1950 January 9

Attorney General McGrath Defends FBI Wiretapping


Attorney General J. Howard McGrath defended FBI wiretapping on this day, finding “no reason” to change the Bureau’s policy. FBI wiretapping had become a major controversy in the trial of Judith Coplon, accused of spying for the Soviet Union. In early trial proceedings, it was revealed that the FBI had used wiretaps “extensively” while investigating Coplon and a codefendant.

ACLU Board member and former chair of the FCC, James Lawrence Fly, on this day sharply criticized the Bureau in an article in the Washington Post, arguing that it violated the 1934 Communications Act. McGrath claimed that the Justice Department had approval to use investigatory wiretaps in national security cases, specifically by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (May 21, 1940) and Attorneys General Robert Jackson, Francis Biddle and Tom Clark (approved by President Harry Truman; July 17, 1946). The controversy died down after the Coplon trial ended, and the FBI continued its illegal wiretapping.

Learn more about the Coplon case: Marcia Mitchell and Thomas Mitchell, The Spy Who Seduced America: Lies and Betrayal in the Heat of the Cold War – The Judith Coplon Story (2002)

Read the Church Committee report on the history of FBI wiretapping (pp. 271-352) http://www.aarclibrary.org/publib/contents/church/contents_church_reports_book3.htm

Read a collection of official FBI documents: Athan Theoharis, From the Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1991)

Learn more about wiretapping from the Electronic Frontier Foundation: https://ssd.eff.org/wire/govt/wiretapping-protections

Learn more: Athan Theoharis, The FBI & American Democracy: A Brief Critical History (2004)

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