Racism, Terrorism, and the F.B.I

The terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001 at the Pentagon Building in Washington and the World Trade Center in New York not only took the nation by surprise, but also raised the question of how well the nation’s intelligence organizations were ready to protect its citizens.  The focus of the ensuing investigations ultimately rested a large part of the blame with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which seemed to “drop the ball” on domestic security.  In the months that followed it was learned, and revealed, that the Bureau was given ample warning that some type of attack was coming, and that it even had the opportunity to possibility foil the entire plan.

So what had gone wrong?  Why weren’t leads followed up?  And how could an agency that had built a reputation for heavy-handedness, that at one time was looked upon as the “perfect example of government’s attempts to trample civil liberties,” now use as its excuse an unwillingness to violate civil liberties, and conduct racial profiling, as a explanation of why things went wrong?  Is it possible that the fault lies not with the organization of the FBI in and of itself, but with the direction the American public has forced the upon the Bureau since the 1960s?  It may be that if the Bureau had continued to operate as in did in the early part of the 20th century, 9/11 may never have happened.  In some ways when one examines the Bureau’s past with current events, the whole situation begins to look like a comedy of errors.

To better understand why the FBI failed, it is important to look back to where current FBI policy came from.  The “hands-off” approach the Bureau uses when it comes to investigating individuals today has at its roots, the agency’s past, and while it would be impossible for a tome this size to cover the entire history of the FBI, it is possible to look at a few incidents in the agency’s past to gain an understanding of current operating procedures.   All one has to do is look back to the early days of the Bureau, and its involvement in two racially motivated cases in the early 1900s, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.  During both these times the civil liberties of the individuals involved were trampled, and all of this was done in the name of protecting national security.

In 1910 Congress passed the Mann Act, which made it illegal for any person to transport a female across state lines for the purpose of sexual actives (especially if those actives involved the transfer of money).  It was meant to curtail organized prostitution, or as it was called at the time, “the White Slave Trade.”  The fledgling Bureau of Investigation was given the task of investigating violations of the act, but the Justice Department, “almost immediately interpreted this act to apply…to cases of private immorality, even when no profit motive was involved.”   This of course, was not what the Bureau was created for, and “signaled a dramatic…reorientation of the Bureau’s mission: From the investigation of high-level crime by the politically powerful…to the punishment of high-profile offenses by politically powerless outcasts who challenged American values.”   It would find its first “high-profile” case in the persona of a black boxer named Arthur John Johnson.

Arthur Johnson, better know as “Jack” Johnson was born in Galveston Texas on March 31st, 1878.  During his professional career he fought 113 fights, winning 79 of them and losing only eight (drawing 12 with 14 no-decisions).   He would become the first black Heavyweight Champion of the World on December 26th, 1908 by defeating then Heavyweight Champion Tommy Bruns in Sydney Australia.  This would set off a maelstrom of controversy, as “white” America could not accept a “black” boxer raining supreme over anything (the fact that Johnson had an affinity for white women did not help matters either).  As Johnson’s rein, and overly antagonist mannerisms continued, pressure quickly mounted to find anything to bring him down.

The “revenge” campaign against Johnson was given to the Justice Department, and in 1912 the Bureau began looking into the possibility that Johnson had violated the Mann Act.  The Bureau, which between 1910 and 1912 had only 2,801 convictions of Mann Act violations under its belt, had no real evidence against Johnson, but the case was totally motivated by racial issues, and had attracted wide media attention.  The interest in convicting Johnson became so great that United States attorney for Chicago, James H. Wilerson, told the press that his office “would try Johnson on federal charges,”  and it would now fall to the Bureau to gather evidence to support these charges.  The Bureau believed it had its evidence when Johnson was accused of luring Lucille Cameron, a white prostitute, from her home in Minneapolis to Chicago (Johnson would eventually marry Lucille, further antagonizing racial protest from both blacks and whites).  The fact that the accusations were made by Lucille’s mother, and that Lucille, by her own admission, told investigators that she had acted as a prostitute months before she ever met Johnson, made no difference, and the Justice Department had Johnson arrested.  Knowing however, that the case would not hold up in court, the agency, by order of the attorney general, began looking for a break with which to convict Johnson.  They would get their break when Special Agent Bert Meyer received “a tip from a safecracker…about a white prostitute who had lived with Johnson and harbored a grudge against him.”   The prostitute, Belle Schreiber, testified against Johnson, claiming that he had both moved her across state lines and paid her for sex, and on June 4, 1913, after only two hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of guilty.  Johnson was sentenced to one year and a day in a federal prison and a fine of $1,000.  Johnson would not serve his sentence however, until July 20th, 1920, when he returned to the United States from Mexico after having fled the U.S. in 1913 while pending appeal.

