Copyright © 2012 Lisa Harbatkin
Someone at the Board of Education, likely one of the early investigators, had a busy 2 days in Washington on January 24-25, 1951. A copy of the January 26, 1951 draft report on the visit in New York City’s Municipal Archives has a lot of detail and was “Respectfully submitted,” but there is no indication who “respectfully submitted” it or to whom it was addressed. Even so, it drops a bunch of names while describing visits to a who’s who of federal agencies and congressional committees engaged in the ever-expanding hunt for communists. It gives more than a hint of the incestuous relationships among local, state, and federal investigators as Cold War politics ginned up the New York investigations.
Saul Moskoff entered the picture a half-year later, over the summer. Records in the city’s archives make it clear that he wasted no time in building relationships with congressional committees, state troopers, New York police undercovers, and of course the FBI. I recently got almost 1,000 pages of FBI records via the National Archives some 4 or 5 years after I put in a FOIA request for them to the FBI. References to Moskoff, and working with him, are scattered through the pages.
Also in the Municipal Archives, there’s a “Dear Saul” letter from FBI agent Leo Conroy in August 1953, when he’d been assigned to FBI headquarters after working on anti-communist and security cases in New York. “I am sorry I didn’t get to see you before I left, however I do want to say it was a pleasure to work with you and John,” Conroy wrote. (“John” is likely John A. Dunne, Moskoff’s main investigator for most of his time at the Board.)
Conroy was 103 on the investigators’ Source Code list of police undercovers, FBI agents, and assorted informers, including teachers. Other specific FBI agents had source codes 101,102, 104, 105, and 106; 100 was labeled “genl,” and perhaps used to reference FBI information that didn’t come from specific agents the New York investigators worked with.(The Source Code list is in the Municipal Archives.)
Well, to start with, all three court levels in New York, topped off by the Court of Appeals decision in my case calling on New York City’s Municipal Archives to fully open the Anti-Communist Series records in its Board of Education holdings. News coverage reflected the decisive indecisiveness inherent in the opinion: Court grants partial access… Historian can’t access…Court orders release of names…Etc.
The Court of Appeals decision opened all records except those with the names of informers and of teachers promised confidentiality. But the court’s outright refusal to deal with the First Amendment issue, and its FOIA holding, essentially falling for the manipulative “privacy” promise made to the teachers, backed away from the key issues at stake.
Now, admittedly, I’m a First Amendment junkie. And a FOIA junkie. But you don’t have to be either one to take offense at the different versions of the form the Archives has been requiring researchers to sign before they can gain full access to Series 591.
Apparently current just prior to oral argument in the Court of Appeals, the latest version required those requesting full access to the Anti-Communist Series to pretty much agree to prior restraint, and threatens legal action in case of a violation. You can imagine the impact that could have on students and academics toiling away in those piles of archival paper.
Towards the end of the oral argument in the case (Matter of Harbatkin vs. New York City Department of Records and Information Services), one of the judges asked the city’s lawyer if she would withhold the name of the informant who told General Washington about Benedict Arnold. She said yes.
I wasn’t sure, at all, what I was getting into when I requested and got my parents’ files from the Anti-Communist Series investigations held by New York City’s Municipal Archives. They were teachers, caught up with over a thousand others in New York’s 1950s drive to get communists out of its public school system.
Thanks to those New York files and my father’s FBI file, I’ve added a lot to my memories of my parents as teachers, and as members of the Teachers Union and the Communist Party. I’ve also gone way beyond my family’s story, as one thing after another led me deeper into the details of what happened to teachers and other civil servants in New York and many other cities in the 1950s.
This blog will be adding to the history at the web site www.dreamersandfighters.com, which also has video clips from a planned documentary and current developments relating to the teacher investigations. The focus at Dreamers & Fighters and here at Snoops & Secrets is on taking a clear look at what happened to thousands of lower and mid-level government employees during the McCarthy years.
Along the way, it will also explore the joys of prying information, on those investigations and others, out of government agencies, especially when the information tends to make the agencies look worse than the people under investigation. That’s the case with the New York teachers. A decade before Freedom of Information legislation (FOIA) the teachers and their supporters were making the case for civil liberties and open records while the Board of Education and the city’s Law Department twisted themselves into pretzels trying to insist they were saving democracy while violating some of its basic tenets.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and a half-century or so of FOIA. You can get a lot of good information by filing FOIA requests, but both federal and state FOIA processes are ludicrously cumbersome. And FOIA exemptions are pretty much designed to let any agency deny you anything it feels like denying you. They gotta let you have something, but if they don’t wanna give it to you, for whatever reason, there’s a FOIA exemption that says you ain’t gonna get it.
That’s proved true in a court case I filed (briefs and decisions at www.dreamersandfighters.com/current.aspx#court ) demanding that the Municipal Archives open full access to that Anti-Communist Series without forcing researchers to sign away their First Amendment rights. For its part, the FBI is equally touchy, especially on identifying informants and other people.
The inherent and unavoidable tension between privacy and open records is no excuse for what government agencies choose to hold back, whether under FOIA exemptions or by trying to impose prior restraint on what researchers can publish.
In any case, there are open materials on the New York teacher investigations at the Municipal Archives and at other archives, along with records on what happened in other cities. We’ll be exploring much of that information here…..