INTERVIEW WITH M. WESLEY SWEARINGE
INTERVIEWER: So, this is roll number 111, interview with Wesley Swearingen, tenth of February. Now you joined the FBI in 1951, what did you think about American Communists during this period?
WESLEY SWEARINGEN: Well, in 1951 I had the impression that they were really trying to overthrow the government by force and violence.
INT: All right. And, but was there... and did you know a lot of people in the Communist Party?
WS: In 1952, I began to learn of their names through the work that I was doing and in 1954, I arrested Claude Lightfoot, who was chairman of the Communist Party in Illinois.
INT: And given the climate of the time, what was the sort of attitude of most people in the FBI towards them?
WS: Well, the attitude in the FBI, at the least the one that Hoover presented, was that Communism was going to take over the world and that they were attempting to overthrow the United States by force and violence. And I took it very seriously, I don't know whether other agents did or not, because I had served in World War Two and I thought maybe this was going to be the beginning of World War Three, if they took over or attempted to.
INT: And as sort of individuals, as characters, did you see them as sort of moral, you know, immoral degeneratives and so forth as well?
WS: We were told that, you know, they were immoral and that they didn't believe in God and, you know, that they were atheists and so to someone who is fairly religious - or was - we thought that was terrible at the times.
INT: OK. Did you ever see any evidence during all your work to support the idea that they were trying to actually overthrow the American government?
WS: I didn't see any in Chicago. There were secret meetings which we surveilled regularly. I mean, they thought they were secret, but we knew where they were because we had wire taps and we did illegal break-ins to find out where they were meeting. But I didn't think that they were that well organised once I began to learn who the people were, that they were going to be able to overthrow the government, let alone, you know, the Chicago Police Department.
INT: And any individual acts by any of them?
WS: I don't remember any criminal violations. I mean, sure there were over-time parking violations and maybe they'd run through a red light, but, you know, that has nothing to do with over-throwing the government.
INT: OK. And in terms of sort of technique, you sent to Chicago in 1951, wasn't it? 1952?
INT: 1952. So... And could you describe a little bit what you directly were involved with?
WS: Well, when I first arrived in July of 1952, I was assigned to the Surveillance Department and we were following Doris Fein and Lillian Green, who were the spouses of two of the Communist leaders. And we were on them, I thought it was as little strange that we were on them from seven o'clock in the morning until eleven o'clock at night and we were told not to lose them. So there were times when we were so close to them, it was fairly obvious that we were following them. And ththey would know that at eleven o'clock, they were free to go anywhere in Chicago, or anywhere in the country, if they wanted to, because this was a regular routine.. Every knight, you know, seven days a week, eleven o'clock we'd go home and come back at seven o'clock in the morning. And being new on the squad, I felt, well this is a little strange. If you're trying to find two of the Communist leaders, why give the women the opportunity to sneak out of the house at midnight and go visit them till two or three o'clock in the morning? So, you know, there were things that didn't quite make sense, because you follow somebody for that period of time and then for eight hours, they're free to do anything they want.
INT: And tell me something of wire taps and you've got phone... did you ever install phone taps and wire taps, were you aware of that kind of activity going on around you?
WS: I was aware of it, because we had a wire tap on Lillian Green's apartment and one day I was invited to go along with an agent who was an expert in electronics. He had to replace the bug, because the bug had gone bad in the telephone and so we entered the apartment, when Lillian had gone out shopping, and he replaced the bug while I maintained the radio to the agents on the outside, to let us know where Lillian was. But, that's when I became aware that we also, in addition to following these people around town physically, we had taps on their telephones.
INT: And what did you do with the material, you must have accumulated masses of material?
WS: We collected tons of it and it would all go into [unintelligible] if it were of any value, if either one of the two women met with someone else, presumably they would be a member of the Communist Party, and then we would follow up an investigation on those people, if we didn't already know who they were, because back in those days, it was guilt by association. So that if they would meet ten people during the week, if we didn't have cases on those ten people, then we would open cases and then sometimes we would follow... other squads, other agents would follow those ten people and they would meet someone else, maybe if we didn't have a file, then we'd open a file on them. So every time someone met a new person that we didn't know of, we opened up a file.
INT: That's the most extraordinary story. And there were agents also attached to most of these people. How did you get other information in? Were you having to... did you have informants or did you go to their work place and talk to people there?
WS: Well, at first we didn't have too many informants. We did have, I think, two or three very good well-placed informants in the Communist Party who furnished information and we relied on them. I remember two specifically that if we didn't have those two and if we didn't have the help of the Chicago Police Department, we wouldn't have really known what was going on in the Communist Party. And then later on, because those two furnished so much information, someone back in Washington got the idea that, gee, if we can get this much information from two informants, then if every agent had at least five informants, think how much information we could get. So then they developed the quota system and every agent had to have five informants. I mean, the idea sounds great, if you get X pounds of information or a number of documents that you can fill out from two informants, then if you have three hundred agents in Chicago with five informants, then you have fifteen hundred informants, so you're going to have tons and tons of material that you can send back to Washington.
INT: And just to go back to the surveillance question for a moment, did you ever let people know in order to intimidate them that they were being followed or that, you know, you were on to their case?
WS: Occasionally we would and it was, I think, strictly a personal thing, because we were given instructions like on Doris Fein and Lillian Green, not to lose them. And the only way you can not lose somebody is to be almost bumper to bumper. So there were times when maybe they were running through a yellow light that we would have to go through a red light. It's pretty obvious that the car behind... I mean, all they have to do is look at the car and it has no tremor on it, it's a, you know, stripped down four-door and usually it was either black or dark blue or grey and that's the only thing we had. And they'd look in the rear view mirror and they knew that we were behind them and sometimes just out of frustration, you would harass them. But they took it as a joke, because they knew that if they were going to meet somebody, they'd do it at one o'clock in the morning and so they played games with us just like we did with them.
INT: Right, OK. And in terms of harassment, was there all that business of knocking on people's doors at six in the morning or, you know, going to see their kids when they were out, you know, they'd gone out to do some shopping, going meeting their kids from school, that sort of stuff?
WS: There were occasions when harassment just made a nervous and we had an interview programme that required us to interview every known member of the Communist Party, or suspected member, with the theory that maybe we could develop them as an informant and at one point I think about one out of three people in Chicago became an informant. So if you had a meeting of three people, you know, at least one of 'em was going to be an informant and sometimes you'd have two and there were times when there would be meetings and everybody there was an informant. So it was just, you know, ridiculous duplication.