The Government and Martin Luther King

Two of the principal actors—Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy—are dead; the third—J. Edgar Hoover—holds most of the secrets to himself. In this reconstruction, the result of six years of analysis and detective work, a lawyer-turned-writer pieces together the facts about the disturbing case of Washington’s spying on Dr. King.

Victor Navasky, one of the founders of the occasional satirical periodical Monocle, and an editor of the New York Times Magazine, took his law degree at Yale. This study is drawn from his forthcoming book on Robert F. Kennedy as Attorney General, to be published next year.


No episode of Robert Kennedy’s Attorney Generalship is surrounded by more confusion, misinformation, and misunderstanding than the tapping of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, telephone. The confusion comes from three sources. First, the general failure to distinguish tapping from bugging— the complicated constitutional, moral, and legal issues involved in each, and the consequent veil of mystery which always cloaks anything to do with electronic surveillance. Even President Nixon contributed to public misunderstanding when he stated during his news conference of June 19, 1969, that he personally checked to see whether J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the FBI, had acted “on his own or with proper authority” in ordering wiretaps on Dr. King and Elijah Muhammad, the Black Muslim leader. ‟I find it [the wiretapping] had always been approved by the Attorney General as Mr. Hoover testified in 1964 and 1965,” Mr. Nixon said.

Perhaps. But most of the rumors about listening in on Dr. King relate, not to taps, but to transcripts of bugs, unmentioned by the President, and a subtlety lost on the general population. This confusion is made without regard to ideology or party. The radical columnist I. F. Stone made the same error when he wrote (June 30, 1969):

While the excuse for tapping King’s phones was “internal security” its chief result was to permit the FBI to spread stories about his sex life.

And Time magazine recently (August 17, 1970) fell into the same trap when it reported:

From a security viewpoint, the wiretaps uncovered nothing. But, Williams reports, they did turn up an astonishing amount of information about King’s extensive and vigorous sexual activities.

The distinction between tapping and bugging is important because at the time (1963), tapping in national security matters with the authorization of the Attorney General was thought to be legal, whereas the legal status of bugging was at best murky; Robert Kennedy admitted to authorizing wiretaps, on a case-by-case basis in the national security area, but he never admitted to authorizing FBI bugs; and bugging, which can pick up sounds anywhere in a room and beyond (as distinguished from tapping, which is limited to telephone conversations), constitutes a greater, and less selective, privacy invasion, something in the nature of a fishing expedition.

Second, Robert Kennedy’s ambiguous and inconclusive “denials” while alive. During his presidential try of 1968, when Drew Pearson printed the charge that Kennedy had authorized a tap on Dr. King’s phone, Kennedy answered indirectly. He said the only taps he had authorized were in the national security area, and he was forbidden by law to say who was and wasn’t tapped. A disingenuous statement, since it sounded—to the uninitiated—like a denial. After all, to the layman “national security” conjures up images of Russian spy rings, the theft of an A-bomb sketch, the passing of papers to a Soviet attaché. In fact, Kennedy’s elliptic assertion was consistent with the admission that he had authorized the tapping of King’s phone for “national security” purposes, as he did. His campaign press spokesman at the time, Pierre Salinger, careful to make the distinction President Nixon later failed to make, nevertheless compounded the inaccurate implication (although technically telling no lie) when he announced in Portland, Oregon: “Senator Kennedy never authorized any eavesdropping [surveillance by hidden microphones] while Attorney General. He did authorize wiretaps in cases involving national security and on written request of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

Asked specifically whether Kennedy had authorized a wiretap on the late Dr. King, Mr. Salinger replied: “Senator Kennedy has not in the past and will not now discuss individual cases.”

Candidate Kennedy, of course, had no trouble denying that he had bugged or tapped Jimmy Hoffa’s phone—law or no law, individual case or not—since to the best of his knowledge he hadn’t, and it was to his advantage to say so. When I asked Robert Kennedy, the day after his Indiana primary victory in the spring of 1968, whether or not he knew of any bugs in the organized crime area (except in Las Vegas, where he ordered them removed as soon as he found out about them), his proof that he didn’t was the fact that he hadn’t authorized, nor did he know of, any illegal bugging of Jimmy Hoffa. “You would think if I was going to bug anybody,” he said, “I would bug the one man everybody said I was out to get—Hoffa. Maybe I should have known about the bugging practices, but the fact was that I didn’t.”

Third, Mr. J. Edgar Hoover’s misleading charges, after both Dr. King and Mr. Kennedy were dead, in June of 1969, that Robert Kennedy, while Attorney General, proposed and approved over the FBI’s objections a tap on Dr. King’s phone because he was “concerned about reports that Dr. King was a student of Marxism and that he was associating with known subversives—men with Communist connections.” These claims echoed the earlier FBI-leaked charges leveled by Drew Pearson during the Oregon McCarthy-Kennedy primary in 1968, and were consistent with Hoover’s general attitude. As one former agent (a ten-year veteran) told me, “I think Mr. Hoover was convinced that Martin Luther King was a Communist . . .”

So first, to clear the air, a little Q and A:

Q. Was Martin Luther King’s phone tapped?

A. Yes.

Q. Did Bobby know about it?

A. Yes.

Q. At whose instigation was it tapped?

A. The FBI’s.

Q. Why?

A. The FBI claimed that a so-called secret Communist who was also a close friend of Dr. King’s was trying to influence him on behalf of the Soviet Union. They requested authorization to tap Martin Luther King’s phone ostensibly to see if the friend was having any success. Robert Kennedy granted it in October of 1963, according to his intimates (a) because the civil rights bill was coming up, and if Dr. King were in any way tainted with Communist connections, it could be used to defeat the bill, whose passage they thought “critical to the viability of the nation”; (b) to protect Dr. King—to prove to the FBI that he was not being influenced by Communist agents; (c) to make the FBI, which had been wanting to tap Dr. King since 1961, happy.

Q. Did all the rumors about Dr. King’s active extracurricular sex life arise from the wiretap which Kennedy authorized?

A. No. The authorized taps were restricted to King’s offices and perhaps his home. Those rumors arose from bugs installed either by local police forces or on the FBI’s own initiative without the specific authorization or knowledge of Attorney General Kennedy or anybody on his staff. Alleged transcripts of these bugs of “goings on” in Dr. King’s hotel room were shown by the FBI to selected reporters and leaked to congressmen. Columnist Mike Royko of the Chicago Daily News and Congressman Robert L. F. Sikes (Dem., Florida) of the Appropriations Committee, for instance, both concede that they have been shown such transcripts (although Royko declined to use the “information”). Hence the confusions, rumors, and half-truths.

Q. By what authority did Kennedy authorize the tap on Dr. King’s phone?

A. Under departmental practice dating back to Attorney General Jackson (based on a letter written by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 in anticipation of our entry into World War II), the Attorney General has felt free to authorize wiretaps in writing on a case-by-case basis when the national security is involved. Since the FBI claimed that a so-called secret Communist was attempting to influence Dr. King to the benefit of a foreign power, the Attorney General believed when he authorized the tap that he was acting under the national security exception to Section 605 of the Federal Communications Act, which prohibited the interception and divulgence of interstate messages. (It has since been superseded by the Crime Control Act of 1968.)

Q. By what authority did the FBI bug Dr. King?

A. Prior to the passage of the Crime Control Act of 1968,1 which authorized bugs in certain cases, the FBI claimed—although it didn’t assert this claim until some years later—general authority to bug on its own initiative by virtue of a memo signed in 1954 by then Attorney General Herbert Brownell which, according to the FBI, gave them the right to bug in cases involving “internal security and the national safety” without getting the case-by-case approval of the Attorney General.

Q. Did Attorney General Robert Kennedy know of this memo when he was Attorney General?

A. No.

Q. Did Attorney General Robert Kennedy know of the FBI’s illegal bugging practices when he was Attorney General?

A. No.

Q. Did Attorney General Robert Kennedy know of the specific bugs on Martin Luther King?

A. No.

Q. Did Attorney General Robert Kennedy know as a general proposition that the FBI was bugging anybody?

A. Probably, but he assumed it was confined to the organized crime area, and he assumed it was within the law.

Q. Did Attorney General Robert Kennedy know of any bugs on Dr. King?

A. Not specifically, although he may have suspected that local law-enforcement officers were bugging Dr. King and that the FBI occasionally got access to their tapes.

Such, in outline, is the Kennedy version of the tapping of Dr. Martin Luther King’s telephone. When I say Kennedy version I mean it is consistent with what he admitted to when he was alive; it is consistent with what his informed colleagues, subordinates, and supporters have conceded after he died; and it is consistent with a reasonable interpretation of those documents which have come to light since.

It is inconsistent only in part with J. Edgar Hoover’s version, which he put out—with his infallible sense of timing—after the murders of Dr. King and Senator Robert Kennedy, respectively. On Mr. Hoover’s behalf it should be noted that he put out the FBI version only after the Bureau was embarrassed by the open court testimony of an agent in a June, 1969, hearing on Cassius Clay’s appeal, in an otherwise unrelated case, that he overheard telephone calls between King and Clay when he was assigned to the FBI’s Atlanta office, where his duties included monitoring a tap on Dr. King’s phone. The agent said he had conducted the surveillance until May, 1965, when he was transferred from his post, but he understood that the tap was continued by the FBI until a few days before King was assassinated. Since President Johnson had prohibited (by Executive Order issued June 30, 1965) all wiretapping without the specific approval of the Attorney General, and since Ramsey Clark, Attorney General during much of this period, said he never authorized a tap or bug on King’s telephone, either the agent was misinformed (which FBI agents are not supposed to be—at least not in public) or the FBI had intentionally broken the law and ignored a presidential directive. In either event, it meant bad publicity for the Bureau. Mr. Hoover’s solution had the virtue of simplicity: he put out a bigger story, and the nation’s attention immediately shifted from the FBI’s blunder to the murdered Robert Kennedy and Mr. Hoover’s revelatory memoranda involving him.

Below, I shall set forth first the FBI story of what happened, second the points at which the FBI version and the Kennedy version conflict, and finally my own understanding of what happened.

According to Mr. Hoover (as told to FBI friend Jeremiah O’Leary of the Washington Star), Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy first proposed tapping Dr. King’s phone in June of 1963. Hoover has a memo from Courtney Evans, the FBI’s liaison to the Attorney General, to “prove” it.

The Evans memorandum—unreleased at this writing—reports the substance of a conversation Evans had just had with Kennedy in which the Attorney General (a) expressed his concern about reports that King was a student of Marxism and that he was associating with a New York attorney with known Communist connections; and (b) wanted to know if it was technically feasible to use electronic devices to prove or disprove these allegations.

According to the memo, Evans pointed out that King traveled constantly and thus was a bad candidate for a tap; also that the FBI doubted the advisability of electronic surveillance because of possible political repercussions.

Nevertheless, on October 7, 1963, the FBI reported to Kennedy that it was technically feasible to apply wiretaps to King’s telephones at the SCLC headquarters in Atlanta and at an unnamed location in New York. Again, Mr. Hoover has a memo to “prove” it, this one the FBI’s request to proceed with the tap “proposed” by Kennedy four months earlier. Kennedy approved the FBI request by signing the authorization on October 10, 1963, and the tap remained until April 30, 1965 (when Katzenbach was Attorney General). Thus, by Hooverian implication, did Robert Kennedy betray his friend and the civil rights movement with which the Administration was so closely identified.

Hoover’s version was, of course, attacked and discredited by the men who had been around Kennedy at the time, as well as by Nicholas Katzenbach and Ramsey Clark, successor Attorneys General (each of whom had, of course, also served under Kennedy). The Kennedy version conflicts with the Hoover version in two essentials: (1) Kennedyites say the tap was Hoover’s idea and installed at his urging; and (2) they deny that Kennedy ever entertained doubts about Dr. King’s loyalty. “To say or imply that this tap was the original conception of Robert Kennedy—that he was the moving force in this situation—or that he had any doubts whatsoever as to Dr. King’s integrity or loyalty is false,” observes Nicholas Katzenbach.

Ramsey Clark, who followed Katzenbach in the job, adds that it was “deceptive” for Hoover to portray the FBI as “a reluctant eavesdropper of Dr. King,” because “Mr. Hoover repeatedly requested me to authorize FBI wiretaps on Dr. King while I was Attorney General. The last of these requests, none of which was granted, came two days before the murder of Dr. King.”

My own inquiries have not been entirely satisfactory because (a) the FBI has given no cooperation; and (b) the men closest to Kennedy have given only limited cooperation, which they attribute entirely to their obligation not to divulge classified material, although one suspects they are also loyal and zealous protectors of the Kennedy reputation. But based on literally hundreds of interviews, exposure to some unpublished memoranda to, from, and about the FBI, and a careful reading of all published material concerning the King case, I feel confident that the reconstruction which follows is the most accurate account yet published of what happened. If there are any inaccuracies, it goes without saying that they were not intended, and perhaps they will smoke out Burke Marshall (Kennedy’s Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights), Courtney Evans, or Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach, each of whom is in a position to give a full and frank account of this strange episode in Robert Kennedy’s career.

From the first days of Robert Kennedy’s Attorney Generalship the FBI began forwarding memoranda reporting “information” that one Stanley Levison, a New York lawyer, a close friend and confidant of Martin King, represented a danger to Dr. King. The precise nature of the charges advanced against Levison I have been unable to find out. Whatever they said, the allegations were specific and serious.

They also charged, in a vaguer way, that Jack O’Dell, a member of the SCLC staff, was either a “Communist” or a “secret Communist,” and claimed he had been recommended to the SCLC staff by Levison (which Levison denies). In informal conversation the FBI let it be known that they would like to tap Dr. King’s telephone, but they gathered that Kennedy was not receptive to the idea.

All of this data is, of course, technically “unevaluated”—to borrow Bureau terminology. But FBI memos build on each other, so that what is “an informant of unknown reliability” in one memo becomes “as referred to in our memo of [date]” in a second memo, etc. And, according to one Kennedyite, “There were exceptions [to the rule against evaluating data] in the memos about Dr. King which have no parallel in other FBI memoranda. They would sort of summarize a lot of data in a way that I can only term a personal attack.” Burke Marshall says unequivocally, “I think the FBI and Mr. Hoover deliberately set out to get Martin King.”

Kennedy had, among others, Harris Wofford— JFK’s civil rights man in the White House—approach King and underline the importance of King breaking off with these men who, according to FBI representation, might be “under Communist control,” as one Justice Department alumnus put it.

Came the spring of 1963, and the Administration was in the process of committing itself to a new, controversial, and “strong” civil rights bill. The nation had been moved by the murder of Medgar Evers, the narrowly averted explosion in Birmingham against the background of Bull Connor’s water hoses, cattle prods, and police dogs. Martin Luther King had written his powerful “Letter From Birmingham City Jail,” and his person incarnated the country’s civil rights tensions. That summer he gave his “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington. That fall a Harris poll was to identify King as the black leader most liked by Negroes (88 percent of those polled voted for him, 95 percent of the black leadership was pro-King). As King gained more and more renown and respect, the FBI increased its flow of anti-King memoranda. One recipient recalls, “Mr. Hoover takes the view that the FBI simply reports information to the Department, and they don’t evaluate it. The fact was that they broke the rule with respect to Martin Luther King increasingly during the Kennedy years.”

Today, rumors circulate that King’s Washington hotel suite during the 1963 March on Washington was “bugged.” If that is true, it was without the authorization or knowledge of the Attorney General. And if King, indeed, was engaged in extracurricular interracial sex, as black writer John Williams all but confirms in his new book, The King God Didn’t Save, then one can further understand Mr. Hoover’s sense of urgency about him. Mr. Hoover considered interracial sex a form of “moral degeneracy.”

On June 22, 1963, Martin Luther King visited successively with Burke Marshall, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and President John Kennedy. In a morning meeting Marshall told him explicitly about O’Dell, about whom King had been “warned” on previous occasions. Later that morning both the Attorney General and the President strongly urged King to sever O’Dell’s connection with SCLC. And they warned him about Stanley Levison, although when Dr. King asked what evidence they had against Levison, they wouldn’t provide any. I have seen internal Justice Department memoranda stating that “we thought it was not in the best interests of the United States” to divulge the nature of the “evidence” (allegations?) against Levison. King was told—without evidence—that Levison was believed to be a “secret member of the Communist Party.” Burke Marshall also warned the Reverend Andy Young of SCLC that since many people believed O’Dell to have Communist connections, his continued association with SCLC “was not in their best interests,” regardless of the truth of the allegations.

With the civil rights movement building to a crescendo, with a good civil rights bill in the wings, with King precariously straddling the increasingly militant younger activists identified with SNCC and the establishmentarian civil rights organizations like the NAACP. with his own reputation approaching its apex, and with a nation not yet fully recovered from the depredations of the McCarthy era when Red taint was fatal, Dr. Martin Luther King agreed to heed the warnings of his governmental friends— the President, the Attorney General, Burke Marshall. He said he would suspend O’Dell and break off relations with Levison. “None of us thought King was a Communist,” recalls one of Kennedy’s close advisers, “but none of us thought the Bureau was wrong on the point they raised.”

On July 3, 1963. despite the lack of hard evidence against O’Dell, Dr. King sent this letter to him:

Dear Jack:

Several months ago you submitted your resignation pending an investigation of your alleged affiliation with the Communist Party, as was suggested by an article to this effect in the Birmingham and New Orleans newspapers. We accepted this temporary resignation because of SCLC’s firm policy that no Communist or Communist sympathizer can be on our staff or in our membership. We felt that it was imperative to conduct an immediate investigation. As you know we conducted what we felt to be a thorough inquiry into these charges and were unable to discover any present connections with the Communist Party on your part.

The situation in our country is such, however, that any allusion to the left brings forth an emotional response which would seem to indicate that SCLC and the Southern Freedom Movement are Communist-inspired. In these critical times we cannot afford to risk any such impressions. We therefore, have decided in our Administrative Committee, that we should request you to make your temporary resignation permanent.

We certainly appreciate the years of unselfish service which you have put into our New York office, and regret the necessity of your departure. Certainly, yours is a significant sacrifice commensurate with the sufferings in jail and through loss of jobs under racist intimidation. We all pray for the day when our nation may be truly the land of the free. May God bless you and continue to inspire you in the service of your fellow man.

(signed) Martin Luther King

Levison was a different story. Although King had agreed to break with him, he couldn’t believe that his close friend—who had been at his side long before King became the country’s leading civil rights figure —would use him in this way. Dr. King had known Mr. Levison since the days of the Montgomery bus boycott when they had been introduced by Bayard Rustin. Indeed, SCLC itself was conceived in the wake of the Montgomery bus boycott, in late night conversations between Rustin, Ella Baker (its first executive director), and Levison, who became a friend in need and deed, managed the SCLC stock portfolio, did free legal work (as did Harry Wachtel, William Kunstler. and others), raised money, planned fund-raising concerts, helped King with his copyright and other legal problems. After a Montgomery grand jury indicted King on a trumped-up charge of falsifying his Alabama state income tax returns for 1956 and 1958, when a deeply concerned Dr. King felt his credibility would be undermined, Coretta King recalls: “Our trusted friend Stanley Levison answered, ‘Martin, it isn’t your responsibility to defend yourself. You are in this trouble because of who you are and all you have done for the movement in this country. It is the country’s duty to see that you are properly defended.’ ” When King was stabbed by Mrs. Isola Corry, a black lady, with a Japanese letter opener in Harlem in September of 1958, it was Levison who met Mrs. King at the airport and took her to see the surgeon who had operated to remove the blade. And ten years later, at the time of King’s murder, Coretta King recalls, Levison “came to offer assistance. . . . Always working in the background, his contribution has been indispensable.”