The Johnson case revealed that the Bureau was willing to do just about anything to secure a conviction.  The singling out of Johnson simply because he was black, despite more clear cut cases of Mann Act violations by others that the Bureau never followed up on, shows how political motivations would dictate the policies the Bureau would adopt.  While the then overly imaginative way the agents secured evidence led to the tarnishing the Bureau’s reputation in today’s times, these clear civil rights infractions at the time meant little to the organization sworn to protect national security.

Seven years after the Johnson case, in the 1920s, the Bureau would find its direction changing once again as it main focus would become concerned with monitoring political radicals, trade unions and civil rights activists.  The driving force behind this direction would be the growing concern over Communist and the Communist Labor Party, which American big business (as well as mainstream America), looked upon as threatening to the American “way of life.”  Responding to a series of strikes in 1919 J. Edgar Hoover broadened the role of the agency to cover, “the studying of matters of an international nature, as well as economic and industrial disturbances incident thereto.”   Essentially not only would political radicals be defined as “communists,” but any person who threatened the security of the American status quo, would fall under Hoover’s scrutiny.  And once again racial issues would play a major factor in the decisions in what cases to pursue or not.  One of the areas that the Bureau would focus its attention on was with the rising upsurge of protest activities by black Americans immediately following the First World War and culminating in a series of race riots that erupted in 26 cities during the summer of 1919.  On of the main antagonist of this movement was the often outspoken Marcus Garvey.

Marcus Garvey was born in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica on August 17th, 1887.  The youngest of 11 children, it was as a young adult that he involved himself in the social reform of his country, participating in the first Printer’s Union strike in Jamaica (1907), and organizing the reformist newspaper The Watchman.  In 1914 he organized the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), publishing the newspaper The Negro World, and touring the United States to gain support for his organizations.  Preaching to popular audiences about Black Nationalism, his association quickly boasted over 1,000 branches in more than 40 countries.  It was around this time that Garvey began the “Back to Africa” movement, hopping to finance a move back to the “mother country” for blacks living in both Europe and the Americas.  It was also during this time that Garvey launched several ambitious business ventures, most notably the Black Star Shipping Line, to promote economic independence among black Americans.

As Garvey’s followers quickly reached the 2 million mark, the Bureau began looking into the possibility that the encouragement of black protests, especially by the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), “[were] influenced by the communists [party] and that the black nationalist Marcus Garvey upheld Soviet Russian rule.”   Bureau agents now began to monitor both Garvey’s as well as NAACP activities.  Unable to uncover any wrong doing by the NAACP, Garvey now became the scapegoat for the Bureau, which, because he had been born in Jamaica, sought to deport him.  Looking for any incident that might convict him. Their break came in 1921 when, as a result of “large financial obligations and managerial errors,”  the Black Star Line failed in 1921 and ended operations.  The Bureau now looked to pin the failure on the corporation on Garvey, and in 1923, secured his conviction for mail fraud, claiming “fraud in connection with the sale of worthless stock in [the company].”   Garvey was imprisoned in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary until 1927, when he was deported back to Jamaica.  Without Garvey to move it, the Bureau’s goals were achieved, as the UNIA soon lost it momentum, and membership declined in droves.  Garvey would eventually die in obscurity on June 10th, 1940, living out the last of his days in England.

The harassment of individuals connected with either the communist party or racial issues would continue to play a major role in policies of the Bureau for the first half of the 20th century, but as the 20s turned into the 30s, and the 30s into the 40s, the Bureau continued to come under criticism for its trampling on Civil Liberties, so that by the 1950s and 60s, the Bureau had become more concerned with protecting its own image than prosecuting its mandates.  That is not to say that the agency would not continue to violate civil liberties, but they would become more selective in the cases they pursued, and Civil Rights Movement would prove the battleground over the next direction the Bureau would take.

In 1956 Hoover expressed his reservations in expanding civil rights enforcements by claiming that civil rights groups “were subjects to subjective or communist influences.”   In addition Hoover claimed that the F.B.I was not “a national police force,” lacking the “resources to investigate civil rights violations across the country.”   This statement, in the light that the Bureau had acted exactly as “a national police force” in both the Johnson and Garvey cases, only exemplified how far off the mark the Bureau had drifted, not only from its original purpose, but from the purpose it imposed on itself a mere 30 years before.  Critics of the FBI have stated that “Hoover’s reluctance in civil rights enforcement [can be attributed] to his own biases as a Southerner.”   It is possible however, that Hoover, always conscious of the Bureau’s image, “did not feel there was enough of a public consensus or…political support to outweigh the risk for the Bureau if it pursued civil rights violations more aggressively in the South.”   Hoover was aware of the strong ties agents had made working closely with local police to solve cases, and that the Bureau’s appropriations were dependant on several key Southern members of Congress.  He feared that “more aggressive civil rights enforcement might jeopardize the FBI’s political base in Congress, as well as its relations with local law enforcement agencies, and thus its ability to solve cases.”

