FDR’s domestic surveillance

In Roosevelt’s Secret War: FDR and World War II Espionage, Joseph Persico writes that “[f]ew leaders have been better suited by nature and temperament for the anomalies of secret warfare than FDR.” He quotes Roosevelt: “You know that I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does.” As Persico demonstrates (pages 34-36), President Roosevelt’s enthusiasm for intelligence extended to prewar domestic wiretapping of “diplomats, journalists, labor leaders and political activists” in the face of newly enacted statutory bans on wiretapping that had been upheld by the Supreme Court.

“I have agreed with the broad purpose of the Supreme Court relating to wiretapping in investigations,” Roosevelt instructed J. Edgar Hoover. “However, I am persuaded that the Supreme Court never intended any dictum in the particular case which it decided to apply to grave matters involving the defense of the nation.” Persico summarizes: “In short, never mind Congress, the Supreme Court, or the attorney general’s qualms. The nation was in peril.” (Persico’s reference to Roosevelt’s attorney general is of course to future Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson.)

It is astounding that so little note has been taken of President Roosevelt’s actions in connection with current controversies. Daveed Gartentstein-Ross means to redress this deficiency. He writes regarding his current Spectator column “FDR’s domestic surveillance” (co-authored with Adam White):

An obvious problem with the current debate over NSA surveillance is that it’s been personalized around President Bush. Many critics of the surveillance have an obvious hatred for the president that colors the way they see the administration’s actions. Thus, it’s instructive to see how the Roosevelt administration handled a similar situation on the eve of World War II. Our Spectator piece examines FDR’s surveillance program — and finds striking similarities to the present controversy. In researching the article, we obtained relevant memos from Justice Jackson’s archives at the Library of Congress that haven’t been previously discussed in the press.

It should be noted that Justice Jackson was a remarkable man who served many roles in a long career devoted to public service. President Truman called on him to negotiate the agreement that led to the Nuremeberg war crimes trial of the surviving Nazi leaders. Truman then asked Jackson to serve as the American prosecutor at the trial, where he was responsible for what is widely reputed to be the worst cross-examination in history, about which Persico writes in his book on the Nuremberg trial. Persico’s book on the Nuremberg trial inspired John and me to take a look at the transcript of the cross-examination with our own eyes, which we did in this article for Bench & Bar of Minnesota.


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