In April 1976 the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, headed by Senator Frank Church, made its valedictory report on domestic spying and other intelligence agency abuses. The 2,000-page Church committee report identified victims of wiretapping abuses by name, including Martin Luther King, Jr., several newsmen, and aides to Henry Kissinger.
The report also included a cryptic reference to the wiretapping of an unnamed “former Roosevelt White House aide” between June 1945 and May 1948. The Washington Post speculated that the person involved was Thomas (Tommy the Cork) Corcoran, an influential Washington lawyer and power broker. But the story went largely untold because the documentation linking it to Corcoran was lacking and because other revelations, especially the wiretap on King, dominated the media post-mortems. Now, however, a considerable body of evidence, including Corcoran’s own substantial Federal Bureau of Investigation file, crucial internal Bureau memorandums and the wiretap transcripts themselves, has been made public, much of it under the Freedom of Information Act. The story of the most extensive partisan political wiretap instigated by any postwar president can at last be fully revealed.
The evidence shows that just under six weeks after assuming the presidency, Harry Truman had Edward McKim, his top aide and close friend, ask the FBI to place a wiretap on Corcoran. Although the order for a tap on the flamboyant lawyer came from the White House, the idea that Truman might eavesdrop on his political enemies was planted by J. Edgar Hoover, who was resentful of Corcoran’s supposed efforts to depose him and eager to ingratiate himself with the untried president. The FBI promptly installed the tap but, contrary to Justice Department rules on warrantless wiretaps, never obtained oral or written approval for it from Attorney General Tom Clark. For more than two years, Truman received summaries and transcripts from the round-the-clock tap through his military aide and poker companion General Harry Vaughan. Truman retained the wiretap reports and transcripts in his personal files until his death, in 1972. Then they were deposited in his presidential library in Independence, Missouri. The transcripts remained closed until Corcoran died, in December 1981, and were only recently opened to researchers.
The conversations of Tommy Corcoran cover a diverse range of foreign and domestic issues, which is not surprising, since he regularly chatted with such movers and shakers as Nelson Rockefeller, Drew Pearson, Harold Ickes, Lister Hill, Henry Morgenthau, Tom Clark, Francis Biddle, Alfred McCormack, Donald Hiss (Alger’s brother), Abe Fortas and James Forrestal. The transcripts will be required and highly colorful reading for historians writing about the purging of the New Dealers from the Truman administration, the use of the atomic bomb, early McCarthyism, the China lobby, Democratic politics, and the machinations of Washington power brokers.
In the transcripts, Corcoran says Truman is “dumb” because he thinks he can “surround himself almost entirely with mediocre Missourians and run the greatest country in the world.” He describes his own “troubles” with what he calls “the pro-Russians in the [FDR] White House.” He calls liberals, including Henry Wallace, Claude Pepper, and Hugo Black, “a bunch of guys that had the world in their hands last year” and are now “a helpless bunch of sheep.” He tells columnist Drew Pearson in August 1945 that he thinks the only reason the United States hasn’t dropped more atom bombs on “the Japs” is that “we and the British are sort of in an anti-Russian way and want to try to keep the Japs together as a nation,” whereas “the Russians and the Chinks want to bust that nation up.” Commiserating with the newly fired Nelson Rockefeller, he blames Rocky’s fate on “that wild Commie-kike crowd that are sure that if you’re not willing to dissolve all existing forms of society to their benefit, you’re an s-o-b.”
Why did Truman do it? Why Tommy Corcoran?
A graduate of Harvard Law School and protégé of Felix Frankfurter, Corcoran was one of the many young men attracted to Washington by the New Deal. In 1933, with Ben Cohen, a shy lawyer from Muncie, Indiana, the 32-year-old Corcoran took an obscure position in the executive branch for the respectable wage of $8,000.
Corcoran and Cohen’s first task was to draft the Federal Securities Act of 1933. “Corcorancone,” as the press dubbed them, went on to collaborate on some of the most important legislation passed during the Roosevelt era: the Tennessee Valley Act of 1933, the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, the Federal Housing Administration Act of 1934 and the Public Utilities Act of 1935. Many were drafted during all-night sessions at the “little house on R Street,” which Corcoran and Cohen shared with other young New Deal lawyers.
