secrecy {fragments}

~ musings on secrecy ~

George Seldes ~ Installment 2

The second file in the Seldes series I received from the FBI (Section 1 (1116559)_July1941) is essentially a rebuttal to stories reported in In Fact May 12, 1941 (available at Internet Archive) on union busting, California CIO leader Harry Bridges, and FBI’s role in strikebreaking, surveilling, and “framing” activists. It’s not clear who authored the redacted 71 page document as it there is no official stamp as an FBI internal memo.

The document critiques the “hop, skip and jump tactics” of the In Fact articles (p.61) as well as disputes many of the issues raised by Seldes in the issue. This particular file is interesting for its mention of several items: the emphasis on the FBI’s mission of  “national defense work” (p. 3), the FBI’s role in following the rule of law, refutation of ill treatment of 21 individuals protesting the TVA (p.9), compulsory fingerprinting of  WWI soldiers and industrial workers (p. 20-21), FBI secrecy (p.50-51), dismissal of the In Fact articles based on “lack of specific examples,” (p.65), defense of J. Edgar Hoover as FBI Director (p.65-66), and discussion of FBI records management procedures, especially its “dossiers” (p. 66) and notorious card index. The document also takes Seldes to task in confronting past Bureau abuses as “the point at issue is the FBI today” (p.41). And spying by “thousands of associations and agencies” that cooperated with the FBI by “furnishing it pertinent information concerning its cases and investigations” is explained away as the “American way of doing things” (p.15-16).

While it is clear that Seldes often did not directly cite sources in his In Fact articles, we must place his work in the context of popular writing and reporting. Seldes was a newspaperman and wrote in this style. Without fact checking every In Fact article, it is impossible to learn if Seldes inflated facts and first hand accounts. The best we can do is place Seldes’ works alongside ongoing historical scholarship on the FBI with the knowledge that the Bureau compartmentalized its information internally and externally to congressional committees and the public. In other words, Seldes was working under asymmetric conditions, and in a sense, created a counterfactual history.

As such, readers are encouraged to place this file in context with recent scholarship on FBI surveillance by researchers Richard Gid Powers (Broken:The troubled past and uncertain future of the FBI, Free Press, 2004), Ivan Greenberg (Surveillance in America: Critical analysis of the FBI, 1920 to the present, Lexington Books, 2012), and the prolific Athan G. Theoharis (Spying on Americans:Political surveillance from Hoover to the Huston plan, Temple University Press, 1978; From the secret files of J. Edgar Hoover, I.R. Dee, 1991; The FBI & American democracy: A brief critical history,University Press of Kansas,2004; The FBI: A comprehensive reference guide, Oryx Press, 1999; Abuse of power: How Cold War surveillance and secrecy policy shaped the response to 9/11, Temple University Press, 2011).

Installment 3 | Remaining records