Authors: Tim Weiner
NDLESS STREAMS OF SIRENS
The group had just come up from underground with a new name and a terrible force. The FBI’s hunt for its leaders lasted into the twenty-first century.
The roots of the FALN—Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional, or Armed Forces of National Liberation—reached back to the days when Puerto Rico was an American colony. In 1950, two days after the island became an American commonwealth, two gunmen had tried to assassinate President Truman in the name of Puerto Rican independence. Four of their fellow nationalists shot and wounded five members of Congress in the Capitol in 1954. Twenty years later, the FALN started planting bombs in New York.
The first attacks came shortly after 3:00
on October 26, 1974, when five powerful explosions ripped through Wall Street and Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, causing upwards of a million dollars’ damage to banks and businesses. The second came at 11:03
on December 11, a booby-trap bomb in East Harlem that gravely wounded a rookie NYPD officer who happened to be Puerto Rican. The third came at 1:22
on January 24, 1975, in the heart of the financial district.
The FBI’s Richard Hahn had been uptown on a surveillance detail,
watching suspected spies among the Chinese delegation to the United Nations, when he began hearing “
sirens, endless streams of sirens,” from police cars heading south.
“We drove down there to see what had happened,” he remembered. “Sure enough, Fraunces Tavern had been bombed.”
The tavern was one of the oldest buildings in New York. In 1783 President George Washington had given his farewell address to the officers of the Continental Army from its steps. The first-floor dining room was a favorite lunchroom for the businessmen and brokers of Wall Street. A stairway to the second floor opened into the Angler’s Club, a private association of wealthy fly fishermen. The blast came from a duffel bag loaded with dynamite hidden under the stairs. Four people died; sixty-three were injured, some of them grievously. The FALN communiqué taking credit for the bombing was signed in the name of Griselio Torresola, who had been shot dead trying to assassinate Harry Truman. No one was ever arrested in the killings in New York.
“It was just a continuing drumbeat of bombings and an inability to solve them,” Hahn said. The FBI had no clue about the FALN. Not one of the forty agents assigned to the Fraunces Tavern case had an inkling of the identities of its members, or where the group might strike next. “We went from one suspect to another and we developed our own surveillance teams to follow these suspects around,” Hahn said. “You had activists that were mouthing the same words that the FALN was mouthing in its communiqués”—marching and demonstrating, holding political rallies in public arenas—“and you really had no way of parsing out whether amongst those activists might be your suspect.”
Two dozen bombings followed in rapid succession, along with bomb scares intended to terrorize New York. One hundred thousand office workers evacuated the World Trade Center and the Empire State Building after one threat. After the FALN struck banks and buildings in downtown Chicago, the FBI’s Bill Dyson joined the case. He was one of the few agents in the Bureau who possessed an understanding of the thoughts and tactics of terrorists, gained from five years of experience in intelligence investigations against the Weather Underground—five futile years. He stayed on the trail of the FALN as it carried out a hundred more attacks across the nation and pulled off the most lucrative armed robbery in the history of the United States.
Dyson’s work led to the creation of the FBI’s first terrorist task force. It was so secret that no one at headquarters knew anything about it.
It was done clandestinely,” he said. “We used to meet at Mike’s Tavern. Mike had a police bar, a true police bar. You couldn’t go in there unless you buzzed and Mike recognized you as a law-enforcement officer. And he would allow us investigators, working terrorism, to go in his back room and we could meet and we could coordinate surveillances, and we could work together. But we didn’t have the blessing of anybody!” Dyson was sworn in, secretly, as an inspector with the Illinois state police, whose members, along with officers of the Chicago Police Department, covertly joined the task force at Mike’s Tavern. Years later, a fellow agent asked Dyson what FBI headquarters thought about this endeavor.
“We never told headquarters,” he replied.
ET TO THE BOTTOM OF IT
The FBI was under siege in Washington. The new Congress, elected three months after Nixon’s resignation, was the most liberal in memory. In the wake of Watergate, the Senate and the House of Representatives resolved to undertake formal investigations of the nation’s intelligence operations. President Gerald R. Ford realized that the revelation of those secrets would tarnish the reputations of American leaders going back to FDR. The president’s top aides tried to contain the damage and limit the investigation to the CIA.
Why not add the FBI?” the former director of central intelligence, Richard Helms, asked President Ford pointedly, face-to-face in the Oval Office. “You may as well get to the bottom of it.” Deputy Attorney General Laurence Silberman agreed. “
The FBI may be the sexiest part of this,” he told the president’s national security team on February 20, 1975. “Hoover did things which won’t stand scrutiny, especially under Johnson.”
Director Clarence Kelley was starting to understand that the Bureau’s intelligence operations had broken the law. He feared Congress would impose strict limits on his agents. He beseeched the president to counter that threat by issuing an executive order expanding the national security powers of the FBI.
The FBI relied on laws “
designed for the Civil War era, not the Twentieth
Century,” he argued. The Supreme Court had “reduced to a fragile shell” the statutes against advocating revolution, he said; its ban on warrantless wiretapping of Americans had forced the Justice Department to drop its indictments against the leaders of the Weather Underground, charges built on illegal surveillance. Under the existing law, Kelley said, he doubted the Bureau’s ability to gain intelligence on “terrorists and revolutionaries who seek to overthrow or destroy the Government.”
If the courts or Congress questioned the legality of black-bag jobs and break-ins, Kelley and his allies in the Justice Department believed, the answer was to legalize them. On May 9, 1975, they asserted that the FBI could conduct “
warrantless searches involving physical entries into private premises” if the president gave the orders.
But Watergate had washed away the old idea that the president had the powers of a king. The political climate was hardly conducive to a claim that the FBI could commit crimes on orders from the White House, even in the name of national security. After nearly seven decades of freedom from the scrutiny of outsiders, the Bureau was no longer inviolate.
HEY GOT MY NAME!
A confrontation was coming. Despite strong resistance at headquarters, the congressional committees investigating intelligence already were reading through the FBI’s files and taking sworn statements from its commanders.
A skirmish in the corridors of the FBI was an opening battle in a long war.
The Bureau had started moving out of the Justice Department, across Pennsylvania Avenue. The new J. Edgar Hoover Building, officially dedicated on September 30, 1975, cost $126 million. It was the ugliest building in Washington: it looked like a parking garage built by the Soviet Politburo.
Members of Congress wanted tours of the old and new headquarters. The FBI’s James R. Healy—
a die-hard believer in the Bureau and a great admirer of Hoover—had the duty of escorting Congressman Robert Drinan, a Massachusetts Democrat, a pacifist Jesuit priest, a passionate opponent of the Vietnam War, and a proclaimed enemy of the FBI.
They passed the FBI’s indoor firearms range. Healy explained that an agent only shot at a suspect in self-defense. Someone asked: What if they fire back? “Then we shoot to kill,” Healy said.
“Reverend Drinan started shouting, ‘They shoot to kill! They shoot to kill!’ ” he recounted. “I figured the guy had gone completely bonkers.” Healy tried to move the congressional delegation along into a room holding index cards with the names of people in the FBI’s files; the cards were the foundation of the house that Hoover had built. “Reverend Drinan said, ‘Well, I’d like to see my name.’ As a courtesy, I led him to a young lady who was filing the cards. I asked her to produce a few.” The clerk held up the index cards with a shaking hand. The congressman snatched them away.
“They got my name!” Drinan shouted. “They got my name!”
The congressman demanded to see what else the Bureau had on him. He became one of the first Americans granted the request to see his own FBI file. It included a letter that a suspicious nun had sent to Hoover four years before, calling Father Drinan a Communist plant inside the Catholic Church.
Such was the prevailing spirit when the Senate opened its first public hearings on the FBI on November 18, 1975.
EADS WOULD ROLL
As Director Kelley feared, congressional investigators had dug into the FBI’s past and unearthed some mortifying stories—the bugging of Martin Luther King, the maintenance of a half-million pages of internal security files on Americans, the abuses of civil liberties in the COINTELPRO campaigns, and the misuses of investigative power as a weapon of political warfare.
The Senate committee concluded that the FBI had spied on Americans without just cause. It laid blame for the Bureau’s violations of the law and the Constitution principally with “
the long line of Attorneys General, Presidents, and Congresses who have given power and responsibility to the FBI, but have failed to give it adequate guidance, direction, and control.”
But the Bureau took the rap. Public approval of the FBI plummeted. The perception of the people, shaped by the press, was plain. Respect eroded. The fear remained.
A new attorney general—Edward Levi, the fifth man to hold the office in a three-year span—saw that judgment coming. Levi put forth the first guidelines that ever governed the FBI’s intelligence operations. He told Congress that they grew from the conviction that “
of individuals or groups because they hold unpopular or controversial political views is intolerable in our society.” They defined domestic terrorism as a problem for law enforcement. They limited the powers at the FBI’s command: the Bureau had to believe that the target of an investigation was willing to use violence before an investigation could begin. It was a high standard.
On May 8, 1976, Kelley tried to make amends to the public in a speech delivered at Westminster College in Missouri, where Winston Churchill had warned at the outset of the Cold War that an iron curtain was descending over Europe. He acknowledged that the FBI had engaged in operations that were indefensible, and he said they would never be repeated.
His performance was less than stirring. Inside the Bureau, it was instantly labeled the “I’m sorry” speech.
It was too late for apologies. Seven weeks before, on orders from the attorney general and his Civil Rights Division, Kelley had transmitted a secret order throughout the FBI. Every agent was commanded to report anything he knew about black-bag jobs that had taken place in the past decade. The responses had come back, nearly every one of them identical: no one knew anything about any break-ins or surreptitious entries. But the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department started sorting through that thicket of lies and evasions. The FALN investigator Richard Hahn said the word had gone out among street agents in New York: “Heads would roll.”
Across the United States, agents began to recoil from secret intelligence missions. I won’t take that case, they said. I won’t take that squad. “
Nobody wants to work terrorism,” remembered Bill Dyson, who had become the leader of the FBI’s nationwide investigation of the FALN. “Everybody is trying to run away.” Hundreds of agents thought that “nobody will support me,” Dyson said. “The Bureau won’t support me. The Justice Department won’t support me. The citizens won’t support me.”
Fifty-three agents were informed they were targets of a criminal investigation, implicated in crimes committed in the name of national security. Any agent who had used bugs or black-bag jobs in counterterrorism or counterintelligence might be indicted and imprisoned.
“A STATE OF CONTINUAL DANGER”
faced a case of unprecedented complexity. It had to investigate itself.
Clarence Kelley had assured the press, the public, and the president time and again that the FBI had ceased committing black-bag jobs a decade before. His top aides had told him so; they said the same to Congress and the courts in sworn testimony. On August 8, 1976, four months after he had the facts in hand, he had been forced to admit he had been fooled by experts—“
knowledgeably, knowingly, intentionally deceived” by men at the top of the FBI’s chain of command.