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The Post’s Poison Pen

In the three decades that I have been critiquing the news media, I cannot recall a story in a major newspaper more riddled with errors and distortion than one published by the Washington Post on August 23. Reporter Joe Stephens wrote about what he labeled “a decade-long war of enmity” by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI against Senator Al Gore Sr., the father of our former Vice President.

The story was based on FBI files relating to Gore Sr. that were released to the public in response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act. It claimed that the files showed that J. Edgar Hoover and “his underlings” at the FBI “stalked” Senator Gore, “monitored his speeches, issued vicious critiques of his activities, blacklisted him, called him stupid, spewed memos and bile about him.”

Stephens said this started when Gore “groused to a colleague on the Senate floor that the FBI was spreading loose gossip about a friend. Gore believed the G-men had unfairly maligned her by tattling to her bosses at the White House that she, just maybe, had sex with a former boyfriend.” Wrong! According to a memo in the FBI file, the words exchanged on the Senate floor consisted of Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois saying, “The FBI does not prefer charges; it provides information,” and Senator Al Gore Sr. replying, “Yet no information is given as to the source of the derogatory statement.”

J. Edgar Hoover wondered what he was referring to, and he asked his aides to find out.

They thought it might be the FBI’s probe of a White House employee who was the daughter of a friend of Gore’s. They had informed the White House that (1) she had allegedly ended a relationship with a man in 1952 “upon believing she was pregnant;” (2) her ex-boyfriend had allegedly declared himself to be “a member of the Huk (Communist) movement in the Philippines” and had been inquisitive about military matters; and (3) in 1937, her mother and father had been arrested, the mother for petty larceny and the father for disorderly conduct. Stephens misrepresented all of this, trying to make it appear that the FBI had no business making this investigation.

Deke DeLoach, the third-ranking FBI official, visited Gore to find out what was bothering him. He was met with a barrage of charges that the Bureau disseminated raw, unevaluated information on innocent people and employed “guilt-by-association tactics.” DeLoach tried in vain to get Gore to cite a specific example. Instead, he charged that Hoover had overstepped in testifying before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee about Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Harry Dexter White. [Hoover had testified that he had informed President Truman that White was a Soviet spy, and Truman did nothing about it.] A memo about the visit concluded that this was what was really bothering Gore. It said that the utmost discretion should be exercised in future contacts with the Senator. Hoover ordered that there should be no contact with him without prior approval.

Stephens says this is the basis for his charge that the FBI blacklisted Gore. Blacklisting is normally applied to putting a person on a list that bars employment or other opportunities or benefits. Gore was not barred from asking the FBI for help, and he did so on several occasions. Stephens claimed that the files depicted the FBI “as rife with paranoia, driven to snooping on speeches before small civic groups and breathlessly shipping Gore’s stray comments about the bureau back to the director’s office.”

He could cite nothing in the files that supports these charges. In eight memos written over a 13-year period there were only 16 pages that included any unfavorable references to Gore. There were so few critical memos that Stephens quoted the one written in 1967 twice, attributing one quote to “a Hoover deputy” and two paragraphs later attributing another quote to “an agent.” He ended his story suggesting the FBI may have had something sinister in mind when it sent Gore’s office, without a covering note, two targets from the FBI firing range that had been requested by young Al Gore Jr. when he toured the FBI building. Stephens said this raised “the question of how the Senator’s staff was expected to distinguish the souvenirs from a threat.” Perhaps he didn’t notice that the Senator’s staff arranged the tour. The suggestion that the FBI would send targets as a threat to a U.S. Senator is an outrage that calls for an apology.