• U.S.

THE FBI: Cement Head v. The Dirty Dozen

4 minute read

Like other agents in charge of the FBI’s 59 field offices, John F. Malone, known as “Cement Head” to his colleagues, was a cautious man. When he headed the New York City office from 1962 to 1975, he followed the instructions of FBI headquarters to the letter and stashed his most sensitive papers in a private safe to keep them beyond the reach of nosy congressional investigators.

But the system was not foolproof.

Malone must have forgotten his superiors’ orders to shred each year what was probably the touchiest record of all. Thus, when he retired last year, he left behind in his safe a list of apparently illegal burglaries conducted by FBI agents in New York and other cities since 1971 in a desperate attempt to uncover information about Weatherman bombings and the fugitive bomb throwers. The list moved through FBI channels to the Justice Department and exploded last week like a bombshell of its own.

The list showed that Clarence Kelley, who became FBI director in 1973, had either been misled by his colleagues or, as one of them suspected, been doublecrossed. Reason: for about a year, Kelley has been assuring everybody that in 1966 J. Edgar Hoover had ordered agents to stop using burglaries, known as “black bag jobs,” to gather evidence in domestic cases. Since then, says Kelley, the FBI has resorted to break-ins only in a handful of investigations involving foreign spies in the U.S. As Malone’s list demonstrated, however, the FBI kept conducting burglaries—the last one on the list is believed to have taken place in 1974—but called them by a different name. Explained an FBI official: “You’ll never find the words bag job on a piece of paper.”

Full Security. TIME has learned that a typical operation began with a phone call to a high FBI official in Washington from a field supervisor who believed that clues to the whereabouts of a Weatherman fugitive might be found in a New York apartment. With Malone’s go-ahead, the supervisor then wrote to one of the bureau’s assistant directors in Washington for approval of an investigation employing an “unorthodox” or “unusual” technique and promising “full security.” Attached to the request was a detailed explanation of what was meant by full security. Recalled an FBI official: “The explanation made it plain that what was suggested was a black bag job and included the physical layout of the target and the schedule of the security men, if there were any.” Headquarters’ approval was qualified: “As long as full security is assured, go ahead.” According to the official, this meant “go ahead, but if you’re caught, it’s your ass.” Afterward, in the field agent’s report to Washington, the information gained from the break-in would be attributed to a well-placed informant.

FBI officials told TIME that as many as 150 agents had a hand in between 75 and 100 bag jobs. A few occurred before Hoover’s death in May 1972, but many took place under Acting Director L. Patrick Gray, who resigned in disgrace during the Watergate scandal. Gray refused to comment, but Malone has acknowledged that the list “could have been” in his safe. Some FBI officials suspect that Gray was pressured by the Nixon White House to approve the use of bag jobs. As one agent explained the rationale: “These Weathermen were bomb throwers. The pressure was on to do something about them. The agents were acting to protect the country.” Field agents insisted that records of the approved bag jobs were kept in Washington. If so, they were apparently never brought to Kelley’s attention.

Prodded by the Justice Department, the FBI has dispatched twelve special investigators to New York to determine who was responsible for the burglaries. Agents have nicknamed the force “the Dirty Dozen,” but the investigators soon turned up another cache of FBI documents concerning the bag jobs. At least 20 agents including Malone and Assistant Director Andrew J. Decker face possible charges of burglary and conspiracy to violate civil rights, and have hired lawyers. Decker has retained the celebrated Edward Bennett Williams. But the most lasting damage was to Kelley’s credibility and his efforts to buff up the bureau’s tarnished image.

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