee has been busily exposing a thicket of electronic snooping by government agencies, mainly the much-maligned Internal Revenue Service. But when Long’s group cautiously peeped inside the FBI’s closet in Miami (where it heard testimony from a private detective that he ha bugged under FBI hire) and Kansas City (where the G-men had tuned in on the conversation of suspected racketeers), it gingerly shut the door.
For one thing, Long was sternly taken to task by his home state newspapers for trifling with the sacrosanct FBI. For another, December, 1965, he received a visit at his Missouri home from no less a personage than Nicholas Katzenbach. The attorney general’s mission, reportedly undertaken at the behest of the President himself, was to prevail upon the senator to lay off the FBI. Evidently he agreed. When San Francisco hearings opened after the first of the year, the FBI had been quietly removed from the agenda and the stentorian senator concentrated instead of eliciting admissions of bugging and illegal entry from agents of the beleaguered IRS.
Yet the Las Vegas casino operators are not vulnerable to persuasion, and the issue will shortly come to a head in the courts. Already the preliminary sparring is underway.
On July 13, 1966, U.S. Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall stepped before the Supreme Court to advise that the bug found in the suite of Fred Black Jr., the convicted lobbyist, had been installed on the express authorization of J. Edgar Hoover himself. Marshall acknowledged that, until recently, the FBI chief had possessed a blank check from the Justice Department to bug whenever he unilaterally decided that “the interest of internal security or national safety” was at stake or whenever combatting organized crime required it. There was no indication of how much previous attorneys general had known about the scope of FBI bugging.
July 13th shaped up as one of the most unlucky days for the FBI in its recent history. But before the day was out G-men had closed in on the principals in a couple of penny ante spy cases that had been kept simmering on the back burner, and stories of FBI prowess once again commanded the headlines.
As the bugging controversy heats up this fall it will be a fascinating game to see if Hoover has enough spy cases up his sleeve to go around.