ABC News, in a rather surprising bit of actual investigative journalism, is covering some newly released documents from our intelligence agencies dating back to the 1960s. In response to an Associated Press FOIA request, the FBI has provided records of some very interesting and potentially highly embarrassing exchanges between a young Senator Robert Byrd, who sought secret documents regarding unnamed civil rights leaders of the time. His actions also managed to spark something of an internal war between two agencies over their inability to keep secret documents under control.
U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd obtained secret FBI documents about the civil rights movement that were leaked by the CIA and triggered an angry confrontation between the two agencies in the 1960s, according to newly released FBI records.
Byrd, who died in June 2010 at age 92, had sought the FBI intelligence while suspecting that communists and subversives were guiding the civil rights cause, the records show. Decades before he became history’s longest-serving member of Congress, or gained the title “King of Pork” for sending federal funds to West Virginia, the Democrat had stalled and voted against major civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s. He also belonged to the Ku Klux Klan while a young man in the 1940s, and the FBI cited that membership while weighing his requests for classified information, the records show…
The FBI had provided Byrd only with publicly available information about three unidentified individuals involved in civil rights matters when he revealed the leaked documents to an FBI agent during a September 1966 meeting, a memo to FBI Deputy Director C.D. DeLoach said.
“Why can’t a United State Senator, the best friend the FBI has in the Senate, get information directly from the FBI which he has already received from a third party,” Byrd was quoted as saying. The memo said Byrd then showed the agent Xerox copies of two secret FBI investigative reports and one internal memo.
While the civil rights leaders in question remain “unnamed” in these documents, it wouldn’t take a vast stretch of the imagination to guess who they might have been. Another item which the documents don’t delve into is the cover story that Byrd used during his “investigation.” While it’s true that there were plenty of officials in a panic over possible communist infiltration back in the day, picturing the likes of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King as card carrying commies is a bit of a stretch. When you combine that with Byrd’s later disavowed membership in the Klan, it certainly looks like racial bias may have been just barely below the surface in his efforts to dig up some dirt on leaders of the civil rights movement.
Another interesting note is how the two agencies worked together to solve the problem back during that era, not to mention the level of civility and professionalism which almost looks alien today.
The records show that Helms’ security chief, Howard Osborne, ran down the leak: Two CIA employees provided the documents to an unidentified Maryland county law enforcement official, who then handed them off to the senator.
Osborne told the FBI that both “he and Mr. Helms are distressed over the incident and that they intend to make an example of the guilty CIA employees to insure that such an incident never occurs again,” a follow-up memo to DeLoach said.
The employees’ final fate is unclear, though the memo said Osborne was confident Helms would support firing one or both of the culprits.
The report is a couple of pages long, but well worth the read. An interesting look through a window into the past.