In her memoir, Mrs. King writes that of the thousands of tributes that had been paid to her husband since his death, “the one which best describes the meaning of my husband’s life and death was written by two of his most devoted and trusted friends, Harry Belafonte and Stanley Levison.”

Levison had booked speaking engagements for King, he had worked on drafts of manuscripts and speeches, he had served as consultant, adviser, confidant, and functionary. And so, despite King’s promise to break with Levison, he would call—from time to time—to find out a date or a location or to get some files. And, as Levison himself told me, “You don’t sever a long relationship just like that.” King had informed Levison of the Justice Department’s warnings, and Levison, like O’Dell—despite believed assurances of innocence—agreed, for the good of the movement, to step aside. But as King checked unfinished business, facts, and dates with Levison, they gradually resumed communication until Levison raised the issue with him: “Aren’t we drifting back together? And aren’t we giving the opposition something to muck around with?”

King’s answer, after some deliberation, was: “I have decided I am going to work completely in the open. There’s nothing to hide. And if anybody wants to make something of it let them try.” And so they resumed their relationship as it had always been.

According to the Kennedyites, FBI officials saw that King hadn’t really broken with Levison. The FBI men argued that this confirmed Mr. Hoover’s worst suspicions—that King was either under Communist control or a conscious fellow traveler. “The FBI kept sending memoranda about contacts between the two men, advice that was given and taken, memos that [Levison] had prepared, speeches he wrote that King delivered,” recalls a Kennedy intimate. And so, in the fall of 1963, Robert Kennedy agreed to the FBI request for a tap on Dr. King’s phones (one on his home, one on his Atlanta office, and one on a New York office), and the agreement was finalized in an FBI-prepared request which the Attorney General signed on October 10, 1963, where it said “Approved.” The language was FBI-ese, but the ostensible purpose of the taps on Dr. King’s phones was to see whether King was indeed the target of effective Communist influence. That the FBI had other motives for wanting to tap King’s phones—such as keeping track of the civil rights leader’s strategy for its own purposes—is, of course, a probability, although such considerations were never openly discussed.

One can accept the Kennedy version of what happened and yet reject the Kennedy interpretation, which, as I see it, has five parts. First, the argument that the FBI instigated the tap, that it was the prime mover. This seems indisputable, FBI memoranda to the contrary notwithstanding. Too often internal FBI memos seem to be written less to record present events than to make a record against future ones. Moreover, every Justice Department and FBI alumnus who will talk agrees that without Mr. Hoover’s insistence there would have been no tap. However, since the Attorney General as a matter of law and fact had veto power over all taps, and was the only one who could authorize them, he is in no way absolved from responsibility merely because Mr. Hoover thought of it first.

Second, the argument that given the same facts Robert Kennedy was given, any other Attorney General would have made the same determination. As a man who had worked with Kennedy in his days as staff director of the McClellan Committee and later served with him in the Justice Department told me in the spring of 1968 (before Hoover made his allegations): “Kennedy had hard evidence. It’s classified. I can’t describe it, but I can tell you this. If you believe at all that the Soviet Union has agents in the United States—unless you believe it’s all a charade— you had to go along.” Burke Marshall says, “I can’t tell you who the man was or what the allegations were, but I can tell you I think it would not be responsible for an Attorney General—in view of the characterizations of what that man was doing and who he was working for—for the Attorney General to refuse a tap. If you take it as being true that there has been an espionage system and that the Bureau has an obligation to do things about that—if you put all that together, I would say you could say he refused too long.”

Of course, when Ramsey Clark became Attorney General he had the authority and, as he has told us, he denied repeated FBI requests—the last one came two days before Dr. King’s murder—for authorization to tap and/or bug Dr. King. Since Levison did not disappear from the scene we must assume that Clark, who approved other FBI “national security” wiretap requests on a selective basis, for one, would have been an exception to the rule which the Kennedy loyalists state with such certitude.

Then, too, it is important to distinguish the allegations against Levison from the evidence for the allegations against Levison.

