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National Security Letters: An Uneasy Feeling
By Milton Hirsch
Fourth Amendment Forum columns.
"In nature’s infinite book of secrecy/A little I can read”
– William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra Act. I sc. 2
It was autumn 1939, and the mephitic scent of war was in the air. The instructions that Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy gave to Attorney General Robert Jackson came direct from the White House: The Department of Justice (and particularly the FBI) was to “disregard technicalities” in an effort to ferret out saboteurs and fifth-columnists in America’s labor unions. As Jackson remembered it, “They thought that [we] should be unrestrained in wire tapping, stealing of evidence, breaking in to obtain evidence, conducting unlimited search and seizures, use of Dictaphones, and all other methods of the kind.”1
The President was Jackson’s idol as well as his political patron, and Jackson was not in the habit of refusing Roosevelt anything. But in this case he would not compromise. After consultation with FBI Director Hoover (who, remarkably enough, agreed with Jackson on this
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