C-Span Video of Al Gore 1-16-2006 - The perils of unchecked powerThe perils of unchecked power
A former attorney general remembers the bugging of Martin Luther King Jr.
By Nicholas deB. Katzenbach
THE RECENT controversy over warrantless national securitytelephonetaps, coupled with Martin Luther King's birthday, remind me ofmy timein the Department of Justice in the 1960s. It was a period ofturbulentdemonstrations, marches and sit-ins, many of them led by Kinginsupport of the constitutional rights denied by Southern lawenforcementto black citizens. And it was a time of growing animositybetween Kingand J. Edgar Hoover, who had created the Federal BureauofInvestigation and led it since 1924. That animosity created agrowingproblem for Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy and those of us on hisstaff.
Hoover had built a great institution in the FBI, essentiallyfromnothing. In the public eye it stood for fair and decent lawenforcement— the rule of law — and was a model of integrity andefficiency. Hooverwas a national hero, responsible for putting killerslike JohnDillinger behind bars. Kids wore Junior G-Man badges. DuringWorld WarII, he fought Nazi spies, and during the Cold War he wentafter membersof the communist conspiracy.
But Hoover was getting old. Hebelieved the world was questioning andrejecting the values he held outas fundamental — patriotism, respectfor law and order, sexual moresgrounded in marriage and family, thework ethic. He detested what hesaw as a growing culture ofpermissiveness, and, as a conservativeSoutherner, he seriouslyquestioned the idea of racial equality.
Hoover was troubled by the activities of King. He did not approve oftheconstant sit-ins and demonstrations that he saw more as breakinglawsthan as a protest against their unfairness. The FBI workedregularlywith local law enforcement, and he wished to preserve thatrelationship.
What bothered him even more, however, was thefrequent public criticismby King and his followers of the FBI for notprotecting demonstratorsfrom local sheriff's deputies. One did nothave to be long in theJustice Department to learn that to criticizethe FBI was an inexcusablesin in Hoover's eyes.
In October1963, Hoover requested Atty. Gen. Kennedy to approve a wiretap onKing's telephone.