Since we don’t know precisely what these allegations were, it is difficult to make a judgment here. Nevertheless, having interviewed Levison and talked with countless members of the civil rights movement and the Justice Department, I have made one: I believe Stanley Levison when he says, “I can tell you I’m not a member of the Communist Party and I never was.” Levison believes his troubles stem from perjurious testimony about him by a vindictive former associate trying to clear himself of subversive-activity charges. I don’t know whether this is the case, I don’t know what Levison did or was technically accused of doing. He is said to have been called before the Senate Internal Security Committee, where he testified in executive session. When I asked him about it he told me that although he had nothing to hide, he was reluctant to rehash misleading charges which could only end up in unfairly smearing Dr. King’s reputation. I do know he has never been indicted under the espionage laws, he has never been indicted for failing to register as a member of the Communist Party or as an enemy agent, he has never been the subject of the sort of FBI leaks which got Jack O’Dell’s name into the Southern papers even before he was suspended.

Thus, however grave the allegations, one tends to doubt the “evidence” for them in the absence of further proof. Moreover, if the FBI had evidence against Levison (and if Kennedy examined it prior to authorizing the tap) then the Attorney General was subsequently derelict in not insisting on examining—perhaps on a daily, or at least a weekly, basis —the FBI logs on King’s phones. Yet there is no record that the Attorney General ever asked to look at, no less saw, the actual logs. Instead, business continued as usual. “We would receive scraps of information about King’s travel plans or whatever,” recalls Burke Marshall, “but you’d never know where they came from. The FBI would always identify its ‘informants’ only by number and letter.”

As a Kennedy aide points out, “As far as I knew during the time it was on there was no evidence that supported the notion—the allegation or accusation— that Martin King was a secret Marxist or a profligate. And no evidence came out that the attorney involved had any sinister influence on King.”

Third, the argument that, actually, the purpose of the tap was as much to protect Dr. King from false FBI charges (by proving his innocence) as anything else. Katzenbach told me in late 1968, as he was preparing to leave his job as Undersecretary of State (to which Johnson “promoted” him from his Attorney Generalship after he too had run afoul of Mr. Hoover): “There was some reason to believe that known subversives were making efforts to influence Dr. King’s movement, and the question was how to deal with that, how to confirm whether they were or not, and under these circumstances, really as much for the protection of Dr. King as for any other reason, and not because of any suspicion or feeling that Dr. King himself was in any way subversive or disloyal. Mr. Kennedy authorized a tap.” I am sure that Kennedy and the men around him convinced themselves that the tap on Dr. King was for his own good—although in retrospect it strains credulity (and is unforgivably patronizing) to suggest that it is permissible to invade the privacy of the spiritual leader of the civil rights revolution to protect him against himself. And it goes against everything Kennedy and Marshall and Katzenbach knew through personal experience with the obstinate, messianic, idealistic Dr. King to think that such a man could be persuaded over the telephone to do something he didn’t want to do, something that was against his better instincts, no less sell out the civil rights cause and/or undermine the national security. He was, after all, the man who had resisted the pressures of the head of the Civil Rights Division, the Attorney General, and the President himself to postpone civil rights demonstrations in Albany, Birmingham, and Washington, D. C., among other places, when he thought they were right. He had chosen jail over bail, risked his life, hunger-struck, sat-in, marched, argued and listened and defied as a way of life. When I asked Burke Marshall if he had grounds for believing King so easily persuadable or so easily deceived, he said that he didn’t, although he also said that if he had been Attorney General, he too would have authorized the tap.

One old hand at Justice has pointed out in addition: “If you really want to find out about A’s attempt to influence B, you tap A. not B. That’s the difference between 10 percent and 90 percent.” There is no evidence that Levison’s phone was tapped and some evidence to suggest that it wasn’t, a peculiarity. Andy Young of SCLC once observed: “All life is a recording studio for us,” and on the basis of that assumption all of the people around SCLC decided that since they were not a conspiracy, and since they had nothing to hide, and since they had little practical alternative, they would speak freely over the telephones. Nevertheless, the fact was that if protection was the real aim, the Justice Department achieved that goal when they alerted Dr. King to the possibility that someone was out to subvert him. If they were suspicious of Dr. King, had something on him, or wanted to get something, then the tap would be more plausible. But if they really believed—as they are unanimous in affirming they did—that Dr. King himself was above suspicion, then a tap on him was redundant.

Fourth, and the most common argument put forth by Kennedy loyalists after Hoover got out the official FBI version (although it hadn’t been mentioned to me before), was that the real reason Kennedy went along was that the civil rights bill hung in the balance, that Southerners in Congress would stop at nothing to defeat it, that its passage was critical to the nation, not to mention the re-election of JFK. “We didn’t think King was influenceable.” says one aide, “but the problem is you can be wrong. How do you pit your judgment against the Bureau’s?” Already, the FBI or somebody had leaked insubstantial information about Jack O’Dell, and Hoover was never particularly reticent about these matters. On January 24, 1962, he had told the Appropriations subcommittee of the House:

Since its inception the CPUSA has been alert to capitalize on every possible issue or event which could be used to exploit the American Negro in furtherance of Party aims. In its effort to influence the American Negro, the Party attempts to infiltrate the legitimate Negro organizations for the purpose of stirring up racial prejudice and hatred ....

