Supplementary Information on Miscellaneous Events in Political History

By: Leon Felkins

Written: August 20, 1997


Hoover/McGrath "Security Portfolio"

On August 3, 1948, for example, apparently without informing any-one outside of the Justice Department and only a very few within, Attorney General J. Howard McGrath and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover agreed upon a plan by which President Harry Truman could suspend many of the key safeguards of the Constitution. Under the top-secret agreement, code-named "Security Portfolio," the bureau was authorized, in the event of an ill-defined emergency, to summarily arrest up to 20,000 persons and place them in national security detention camps. A watch list of those who would be detained -- along with detailed information about what they looked like, where they lived and their place of employment -- was developed by the FBI. The decision as to who was placed on the watch list was left to the FBI and included many whose only crime was to openly criticize some aspect of American life. The McGrath-Hoover detention plan did not require the FBI to obtain individual arrest warrants and it would have denied detainees the right to appeal their arrest in federal court.

Two years later, Congress approved the Internal Security Act of 1940, one section of which officially authorized an emergency detention program. The new legislation, however, presented the attorney general and FBI director with a problem. Because the program authorized by Congress did not suspend the Constitution -- detainees, for example, could appeal their incarceration in federal court -- it placed the department's secret detention program, which offered no such right, in violation of the law.

This incongruity worried Hoover, a canny bureaucrat who almost always sought and obtained higher approval for his questionable activities. For two years, while the FBI continued to secretly establish the detention camps and work out detailed seizure plans for thousands of individuals, Hoover kept badgering President Truman's attorney general for private relief. His request: McGrath's official permission for the FBI to ignore the 1950 law and carry on with the more ferocious 1948 program.

On November 25, 1952, the Attorney General, a heavy-drinking former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, caved in to Hoover. "Pursuant to the questions which you have raised in the latter memorandum, I wish to assure you that it is the Department's intention in the event of an emergency to proceed under the program as outlined in the Department's Portfolio invoking the standards now used," McGrath wrote in a brief note.

This remarkable letter, in which the nation's senior law enforcement official formally advised the nation's top cop to go on breaking the law, remained secret for more than twenty years.

Quoted from: Above The Law, by David Burnham; Scribner; 1996.

Attorney General Palmer and the Female Voters

On July 31, 1919, with [President] Wilson's approval, the attorney general called eight high government officials, including the Secretaries of Treasury, Agriculture, Labor and Commerce, to a three-hour meeting in his fifth-floor justice Department office. The goal was to work out a comprehensive government plan to fight inflation.

A few days later, on August 5, 1919, Palmer emerged from a White House meeting with Wilson and announced to newsmen that "the Department of justice will use all of its agents throughout the nation to hunt down the hoarders and profiteers in food." The full powers of the government, including the war power acts still on the federal books, would be mobilized. Three days later, the president himself, in a speech to Congress, promised to do everything he could to bring down prices.

Shortly thereafter, in a bit of pure politically inspired showboating, Palmer shuffled the justice Department-appropriated dollars to create one of the most curious appendages in the history of the agency: the Division of Women's Activities. The stated purpose of the new agency was to promote thrift, which it did in part by distributing complaint cards so that women shoppers around the nation could turn in merchants who charged excessive prices.

In a subsequent statement in the justice Department's 1920 annual report, Attorney General Palmer explained that "the women of the country, in whose hands rests the power largely to control the cost of living through their purchases, have been organized to . . . hunt out profiteers and report violations of the Lever Act."

The work of the Women's Division was coordinated in each state by a Justice Department employee. Directors were appointed in many counties, who in turn named chairpersons in the larger cities and towns. According to the division, it eventually distributed more than one million pamphlets, arranged for the publication of innumerable articles and answered thousands of requests for information.

The attorney general's deep concern about inflation, his willingness even to create an unheard-of Women's Division, might seem strange if we did not know his eye was on winning the Democratic nomination for president in 1920 [emphasis added]. It makes even more sense if we remember that the woman's vote, for the first time in American history, would become a crucial factor in the upcoming election.

Quoted from: Above The Law, by David Burnham; Scribner; 1996.

Fortunately, Palmer failed (unlike Clinton) in his bid for the presidency, even with this noble effort of getting the ladies ire stirred up over "excessive profits".

More on the enthusiastic efforts of the government in the suppression of personal rights for the "good of the country" from Burnham's book:

The attorney general's blatant little political game would have remained an amusing footnote in the history of the Justice Department except, as is frequently the case with a powerful agency, there were some real casualties. Fair-price committees, which had operated during the war, were soon revived in three quarters of the states and began working with the justice Department to establish fair profit margins for different segments of the economy. U.S. attorneys were instructed to give the press complete details in all cases of profiteering and hoarding. Federal agents began to seize privately held stockpiles of eggs, pork and other commodities that the government believed were being kept off the market to force an escalation in prices.

With the passage in October 1919 of new, and very vague, price-fixing provisions, a special justice Department unit known as the "Flying Squad" was created, which began to bring charges against those who received unjust or unreasonable prices for their goods. By late December the Justice Department reported it had filed almost 180 criminal charges for profiteering and made 100 seizures of hoarded commodities. One of those charged was Jess Willard, who five months before had lost his heavyweight boxing title to Jack Dempsey. Willard was accused of charging illegal prices for his firewood. A member of the fair-price committee in Topeka, Kansas, had paid $3.50 for a cord of wood on Willard's farm. This, the U.S. attorney said, was "double what it should have been.

. . . As a result of focusing on the likes of Willard and Nichthauser, of course, the Justice Department had almost no time to indict large corporations. The failure to investigate the right targets came to bother some editorial writers. When the former boxer was indicted for selling overpriced firewood, for example, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch raised questions about why the department would angle for a minor figure like Willard when "there are oil whales to be harpooned."

What made the program uniquely hateful was that less than two years after Palmer had launched it, the United States Supreme Court ruled -- in a case brought against a St. Louis grocery for selling 100 pounds of sugar for $10.07 -- that the principal law authorizing the effort, the Lever Act, was unconstitutional because its strictures were so vague and uncertain that they violated the Bill of Rights. The law, the court said, was "void for repugnancy to the Constitution." In throwing out the case, the court said the Lever Act was totally arbitrary. Trying to enforce it would be just as unfair as trying to enforce a statute that "penalized and punished all acts detrimental to the public interest when unjust and unreasonable in the estimation of the court and the jury."'

Quoted from: Above The Law, by David Burnham; Scribner; 1996.