Freedom's Detective: Everything old is new again

Extraordinary interrogation methods. Domestic surveillance. A war on terror. Even a bungled break-in in Washington leading to the downfall of politicos. If you think that these are all modern plagues in the Beltway, Charles Lane has a history lesson that everyone should read. In Freedom’s Detective: The Secret Service, the Ku Klux Klan and the Man Who Masterminded America’s First War on Terror, Lane tells the tale of Hiram C. Whitley, the first head of the Secret Service, who took to undercover investigations so enthusiastically that it became tough to see the line between law enforcement and crime.

Lane rescues Whitley from obscurity in such a colorful manner that it’s tough to understand how he got there in the first place. Almost from the very start of the book, Whitley comes off as at best a complicated fellow. His scruples were few and malleable depending on circumstance. He went from scandal to scandal early in his life, and did so later as well. At one point, he sold out abolitionists by running an undercover operation for slave interests; earlier, he tried to bluff a business partner out of his interests.

And yet, for a brief but powerful period, Whitley’s talents precisely fit the Grant administration’s needs. Lane brings us a gritty view of Reconstruction that is shorn of the mythology on both sides of the issue to highlight the first American war on terror against the Ku Klux Klan. In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, before the United States federal government really grasped the nature of its new national mandate to enforce civil rights, the pursuit of justice against the Klan had foundered in state and local courts. After having established himself and the Secret Service in pursuing counterfeiters in the new national currency — itself a recent innovation — Grant tasked Whitley to use his undercover talents to combat the Klan.

Whitley got results, but in doing so raised some of the same questions we debate to this very day. How far can the government go in surveillance? How legitimate are certain interrogation methods? What role should the American military play in dealing with domestic terrorism, and how far can the federal writ run in states? There is even a parallel to Guantanamo Bay in Whitley’s largely successful — if temporarily so — suppression of the Klan.

In the end, however, Whitley’s vices end up undoing him, the war against Klan terror, and almost the entire Secret Service. Lane deliciously tells the story of Whitley’s connivance in a plot to conduct a burglary to undermine political opponents that evokes memories of a third-rate burglary that would occur in Washington almost one hundred years later. This scandal also had far-reaching consequences that arguably outstripped Watergate, especially for African-Americans in the South.

Lane keeps up a brisk pace in Freedom’s Detective and weaves a compelling tale that will have readers turning pages frantically. It reminds us of the difficulties the US had in transforming itself into a true national power and of the very real abuses that such a transformation can produce.

To adapt the Hot Air film-review scale to books, Freedom’s Detective gets a 5:

  • 5 – Buy it in hardbound
  • 4 – Wait for the paperback
  • 3 – Remainder bin prospect
  • 2 – Pick it up at the library
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

For those looking for a hero of less moral ambiguity, I’d recommend an excellent biography of Frank Hamer titled Texas Ranger: The Epic Life of Frank Hamer, the Man Who Killed Bonnie and Clyde by John Boessenecker. Hamer was the central character in the recent Netflix film The Highwaymen, an excellent retelling of the hunt for Bonnie and Clyde that contradicts the slander perpetrated by the Arthur Penn film.

Boessenecker gives a much more detailed account of that hunt but aims at a more comprehensive look at Hamer’s life. Hamer also fought the Klan and lynchers in a more direct manner two generations after Whitley. The book inclines a bit at times towards a hagiographic portrayal of Hamer, but still includes some of the warts in Hamer’s life, in which Boessenecker delivers inescapable condemnation. Overall, however, the massive weight of Hamer’s integrity and perseverance shines through, and is also a tale well told.  At the end, Boessenecker also rescues Hamer from obscurity, and there seems little doubt that Hamer’s character calls for that rescue more than Whitley’s. Texas Ranger came out in 2016 so it’s possible to get it less expensively, but it deserves a 5 as well. Pick up both books and enjoy.

Addendum: I interviewed Charles Lane on Friday about his book while guest hosting on Relevant Radio. The podcast is at the link.