FBI Spying on the National Lawyers Guild


In 1937, the American Bar Association refused to allow people of color to join its ranks. With the blessing of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the National Lawyers Guild was founded as a multi-racial alternative to the ABA. The Guild’s founding members included the attorney general, several judges, some congressmen, and the head of the National Labor Relations Board.

Three years after the creation of the National Lawyers Guild, the FBI began to conduct secret surveillance of the Guild. From 1940 to 1975, the FBI wiretapped Guild phones, burglarized Guild offices, and sent informers into Guild meetings. The June 25, 2007 New York Times report on the FBI’s program of spying on the Guild omits FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s primary rationale for undertaking this surveillance: "to blunt the Guild’s criticism of the FBI and, if possible, to destroy the organization," in the words of Michael Krinsky, one of the lawyers who filed the 1977 lawsuit against the FBI.

The Guild, which provided legal support for the people, was a thorn in Hoover’s side. In 1950, the Guild was about to release a big exposé on the FBI, prepared by Yale law professor and ex-Guild president Thomas Emerson. No other organization was undertaking such a comprehensive criticism of the FBI. Through illegal wiretaps and informants the FBI learned of the Guild’s impending report. In advance of the report’s release, the FBI launched a pre-emptive strike at the Guild by causing people in the press and the Senate to denounce the report. "So the story became the Lawyers Guild, not the FBI," Krinsky said.

The FBI asked Richard M. Nixon, a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), to call for an investigation of the Guild, on the eve of the release of the Guild report. The investigation led to the 1950 HUAC report titled, "National Lawyers Guild: Legal Bulwark of the Communist Party." It concluded with a call to the attorney general to designate the National Lawyers Guild a "subversive organization." The AG complied in 1953, but when no evidence to support the designation was forthcoming, he dropped it in 1958.

From the 1950s through the early 1970s, the FBI continued to focus on the National Lawyers Guild. The FBI had a list called The Security Index, which identified people, including Guild leaders, to be rounded up in the event of a national emergency.

Hoover’s COINTELPRO (Counter-Intelligence Program) engaged in illegal surveillance of other organizations and individuals as well as the Guild. For example, in a program called Racial Matters, the FBI wiretapped Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s hotel rooms and tried to drive him to divorce and suicide. Dr. King’s voter registration campaign and especially his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War incurred the wrath of J. Edgar Hoover, who went after Dr. King with a vengeance. Groups such as the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) were also on Hoover’s surveillance list.

The revelation of President Richard Nixon’s illegal surveillance of groups opposed to his policies as well as hearings by a select Senate committee chaired by Senator Frank Church led to the enactment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and other curbs on the power of the FBI and the CIA. Today we are faced with President George W. Bush’s secret domestic spying program, which, as I explain in my book, Cowboy Republic: Six Ways the Bush Gang Has Defied the Law, violates not only FISA, but the Fourth Amendment as well.

Bush’s predecessors illegally targeted those who criticized their policies, under the guise of fighting communism. Bush’s rationale for bending the Constitution is fighting terrorism, but his attacks are leveled at disssenters.

The HUAC report and the AG’s designation of the Guild not only violated the Constitution; they nearly succeeded in destroying the organization. Membership in the Guild fell to about 300 members. But the Guild survived and today it boasts nearly 6,000 members.

Members of the National Lawyers Guild continue to work beside those who struggle for economic, racial and sexual equality, and against imperial wars and occupations. I’m proud to have been a Guild member for more than half of its 70-year life.

MARJORIE COHN is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and president of the National Lawyers Guild. Her new book, Cowboy Republic: Six Ways the Bush Gang Has Defied the Law, will be published in July.


Weekend Edition
October 9-11, 2015
David Price – Roberto J. González
The Use and Abuse of Culture (and Children): The Human Terrain System’s Rationalization of Pedophilia in Afghanistan
Gary Leupp
The Six Most Disastrous Interventions of the 21st  Century
Mike Whitney
Putin’s “Endgame” in Syria
Jason Hribal
The Tilikum Effect and the Downfall of SeaWorld
Paul Street
Hope in Abandonment: Cuba, Detroit, and Earth-Scientific Socialism
Andrew Levine
In Syria, Obama is Playing a Losing Game
Louis Proyect
The End of Academic Freedom in America: the Case of Steven Salaita
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
The Bully Recalibrates: U.S. Signals Policy Shift in Syria
Brian Cloughley
Hospital Slaughter and the US/NATO Propaganda Machine
John Walsh
For Vietnam: Artemisinin From China, Agent Orange From America
Robert Fantina
Canadian Universities vs. Israeli Apartheid
Conn Hallinan
Portugal: Europe’s Left Batting 1000
John Feffer
Mouths Wide Shut: Obama’s War on Whistleblowers
Paul Craig Roberts
The Impulsiveness of US Power
Ron Jacobs
The Murderer as American Hero
Philippe Marlière
Class Struggle at Air France
Binoy Kampmark
Waiting in Vain for Moderation: Syria, Russia and Washington’s Problem
Paul Edwards
Empire of Disaster
Margaret Knapke
These Salvadoran Women Went to Prison for Suffering Miscarriages
Uri Avnery
Abbas: the Leader Without Glory
Halima Hatimy
#BlackLivesMatter: Black Liberation or Black Liberal Distraction?
Michael Brenner
Kissinger Revisited
Cesar Chelala
The Perverse Rise of Killer Robots
Halyna Mokrushyna
On Ukraine’s ‘Incorrect’ Past
Jason Cone
Even Wars Have Rules: a Fact Sheet on the Bombing of Kunduz Hospital
Walter Brasch
Mass Murders are Good for Business
William Hadfield
Sophistry Rising: the Refugee Debate in Germany
John Wight
No Moral High Ground for the West on Syria
Christopher Brauchli
Why the NRA Profits From Mass Shootings
Pete Dolack
There is Still Time to Defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership
Andre Vltchek
Stop Millions of Western Immigrants!
Dave Lindorff
America’s Latest War Crime
Ann Garrison
Sankarist Spirit Resurges in Burkina Faso
Franklin Lamb
Official Investigation Needed After Afghan Hospital Bombing
Linn Washington Jr.
Wrongs In Wine-Land
Ronald Bleier
Am I Drinking Enough Water? Sneezing’s A Clue
Charles R. Larson
Prelude to the Spanish Civil War: Eduard Mendoza’s “An Englishman in Madrid”
October 08, 2015
Michael Horton
Why is the US Aiding and Enabling Saudi Arabia’s Genocidal War in Yemen?
Ben Debney
Guns, Trump and Mental Illness
Pepe Escobar
The NATO-Russia Face Off in Syria
Yoav Litvin
Israeli Occupation for Dummies
Lawrence Davidson
Deep Poverty in America: the On-Going Tradition of Not Caring
Thomas Knapp
War Party’s New Line: Vladimir Putin is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
Brandon Jordan
Sowing the Seeds of War in Uruguay
Binoy Kampmark
Imperilled by Unfree Trade: the TPP on Environment and Labor