In 1940, Corcoran left the government and a year later opened his own Washington law office. The Wall Street interests that had damned Corcoran for his “irresponsible experimentation” suddenly flocked to his office, and in his first year of practice he earned $259,000. Almost imperceptibly, a split developed between Corcoran and some of his erstwhile colleagues. As historian John Morton Blum notes: “Corcoran was regarded by his fellow New Dealers as a man who had once done a lot of good. They would therefore still befriend him, but not entrust public matters in his hands.”
Truman’s distrust of Corcoran was more visceral. He was not at home with the old New Dealers, who thought him unworthy of Roosevelt’s mantle. Tommy the Cork opposed Truman’s nomination as vice president and, like many Roosevelt liberals, supported Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas for that slot. In March 1947 an FBI official reported to Hoover that the president repeatedly expressed “to a considerable number of people the fact that there were four person who were ‘poison’ to him, with whom he would never make peace and whose views and associates he would always oppose. One of the four was Tommy Corcoran.”
In 1948, Corcoran backed Douglas for the presidency. When Truman, assured of a first-ballot nomination, offered the justice the number-two slot, Douglas politely refused. His most enthusiastic backer, Corcoran, reportedly said at the time, “Why be a number-two man to a number-two man?” During the ensuing campaign Truman wrote in his diary: “He [Douglas] belongs to that crowd of Tommy Corcoran, Harold Ickes, Claude Pepper crackpots whose word is worth less than Jimmy Roosevelt’s . . . No professional liberal is intellectually honest.”
Truman may also have regarded Corcoran as a shady character, engaged in some kind of illegal activity. When the Truman committee conducted its investigations into war profiteering, Corcoran was summoned to testify about the large fees he had received from defense contractors and his alleged influence-peddling. Hoover may have preyed on Truman’s distrust of Corcoran by holding out the prospect that the tap would produce evidence of corruption. In sum, Truman may have thought he was acting for clean government.
Hoover also had reasons for wanting to take Corcoran down a peg or two. A 1964 profile of Tommy the Cork in the Bureau’s files, which was released to Corcoran under the FOIA, says in part:
We have had considerable difficulty with Corcoran in the past. In 1940 [when the Bureau started its file on him] it was reported that Corcoran was the “brains” behind a campaign to smear the director and have him removed as head of the FBI. It was reported at the time that “Corcoran had been nursing a long-time animosity for Hoover” and was intent on driving him into private life.
If politics is the accumulation of obligations, Hoover was intent on putting his new boss into debt. A month and a half after Truman was sworn in, the director introduced the White House to the political bounty that could be derived from wiretaps. On May 23, 1945, Hoover provided Truman’s trusted aides McKim and Vaughan with a “Personal and Confidential” report concerning activities of a prominent New Dealer, Edward Prichard, Jr., a high-level official in the White House. Included were transcripts of conversations that Prichard had had with Felix Frankfurter and Drew Pearson. The Church committee was never able to establish who authorized this wiretap or what its purpose was. Hoover might have initiated it on his own authority – to test the waters, so to speak.
The bait proved irresistible. On June 2, 1945, McKim told the FBI’s liaison to the White House, M.E. Gurnea, about Truman’s reaction to the revelations from the Prichard tap. According to an FBI document, McKim said he’d been “afraid to show it to the president until they were on the [president’s] boat and out in the river,” and that Truman, after reading it, said that some parts of it were “comical” and that overall it was the “damnedest thing I have ever read.” McKim told Gurnea that “he and the president” wanted the Prichard tap to continue. Then, according to Gurnea, McKim said that “Thomas Corcoran has also been engaged in questionable activities, and that he wanted a technical placed on his telephone line.”
There were two separate taps on Corcoran. The first lasted from June 1945 until April 1947, and the second from mid-April to mid-May 1948. Their existence was a closely held secret without the Bureau, although according to a 1950 FBI memorandum, “All the main lines, including Corcoran’s unlisted phone at his office and the phone in his home, were being monitored.” Only the agents actually listening in on Corcoran’s calls, together with Hoover’s top-most aides, knew about the tap. The Washington Field Office installed the tap but was not privy to information from it. One supervisor at the Bureau oversaw preparation of the transcripts each day. If he decided that something had been said of immediate interest to Hoover (invariably gossip, often inspired by Pearson’s column that day), a transcript of that portion of the wiretap would be forwarded to the director in less than twenty-four hours. When the full transcript became available, about three times a week, Hoover would personally sign a lengthy summary and send it by special messenger to the White House, along with the transcript.
