Recent news stories about the enormous amount of data collected by the National Security Agency have once again brought into focus the conflicting interests of individual privacy and the need for the government to collect vital information necessary for national security.
The collection of private communications by the U.S. government is not new, and the first instances of wiretapping began in the 1890s, within two decades after the invention of the telephone.
As a U.S. senator, Harry S. Truman grappled with the issue of electronic surveillance by government officials. In 1941, he was named chairman of a Senate subcommittee considering the legal status of wiretapping. President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration wanted legislation to grant the FBI the right to engage in wiretapping so the information obtained could be used as evidence in court. Roosevelt’s attorney general believed wiretapping should be limited to cases of espionage, sabotage, kidnapping and extortion. In each case, the attorney general would authorize the specific wiretaps.
Truman’s committee considered the issue as representatives of the Justice Department presented their arguments in favor of the administration’s proposal. Truman’s subcommittee, however, stopped two House bills from reaching a vote in the full Senate, in large part because of concerns regarding civil liberties.
Following the surprise attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, questions arose about the lack of wiretapping as a possible contributor to the U.S. failure to anticipate the fateful strike. Truman, in Senate remarks in early 1942, stated that the failure to pass the administration’s wiretapping legislation did not mean there were no tapped phone lines. The federal government, Truman said, “resorted to wiretapping in Hawaii a long time before Pearl Harbor ... wiretapping and interception of messages were fully practiced prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.”
Never an admirer of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Truman held serious concerns about that agency’s abuses of power and invasion of personal privacy. Shortly after becoming President, Mr. Truman wrote of the FBI personnel: “They are dabbling in sex life scandals and playing blackmail when they should be catching criminals. ... We want no Gestapo or Secret Police.”
Nevertheless, about the same time, the president seems to have authorized the FBI’s wiretapping of the Thomas “Tommy the Cork” Corcoran, a prominent Washington lawyer, dealmaker and harsh critic of Mr. Truman. A close associate of President Roosevelt and an enthusiastic New Deal operative, “the Cork” considered Truman “dumb” and expressed the view that Truman would “surround himself almost entirely with mediocre Missourians and run the greatest country in the world.”
Corcoran was suspected of “influence peddling” and associations with individuals who may have leaked sensitive government documents. Transcripts of the wiretaps of Corcoran’s conversations fill five boxes in the Truman Presidential Library. Corcoran’s calls included conversations on foreign and domestic issues with future Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, journalist Drew Pearson, former Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., Defense Secretary James Forrestal and Donald Hiss, the brother of alleged Soviet spy Alger Hiss.
But there is nothing of significance in the Corcoran files.
President Truman seemed uninterested in the wiretap reports, and “the Cork,” suspecting his office and home phones were tapped, carried around a handful of nickels to use in various pay phones in his Washington, D.C., neighborhood. In fact, he pumped so many nickels into pay phones that he deducted the cost as a business expense on his income tax returns.
After Truman left the White House, it seems Hoover used the Corcoran case as a precedent to secure approval from succeeding presidential administrations for much more extensive use of wiretaps targeted at domestic political enemies.
Michael J. Devine is director of the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence.