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How the FCC helped win World War II


James Lawrence Fly of the FCC

I am reading Tim Weiner’s diverting book Enemies: A History of the FBI and have learned something about the Federal Communications Commission as well. Its Radio Intelligence Division played a critical role in anti-Fascist counterespionage in the southern hemisphere. Weiner writes:

“The civilians of the Radio Intelligence Division intercepted clandestine Germany communications with spies in Latin America. They worked with American embassy officials and local police to shut the networks down. In 1942, the RID picked up a plan to sink the Queen Mary, which was carrying ten thousand American and Canadian troops to war, and led the Brazilian police to arrest more than two hundred German spies. That one case alone accounted for half the Axis spy arrests claimed by the FBI and the SIS in Latin American throughout all of World War II.”

“SIS” stands for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Special Intelligence Service—a hastily thrown together operation that Weiner contends accomplished little during the war. Its agents, an internal FBI history of the division notes, knew neither Spanish or Portuguese and operated under “weak and frequently illogical covers.” They were ridiculed by State Department and military officials, not to mention Army personnel stationed in various Latin American countries.

This did not stop FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover from falsely claiming that the division busted 389 Axis agents and destroyed two dozen Nazi radio stations. “Hoover had a knife out for the chairman of the FCC, James Lawrence Fly,” Weiner notes; “the two fought for years over the FBI’s power to plant wiretaps” on people in the United States.

Fly didn’t think the FBI had that authority. Hoover, of course, did. This little historical tidbit reminds us that our Federal government system is not a monolith. Its branches often conflict with each other about fundamental issues and make starkly variant choices: some bad, but others very good.

This essay originally appeared in our Weekly Bulletin, which you can subscribe to here.

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