FBI Files On Late Sen. Daniel Inouye Exemplify Paranoia Of J. Edgar Hoover Era

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Yesterday morning the FBI released hundreds of pages of files collected on the late U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye between 1959 and 2003 or so, and it’s taken me this long to skim through them. The vast majority of them date to the Bureau’s so-called Hoover era, when J. Edgar Hoover served as FBI Director (1935 to 1972). The way in which FBI agents during those years scrutinized the actions and words of celebrities and congressional representatives–as well as each and every public mention of the initials “FBI”–has been well documented, and the Inouye files only provide further proof.

More than a hundred pages of the files consist of nothing other than photocopies of newspaper articles that concerned Inouye. Every rumor, tip, lead and threat that involved Inouye–regardless of whether it proved to be baseless–found a permanent home in the files.

Though memo after memo in the files makes reference to the “good” relations that existed between Inouye and the FBI through the years, one throw-away remark made by the senator in 1971–and the local news article that reported it–got the FBI up on its hind legs.

New revelations about U.S. Government espionage directed against the American people (as well as pretty much every other government on earth) regularly appear in the news on a nearly daily basis. But back in 1971, when most people thought the FBI didn’t do anything other than bring down bank robbers in hails of gunfire, news of such abuses was very disheartening.

In March of that year, the American people learned of COINTELPRO, a massive FBI program that secretly (and often illegally) bugged, infiltrated and otherwise subverted domestic organizations, many of which were part of the civil rights and anti-war movements. It was a serious scandal, though in many ways the Watergate revelations (which were just a year away) would eclipse it.

In any case, on April 20, 1971, the Hilo-based Hawaii Tribune-Herald published a column by Hugh Clark, the T-H news editor, on the subject of illegal domestic surveillance. Part of the column read as follows:

“Suddenly, last week, U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye gave us a new perspective on the entire matter. He admitted matter-of-factly that he has had his home and office telephones checked for ‘bugs’ by the Senate’s top electronics man who works under the sergeant-at-arms.”

Clark drew from this revelation an entirely rational conclusion: “If a respected member of the nation’s most important and powerful body–the U.S. Senate–cannot feel secure in using his own telephone for fear it might be bugged by a government agency, we are much closer to George Orwell’s 1984 than we dare to be.”

Almost immediately, the FBI howled in protest. Just a few days after the article appeared, Honolulu Special Agent in Charge Richard D. Rogge forwarded an extremely defensive letter to the editor to FBI Headquarters for approval. Rogge’s letter included the following unintentionally hilarious paragraph:

“The FBI does not and has never initiated the interception of conversations on its own initiative for any imaginary purpose or reason. In fact, Mr. Hoover over the years has proven to be one of the staunchest defenders of individual liberties. He has successfully resisted efforts by well meaning citizens to enlarge our organization into a national police force, insisting that law enforcement belongs in the local community.”

Milton A. Jones, who was head of the FBI’s crime records section and supervised the bureau’s public relations, loved Rogge’s letter. “This is an excellent letter,” he wrote in a May 6, 1971 memo, which is included in the Inouye files. Jones added that the letter was a “good refutation” of Clark’s story. His only concern was that Rogge himself should mail it from Honolulu, rather than have it look like it came from Washington.

You can find that find the Clark column and the FBI’s response here. You can check out the entire cache of FBI files on Inouye at Vault.fbi.gov/daniel-inouye.

Click here to read our previous story on the FBI’s strange investigation into an alleged ‘payoff’ Inouye took from Matson Navigation Co.

Photo of J. Edgar Hoover: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons