Truman Library, PSF-General file

Memorandum by the Attorney General of the United States (McGrath) to the President


It is my understanding that the Department of State has asked you for permission to reveal to the subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee established pursuant to S. RES. 231, 81st Congress, the contents of the investigative files concerning those persons against whom Senator McCarthy has proferred charges before the subcommittee.1

As you know, there is no question as to your authority to withhold these files from the subcommittee. The only question is whether, as a matter of policy, you deem it advisable to make them available. I strongly urge that you withhold permission to make the files available to the subcommittee. Your directive of March 13, 1948, to all officers and employees in the executive branch of the government pointed out that the efficient and just operation of the Employee Loyalty Program required that all reports, records, and files in connection with the program be preserved in strict confidence. You pointed out that this was “necessary in the interest of our national security and welfare, to preserve the confidential character and sources of information furnished, and to protect government personnel against the dissemination of unfounded or disproved [Page 1386] allegations.” Unless there are special reasons of which I am not aware, existing at the present time which compel a different practice, I suggest that the confidential nature of these loyalty files be maintained and preserved. It seems to me that any deviation from this policy, even under the conditions outlined by the Department of State, would create an unfortunate precedent and would do much more harm than good.

It is pertinent at this time to repeat once again the very appropriate statement made by former Attorney General Jackson in a letter dated April 30, 1941, to the Chairman of the House Committee on Naval Affairs, declining to furnish that committee with certain reports of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Moreover, disclosure of the reports would be of serious prejudice to the future usefulness of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. As you probably know, much of this information is given in confidence and can only be obtained upon pledge not to disclose its sources. A disclosure of the sources would embarrass informants—sometimes in their employment, sometimes in their social relations, and in extreme cases might even endanger their lives. We regard the keeping of faith with confidential informants as an indispensable condition of future efficiency.

Disclosure of information contained in the reports might also be the grossest kind of injustice to innocent individuals. Investigating reports include leads and suspicions, and sometimes even the statements of malicious or misinformed people even though later and more complete reports exonerate the individuals, the use of particular or selected reports might constitute the grossest injustice, and we all know that a correction never catches up with an accusation.

Disclosure of the documents here in question would, it seems to me, seriously impair the effectiveness of the Employee Loyalty Program. It would make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the Federal Bureau of Investigation to perform its investigative duties under the program. And it would also subject the persons in question to a type of double jeopardy which is contrary to sound concepts of good government, fairness, and justice.

In this connection I should like to point out to you the views of the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation which he submitted to me in a recent report:

The public disclosure of FBI reports will reveal investigative procedures and techniques. If publicized, criminals, foreign agents, subversives, and others would thus be forewarned and seek ways and means to carry out their activities, thus avoiding detection and hampering the efficiency of an investigative agency. The underground operations of criminals and subversives already are most [Page 1387] difficult of detection and I do not believe the security of the nation would be furthered by applying any additional shackles to the FBI.
For the past 25 years, the FBI has represented to the American public that the FBI would maintain their confidences. To make public FBI reports would be to break confidences and persons interviewed in the future might be even more reluctant to furnish information. In recent months, on numerous occasions, some citizens, shirking their responsibility, have refused to furnish information on the grounds that it might be misused and have gone so far as to decline to furnish information, even in applicant investigations, claiming they would do so only if forced by a subpoena.
A public disclosure of FBI reports would reveal the identity of sources of information and in some cases at least, would place in jeopardy the lives of confidential sources of information.
Disclosure of information contained in FBI reports might result in an injustice to innocent individuals, who find themselves entwined in a web of suspicious circumstances, which can be explained only by further investigation, and disclosures might be made under circumstances which would deny the aggrieved to publicly state their positions.
A public disclosure could warn persons whose names appear in FBI reports of the investigation and serve as an effective means of enabling them to avoid detection, to approach witnesses, to bring about the destruction of evidence or permit them to flee the country.
Public disclosure of FBI reports could contribute to blackmail of persons investigated or could result in degrading persons who have made a mistake or fallen prey to false propaganda.
Disclosures might reveal highly restricted information vital to the national security and of considerable value to a foreign power.
A complete and thorough investigation in certain types of cases, of necessity must reveal administrative procedures, trade practices, and manufacturing operations which, if publicized, would enable persons with a subversive or ulterior motive to misuse information.
FBI reports are prepared for official usage only and in setting forth full details secured from a witness, if publicized, could be subject to misinterpretation, quoting out of context, or used to thwart truth, distort half truths, and misrepresent facts.

As an alternative to permitting the subcommittee to inspect the files, it is my suggestion that you might, in the interest of making it clear to the public that you do not wish to withhold the information in question, transmit the files to the Loyalty Review Board, as to whose competence and impartiality in these matters there can be no question, and request the Board to review the files and report its findings, with respect to each person against whom Senator McCarthy has brought charges, in the light of the factual evidence adduced before the subcommittee. I believe that the consultation of the Board and its record are such the public as well as the Congress is entitled to have complete confidence in its integrity [Page 1388] and operations. There could then be no charge that the people being investigated were the very people making the decisions as to the merits of the charges, and turning the files over to the Board would be in keeping with existing procedures, which are intended to safeguard both the integrity of the loyalty program and of investigative procedures and the rights of individuals.

Should you decide, notwithstanding the views herein expressed, that reasons of policy exist for making the files in question available to the subcommittee, I strongly urge that, in order to do a minimum of harm to the public interest, no file with respect to any individual be made available unless and until the subcommittee advises you in writing that Senator McCarthy has made out to the satisfaction of the subcommittee a prima facie case of disloyalty with respect to that particular individual.2


J. Howard McGrath
  1. See footnote 2, supra.
  2. In a letter of Mar. 28, 1950, President Truman informed Senator Tydings that he refused to allow the Senate subcommittee access to the loyalty files of executive department employees. At the same time, the President asked the Loyalty Review Board to examine all the confidential files of federal employees accused by Senator McCarthy of disloyalty. The text of the President’s letter to Senator Tydings is printed in the New York Times, Mar. 29, 1950, p. 6.