The story of the second head of the Secret Service, whose relentless efforts at criminal apprehension paved the way for today’s controversial domestic terrorism operations.
Lane (Stay of Execution: Saving the Death Penalty from Itself, 2010, etc.)—a Washington Post board member and op-ed columnist and a former foreign correspondent and editor of the New Republic (1997-1999)—follows the intensive, though short-lived career of Hiram C. Whitley, a daring impresario with steady nerves who, during the Ulysses S. Grant administrations, served as the newly minted chief of the Treasury Department’s Secret Service Division. Tracking down counterfeiters was Whitley’s main focus, but he also served as a key detective in domestic surveillance during this time of Reconstruction, when the defeated Southern states were determined not to accept the various Reconstruction Acts passed by Congress in 1867 as well as the 14th Amendment. These events contributed to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. A spy, saboteur, and detective with little experience outside of living by his own wits, Whitley managed to build a small but capable “semiclandestine national police bureaucracy” that was unprecedented at the time, featuring “its own system of ranks and promotions, and full autonomy to recruit, pay, and supervise informants within the civilian population.” In short order, Whitley began to use questionable methods of stealth and entrapment to achieve his aims. Moreover, a botched entrapment operation that the press called “The Washington Safe Burglary Case,” along with a switch in political winds, ensured the end of Whitley’s government career in the mid-1870s. Though the narrative is occasionally convoluted, Lane, in addition to providing a welcome biography of a somewhat forgotten figure, methodically pursues how “the dilemmas of a permanent federal covert apparatus are with us still” in the form of CIA and FBI “excesses in the ‘war on terror.’ ”
A detail-laden, arduously researched chronicle that delineates an important early era of the Secret Service.