Altogether, the Church committee found that the FBI sent the White House more than 175 reports based on the telephone intercepts over the three-year period. The reports have a common thread: their tone is invariably conspiratorial, as Hoover underscores the us-versus-them attitude that led to the surveillance in the first place.
The FBI’s paper trail is contradictory on the issue of whether Attorney General Tom Clark knew about the tap, an important requirement for it to have been legal. No document specifically authorizing the wiretap has been found. All the Church committee located was a memorandum by Hoover dated November 15, 1945, five months after the surveillance began. In it the director indicates that Clark “authorized the placing of a technical surveillance” on Corcoran because Truman “was particularly concerned” about Corcoran “and his associates.” The president wanted “a very thorough investigation,” Hoover wrote, so that “steps might be taken, if possible, to see that [Corcoran’s] activities did not interfere with the proper administration of government.” Hoover added that he had been asked to investigate Corcoran’s activities and “see what, if any, of them might constitute a violation of law.”
But a 1950 memorandum titled “CO Surveillance” and written by Assistant Director D. Milton Ladd, which was obtained under the FOIA by Professor Athan G. Theoharis, reveals that Hoover never explicitly told Attorney General Clark about the tap. The attorney general occasionally received summaries of information gleaned from the wiretaps, but according to Ladd, “No correspondence was located in the files which would indicate that we at any time advised the attorney general, either in writing or orally, of the existence of the CO Surveillance.” Hoover gave Clark the following description of the source of the information summarized: “Due to the close relationship of the informant with Thomas Corcoran and his associates, the identity of the informant cannot be made known.” Available documents do not indicate whether the attorney general understood Hoover’s message to mean Corcoran was being tapped; Ladd, however, wrote, “The attorney general should had had every reason to believe that the technical surveillance was in existence.”
Hoover and the Bureau were well aware that the tap was irregular and that the FBI could be made the scapegoat should any of these extralegal favors became known publicly. In April 1948, after a year’s hiatus, General Vaughan asked the FBI for the tap to be reinstated. The reason for the action, according to a Bureau memorandum, was that “Corcoran was again becoming very active and [had] caused considerable embarrassment to the White House.” Ladd recommended against complying with the request.
He explained that Truman’s aides had “not made any specific allegations against Corcoran which would indicate a violation of Federal law over which we have investigative jurisdiction.” But Hoover overruled his subordinate and agreed to reinstall the tap for one month to see if it would be “productive.” The second tap yielded no more evidence of wrongdoing than the first one had.
Lacking such evidence, the FBI was in a vulnerable position, and Hoover could not count on the White House to bail him out. In another memorandum obtained by Theoharis, also written in 1950, FBI liaison to the White House Gordon Lease reported on a conversation he had had with General Vaughan: “If the [wiretap of Corcoran] ever became known it would be our baby, Vaughan would deny any knowledge.” Two years after the tap ended, the Bureau was still worried about concocting a legal cover. The purpose of Ladd’s 1950 memorandum was to furnish Hoover “with a history of the technical on Thomas B. Corcoran . . . and information on possible justification for the technical.” He reviewed the wiretap summaries with the idea of “locating information therein or leads therefrom which would have justified placing the technical independent of authority furnished by Mr. McKim previously mentioned in this memorandum.” But Ladd found no evidence of illegal activity by Corcoran in the summaries.
There is strong evidence that Truman personally approved the wiretap. Although McKim is not quoted as specifically invoking Truman’s name when he made an oral request for the first tap in 1945, the fact that he, and later Vaughan, received the information gleaned from the wiretap is prima facie evidence that the President knew about it.
According to Ladd’s memorandum, Truman issued a direct order discontinuing the tap in April 1947. The memorandum quotes Vaughan as saying, “The president had indicated the CO Surveillance should be discontinued.” And as Professor Blum said, “The fact that Vaughan was the recipient of the transcripts is strong circumstantial evidence that Truman knew about the tap. Vaughan was a shady, unreliable character, and he was awfully tight with Truman. He was as close to Truman as Bobby Baker was to Lyndon Johnson.”
If Corcoran was engaged in any questionable dealing, he would not have talked about it on the telephone. In July 1945 and several times thereafter, he told his friends and associates over the phone, “Watch what you say; I’m being tapped.” Tim Corcoran, who practices corporate law in his father’s Washington firm, remembers him regularly taking a handful of nickels to a Connecticut Avenue drugstore to avoid using the home phone. “He even had code names for his friends, things like White Tiger and Black Tiger,” he said. Using pay phones became such a routine practice that Corcoran deducted the cost as a business expense on his income taxes. In 1951 he wrote a memorandum for his files to justify the $10 per diem he was asking for out-of-pocket expenses for taking cabs, buying drinks and using pay telephones. “Since have to assume the risk that my telephones are tapped (as I know my files are periodically ransacked),” he wrote, “I do a considerable amount of telephoning over outside pay telephones on conversations which I want to make sure are not tapped.”
If Corcoran and his associates knew about the tap, few people in the upper echelons of the White House at the time did. Clark Clifford, a special counsel under Truman and later Secretary of Defense in the Johnson Administration, said: “I learned in the White House that some things just weren’t spoken about. You do well to keep your nose out of it . . . This is one issue I can say I’m glad that I didn’t know anything about.”
Some New Deal lawyers who were picked up on the wiretap were stunned by its duration and breadth. Joseph Rauh, who went on to a career in labor and civil rights law, said he was flabbergasted: “Truman did this?” Other intimates of Corcoran, however, like Ernest Cuneo, expressed less surprise about Truman’s involvement: “What got Truman’s goat was that he thought we New Dealers looked down on him. And we did.”
Shortly before Corcoran’s death the Bureau released the more than 500 pages of documents he had requested under the Freedom of Information and Privacy acts. The documents contained much new information on the mechanics of the tap but not the transcripts themselves. The only extant copies of those were at the Truman Library, so Corcoran arranged to have the transcripts made accessible and planned a trip to Independence. He died before he could make that excursion and read of political battles won and lost almost forty years earlier.
The three-volume Church committee report unmasks the way in which the entire US intelligence community – but chiefly the FBI – abused the constitutional rights of citizens through telephone wiretaps, mail openings, burglaries and other clandestine acts. Six presidents, from Roosevelt to Nixon, had condoned these abuses.
The Corcoran wiretap was a turning point; it set an informal precedent for the FBI to get the White House to sanction political wiretapping. Hoover used Corcoran as a lure for Truman, and after thousands of pages of telephone transcripts had flowed to the White House, wiretapping became an acceptable tool of government. Certainly, J. Edgar Hoover, with his penchant for ingratiating himself with every new occupant of the White House, played the agent provocateur. But six presidents proved susceptible to his blandishments, no matter how vocal their commitment to civil rights and liberties. The story of the wiretap is the story of how power corrupts in Washington. Otherwise, how could Tim Corcoran say, even facetiously, about the wiretap: “That’s just the sort of thing my father would have done if he had been in office”?
 The Federal Communications Act of 1934 made it unlawful to “intercept and divulge” communications. But in 1940, with the rise of fascism, President Roosevelt issued a secret directive to Attorney General Robert Jackson that authorized him to place wiretaps on “persons suspected of subversive activities.” Jackson came up with a novel interpretation of the law: if the attorney general authorized a tap and if the information from the tap was not divulged outside the government, it would be legal. That questionable interpretation would be relied on by Jackson’s successors until the 1960s, when the Supreme Court ruled that warrantless wiretapping was forbidden by the Fourth Amendment. Subsequently, Congress established judicial procedures for approving wiretaps requested by the attorney general.
 Corcoran’s indirect involvement in the Amerasia case also may have served as a pretext for the wiretapping. On March 11, 1945, agents from the Office of Strategic Services broke into the offices of Amerasia, a Far Eastern affairs magazine, and discovered thousands of pages of classified documents allegedly leaked by two government officials, Emmanuel Larsen and Andrew Roth. The investigation was turned over to the FBI, which, through wiretaps and break-ins, implicated another official, John S. Service. At the request of Ben Cohen, Corcoran advised Service and used his political influence to help him. (Service was never indicted, and because the OSS and the FBI had had no warrant for the break-ins, no one went to jail). Wiretap transcripts from July 1945 record Corcoran and Cohen discussing the Service case. A February 3, 1964 memorandum in Corcoran’s FBI file mentions his role in the Amerasia case: “It is alleged that advice received from Corcoran was instrumental in having Service appear before a Grand Jury which resulted in a no bill being returned against him.”
This article first appeared in The Nation, 8 February 1986