And in the summer of 1963, a number of senators got word of the rumor and made official inquiry of the Justice Department. Some, like Senator Mike Monroney (Dem., Oklahoma), were told informally about Levison. Others, like Senator Strom Thurmond (Rep., South Carolina), who would stop at nothing to defeat the incipient civil rights legislation, asked, and the Attorney General answered as follows:

Dear Senator:
This is in response to your inquiry of the FBI concerning the charges made in the hearings on S. 1732 that the racial problems in this country, particularly in the South, were created or are being exploited by the Communist Party.
Based on all available information from the FBI and other sources, we have no evidence that any of the top leaders of the major civil rights groups are Communists or Communist controlled. This is true as to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to whom particular accusations were made, as well as other leaders.
It is natural and inevitable that Communists have made efforts to infiltrate the civil rights groups and to exploit the current racial situation. In view of the real injustices that exist and the resentment against them, these efforts have been remarkably unsuccessful.

While there is a certain plausibility and appealing simplicity to a post hoc explanation which portrays the tap on Dr. King as a kind of electronic insurance policy taken out on behalf of his civil rights program (with the nation’s blacks as the beneficiaries), the fact is, of course, that it is unconstitutional, illegal, and outrageously improper, not to mention an egregiously dangerous precedent, to tap a man’s telephone, any man’s, to help the passage of legislation, no matter how desirable that legislation may appear at the time.

Finally, there is the argument, a sort of afterthought in most serious discussions of the matter by Justice Department alumni: Why did he agree to tap King’s phone? ‟Because there would have been no living with the Bureau if he didn’t.” My own conclusion is that this afterthought is the real explanation of why Robert Kennedy went along—an explanation invisible to those too involved in the FBI environment to see what was happening to them.

The passage of the civil rights bill, the re-election of JFK, the national security, the desire to protect their friend, had little to do with it. Robert Kennedy authorized the tap on Martin King’s phone to avoid problems with the FBI. Not merely the present problems of ‟living with the Bureau,” having to face noncooperation (in the guise of procedural regularity) in unrelated areas, risking an FBI torpedo aimed at the civil rights bill, inviting harassment from congressmen, columnists, and other legions of constituents who respond to Mr. Hoover’s distress signals. Robert Kennedy’s calculations had to project a future where, let us suppose in an improbable hypothetical, it was revealed that Dr. King had indeed been the target of an effective Communist conspiracy. It takes no leap of the imagination to project how Mr. Hoover might have used this fact to embarrass the Kennedy Administration (if not at the time, then perhaps later).

The model was at hand in Mr. Hoover’s handling of the Harry Dexter White case. During Harry Truman’s presidency, White, a high-ranking Treasury Department official, had been named as a member of a Soviet spy ring. Because the evidence against White was inconclusive, President Truman chose to keep him under surveillance rather than arrest him. According to HST this decision was taken with the FBI’s approval. But with Truman and the Democrats out and the Communists-in-government issue in, Mr. Hoover waited nine months and then on November 17, 1953, on congressional invitation, he flatly denied that he had agreed to keep White in government, and thereby directly contradicted former President Truman. As authorized FBI biographer Don Whitehead points out, ‟Hoover spoke with a finality about his conversations . . . because after each discussion he had dictated a memorandum to his files.”

Robert Kennedy’s enemies while he was alive and his critics after he died have tried to use the King wiretap as evidence that the Attorney General was cynical, ruthless, and hypocritical, embracing Dr. King in public, wiretapping him in private; listening in on Dr. King’s bedroom at night in order to use it against him in the morning. In fact, it is evidence of something quite different—the distribution of power between the Director, who resented the uppity nigger whom he blamed for many of the country’s and the FBI’s problems down South; and the General, who trusted Dr. King to the point of privately alerting him to the FBI’s worst suspicions.

The Director was permanent, the General was temporary. The General—when he cared enough to interrupt the FBI’s rigid routines—could influence the present, but the Director had a lien on the future. Especially when it came to reputations—reputations of individuals and, by extension, reputations of whole Administrations.

A leaked file, a damaging rumor can, of course, ruin a career. When an Attorney General leaves office, his private files go with him. his official ones go to the archives; but the FBI files—drenched in ‟raw, unevaluated data”—remain. And so the Director— with the FBI files as his private library—is de facto caretaker to the nation’s reputations.

This is not to suggest that an Attorney General with different predispositions might not have acted differently. Robert Kennedy did not share Mr. Hoover’s assumption that Dr. King was a subversive (or subject to subversive control) or his alarmist attitude toward the CPUSA; but he did accept the cold-war hypothesis of a world split in ideological halves, which put him in a weak position to challenge the FBI assumption that every member of the Communist Party (or alleged member) was a potential if not a probable enemy agent whose phone was tappable at the stroke of the Attorney General’s pen.

Robert Kennedy was increasingly sensitive to the invasion-of-privacy issue, and his second (1962) wiretap bill had more civil liberties safeguards than his first; but wiretapping per se did not shock his conscience, and although he gave serious attention to proposed legislation, he was casual to the point of carelessness about existing departmental practices. The fact was that he exercised no control over taps after he signed his approval of them. He had no procedure for reviewing a tap’s relevance or efficacy once approved. He didn’t even keep a log of who was being tapped when. And he didn’t institute any of the reforms proposed in his much-ballyhooed wiretapping bill, even though many of them could have been put into effect on his own initiative.

It was characteristic rather than surprising that he never asked to examine the transcripts of the King tap (as he never saw the transcripts of any other tap). “We received scraps of information about his travel plans, his speaking engagements,” recalls one Kennedy colleague, ‟but we never saw anything like the transcript of a conversation. And of course we were never told where the FBI got its information. That’s not the way they did things.” It never occurred to Robert Kennedy to ask that the tap be rejustified or turned off. (Nor, it might be added, did it occur to any of those who ran the Department in Robert Kennedy’s emotional absence after his brother’s assassination, which came just forty-two days after the tap had been approved.) And so it stayed on through the remainder of his Attorney Generalship, including after the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 was passed, by which time he was moving beyond the shadow of his brother’s murder.

Finally, there was the fact that if Kennedy and his top-level associates were insufficiently sensitive to the dangers, the improprieties, the potential for abuse and erosion of original purpose, the unwisdom of tapping, they were not insensitive to the public relations disaster they would suffer if word got out that King’s phone was tapped—which goes back to the main reason the tap was approved in the first place; the greater disaster to the Kennedy Administration’s reputation if they failed to tap and Mr. Hoover, at some distant date, used it against them. Mr. Hoover’s tactic may have been to threaten historical reputations. Attorney General Kennedy’s habit was to protect the particular reputation of his brother’s Administration.

After Robert Kennedy resigned, in November of 1964, the Director—unable to contain his rage at this celebrated black man who had just won the Nobel Prize, an honor which had eluded Mr. Hoover despite his years of service on behalf of public tranquillity—exploded at a rare press briefing, and twice in the course of a three-hour meeting with a select group of women reporters, he called Dr. King “the most notorious liar in the country.” Later he told Katzenbach, ‟I don’t know what everybody got so upset about. All I said was God’s honest truth.” He was ostensibly referring to Dr. King’s suggestion that civil rights workers in Albany, Georgia, not bother reporting rights violations to the FBI because its agents were Southern-born and/or Southern-biased. But in fact, Mr. Hoover bolstered his blanket charge with private circulation (to selected newsmen and congressmen) of the bugging transcripts already discussed, which allegedly portrayed Dr. King as “a moral degenerate.”

The Bureau, we have learned from documents released in connection with the flap over organized-crime bugs, took the position that they didn’t need specific authorization to bug because they had a general authorization dating back to 1954 and, as one sardonic Kennedyite put it, “All subsequent Attorneys General would have known about this memorandum if only they took the trouble to read the five hundred pounds of paper which the FBI forwarded over the years, properly.”

So now it is generally conceded that during at least some of Bob Kennedy’s Attorney Generalship, the FBI—unknown to the General—was bugging Dr. King as well as tapping him. “When I was in government I couldn’t have believed what they did,” says one who lost his innocence, “but I believe it now.” And when the “evidence” of the bugs comes out— when a “transcript” is actually published (or leaked) —there will be a new flap. And again Mr. Hoover will claim he had authority and believe he is telling “God’s honest truth” (since he possesses a memorandum written in 1954 which he interprets to have given him such authority). And the Kennedyites will rally round the standard and correctly deny that he had any such authority or that Bob Kennedy or anybody else outside the Bureau knew anything about it. The public will be more confused than ever, and what will be lost in the charges and rebuttals and counterrebuttals are the real lessons of the tapping of Dr. Martin King’s telephone:

That you can’t ever protect a man’s reputation by invading his privacy; that no matter how noble the aim (passage of the civil rights bill included), wiretapping has a way of eroding original purpose, especially when conducted by an agency like the FBI, which has a vested interest in the accumulation of secret information; that the underlying relationship of the FBI to passing Administrations—at least in the internal security area—is in part the relationship of blackmailer to blackmailee; that the cold war has tainted the policy-making process in ways invisible to the public and the press; that the fact that in the vast majority of cases the Director has not chosen to exploit his advantage is testimony to his wisdom and our luck, not to the health of the system; that the costs of involving a secret society like the FBI in the fight for an open one—an achievement widely hailed at the time—have yet to be computed. □

  1. But after the Supreme Court handed down its opinion in the Silverman case in March of 1961. which outlawed any bug whose installation entailed an illegal trespass and suggested that physical trespass might not be necessary at all for an intrusion as defined by the Fourth Amendment. Silverman v. U. S., 365 U. S. 505 (1961).