Johnson, Lyndon Baines (1908–1973)

Lyndon B. Johnson, thirty-sixth president of the United States, took office on November 22, 1963, after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and served until 1969. From the beginning of his presidency, Johnson had issues in regards to wiretapping and privacy. On one hand, Johnson was seemingly unconcerned with government intrusion into privacy. In more than five years in office, he secretly recorded more than 10,000 conversations without the other parties’ knowledge both on the telephone and in his White House office. He did not hesitate to use the FBI to secretly record his political opponents during the 1964 Democratic party convention. He planted bugs in embassies and private residences to monitor Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign in 1968. Both FBI and foreign intelligence was gathered by electronic means. Yet Johnson’s papers and private conversations on wiretapping and bugging suggested a degree of disgust at the method of information gathering. When asked his preference on wiretapping, Johnson favored a complete ban on all taps, even in the interest of national security. He also wanted a law banning non-phone electronic bugging devices. In May 1966, when IRS commissioner Sheldon Cohen attempted to justify the IRS’s use of eavesdropping and wiretapping, Johnson told him to stop all surveillance— microphones, taps, or other hidden devices—legal or illegal, if he was going to work for him. Ramsey Clark described Johnson’s outrages about any wiretapping or bugging in domestic areas by saying he did not want to live in a country where people were allowed to use those surveillance devices.

In his 1967 State of the Union address, Johnson stated: ‘‘We should outlaw all wiretapping—public and private—wherever and whenever it occurs, except when the security of this Nation itself is at stake and only then with the strictest governmental safeguards. And we should exercise the full reach of our constitutional powers to outlaw electronic ‘bugging’ and ‘snooping.’’’ Despite this pronouncement, Johnson had his vice-president’s phone, Hubert H. Humphrey, bugged out of fear he would deviate from the party’s line on Vietnam during 1968, and he continued to tap him up to and including Humphrey’s unsuccessfully bid for the presidency.

In early 1967, Johnson asked Congress to pass the Safe Streets and Crime Control Act, a bill described as increasing crime control. The act also recommended Congress pass the Right of Privacy Act outlawing all public and private wiretapping with the only exceptions being for national security ‘‘and then only under the strictest safeguards.’’ Johnson’s biographer Robert Dallek posed the question about whether Johnson opposed all tapping and bugging intrusions except for those done by or for himself and whether Johnson believed he alone had the right to monitor private conversations. Dallek argued that Johnson held a ‘‘genuine aversion’’ to wiretapping and the invasions of privacy the FBI had been committing for a long time. It deeply bothered him that anyone, including Hoover and the FBI, had blackmail control over political leaders through information obtained through secretive listening devices.

MELISSA OOTEN

References and Further Reading

  • Beschloss, Michael, ed. Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964–1965. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.
  • Califano, Joseph. The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2000.
  • Dallek, Robert. Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961–1973. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

See also Privacy; Right to Privacy

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