In addition Hoover’s priorities remained locked on the consensus that “nothing was more important than domestic security, and that the Communist Party was the most dangerous threat to that security.”   With that in mind the Bureau turned a blind eye to several civil rights, as well as criminal, violations.  A perfect example of this being the 1961 beatings at a Montgomery Alabama bus terminal of several Freedom Riders.   The riders “were beaten by an anti-integration mob as they disembarked.  Local police were conspicuously absent…although an FBI agent was present…simply to witness the violence and take notes.”   Strangely enough, the Bureau was quick to act when civil right protests were seen to be threatening the national peace.  “As [the Bureau] maintained this non-interventionist policy in the protection of civil rights activists, federal officials…prosecuted civil rights demonstrators for obstruction of justice.”   Again, when it came to cases it wanted to pursue, nothing seemed taboo.

It wasn’t until the late 1970s/early 1980s, and after the death of Hoover, that the Bureau, like the rest of the country, would begin to take a more liberal approach to itself, and the investigation of crime.  Once again, the agency was about change its direction, this time from a proactive investigative organization, to a reactive organization.  Haunted by the memories of the Hoover era, Director Louis Freeh told his critics that the goal of the FBI would be to “focus on response, not prevention,” and that “we aren’t violating anybody’s civil liberties.”   Given the task of protecting the nation from terrorist in the 1980s, unfortunately Freeh’s words would come back to haunt the agency in light of the September 11th attacks.  Investigation into these attacks have reveled that the Bureau, as early as August 1998, was told “that a group with ties to al Qaeda was talking about flying an explosives-laden plane into the World Trade Center,”  and that other plans to use planes to attack targets within the United states had been reported.  The Bureau had also been “tipped off by alert flight instructors at Pan American International Flight School,”  that a Middle Eastern student named Zacarias Moussaoui, who had no license and very little flight time, was demanding to book time on Pan American’s 747 flight simulator.  In addition the Bureau was told that Moussaoui had paid for the simulator time with $6,800 in cash.  It was also soon discovered that Moussaoui’s visa had expired in May of 2001, and that he was remaining within the country illegally.  In the past, as with the Garvey case, the Bureau had acted quickly to secure a conviction, and on less information.  But this was the new Bureau, a kinder Bureau, and time around it was not to be the case.

Believing that they had a valuable lead, the Bureau (accompanied by INS officials), had Moussaoui arrested on August 16th, 2001.  Among his possessions taken at the time of his arrest was his laptop computer, which Moussaoui refused to give agents permission to examine.  Desperate to get a look as to what exactly was contained on Moussaoui’s computer hard drive, field agents tried in vane to gain a search warrant to examine the computers contents.  Moussaoui was suspected of having ties with al Qaeda, and in fact a friend of Moussaoui’s roommate, “the subject of a full-field FBI international terrorism investigation,”  attempted to post bail for him. This alone should have given the FBI more than enough “inspiration” to engage in some “imaginative” footwork and examine the computer files.  But, taking the cautious approach, and claiming the need not to appear to be engaging in “racial profiling,” the warrants never arrived, the hand drive was never examined, and further leads which may have lead the FBI directly to the hijackers of 9/11 went either ignored, or were missed completely.  The agency, which had violated the civil liberties of its own citizens for almost 60 years, was, by its own inaction, now made impotent to follow up the leads it would need to prevent one of the greatest attacks in American history.

It is difficult to predict whether or not the September 11th attacks would or would not have taken place if, when Moussaoui was arrested, the files on his computer were opened up.  The FBI had, for many years, ignored the civil liberties of those it suspected of being a threat to national security, especially if those individuals were black radicals or members of the communist party.  However, by the 1990s the Bureau’s hands had been so effectively tied by political correctness and the fear of returning to “Hoover days,” that it became impossible for them to act.  What is interesting is that 80 years after the Johnson and Garvey cases, a nation obsessed with protecting civil liberties would extend the concept of civil liberties to non-citizens, and it is possible that this, more than a failure on the part of the FBI, led to the disaster of 9/11.

It is not to say that the actions taken against Johnson, Garvey or the thousands of others who suffered under the Bureau’s oppression are now justified.  It is important to point out however that when the Bureau’s heavy handedness was needed most, it failed miserably.  Considering that the people which whom they were investigating were non-citizens (as opposed to Jack Johnson and the civil rights activists), one must wonder if the old ways of the Bureau were not the best ways.  The Bureau must never violate the rights of the citizens it has sworn to protect, but by extending this same protection to individuals who are known to have connections to terrorist organization, and who are foreign to our soil, then the Bureau fails to protect its citizens, almost as if they had committed the attacks themselves.

·    Powers, Richard. Broken: The Troubled Past and Uncertain Future of the FBI. Free Press, New York: 2004
·    Theohazis, Athan, ed. The FBI: A Comprehensive Reference Guide. Oryx Press; Phoenix: 1999

Internet Sources

·    King, Martha. About Marcus Garvey and the Black Star Line.
·    University of Missouri Libraries. Special Collections.
·    Wikipeda Encyclopedia.

Article © 2004, 2006 John Rocco Roberto.