FBI's mole in Klan was as horrifyingly brutal as the rest

Editor's Choice

June 05, 2005|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Sun Book Editor

The Informant: The FBI, The Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo

By Gary May. Yale University Press. 432 pages. $35.

Gary Thomas Rowe Jr. was the FBI's man on the inside of the Klan. Inside and up close. Very close. Rowe had a knack for being in the vicinity of just about every conflagration of racial violence in the virulently segregated Alabama of the early 1960s. He was around for beatings, bombings, ultimately even murder.

Many in the FBI, including J. Edgar Hoover himself, considered Rowe an incomparable asset in the war against racist extremists. What they chose to ignore was that the very man they inserted into the Ku Klux Klan to protect American citizens from racial mayhem was enthusiastically participating in such acts himself. And when he found himself in position to stop some of the most brutal crimes in the history of the civil rights movement, he managed to come up short or late.

The last of these incidents, and the climactic event in Gary May's suspenseful and vigorously reported The Informant, occurred on a stretch of Alabama highway on March 25, 1965, in the wake of the otherwise triumphant Voting March to Montgomery. On that night, Klansmen raced down a car driven by Viola Liuzzo, a white woman from Detroit who had participated in the march, and shot her to death.

In the Oldsmobile from which the fatal bullets were fired was none other than the FBI's prized informant, Gary Rowe.

When he had first come to the FBI's attention five years earlier, Rowe was a barroom brawler in Birmingham with a police record, a man unburdened by either principle or self-control and virtually indistinguishable in character or outlook from those already in the KKK. Except Rowe had a fantasy about himself as Eliot Ness, which encouraged the FBI to take its own flight from reality, drafting Rowe as their mole in the Alabama Klan.

It did not seem to have occurred to anyone that a volatile, self-aggrandizing, undisciplined character might not be ideally suited for the murky role of agent-provocateur, particularly not in one of the most combustible racial flashpoints in the country. ("There's no hate like the hate down there," one official was later warned.) As May, a University of Delaware historian, recounts, the results of the FBI's miscalculation were as predictable as they were appalling.

With a prosecutorial zeal and palpable outrage, May delves through FBI files, trial transcripts and interviews to unravel an essentially co-dependent relationship between Rowe and his FBI enablers. From the beginning, Rowe involved himself in the very brutal acts that he was drafted to forestall, creating a moral quagmire that engulfed Hoover's FBI and perverted its mission. The paradoxes that May de- lineates are concussive. Rowe's implication in the crimes increased his promise rather than disqualifying him (or landing him in a prison cell); shielding him became more vital than protecting black citizens and their supporters.

"If he moved from beatings to bombings, it would reassure his fellow Klansmen that he was one of them," May observes, "which in turn would put him in position to provide the Bureau with more information. Ironically, as the violence increased, so did his value to the Bureau."

With a few notable exceptions, Rowe rarely delivered a return. Most often, the FBI was left culling through crime scenes, devising rationalizations for why their chief informant not only hadn't informed them in time to avert bloodshed, but, in some cases, was stained with blood himself.

What the FBI accomplished, May suggests, was to immunize Rowe and some of his closest Klan friends. Meanwhile, the violence escalated, in attacks on Freedom Riders, bombings -- including that of the 16th Street Baptist Church -- and the murder of Liuzzo, a troubled but open-hearted Detroit mother of five who was moved by the racial outrages in Alabama to march for civil rights there. All those incidents, May asserts, could have been averted if either Rowe or his FBI handlers had not lost sight of the cause they were supposed to serve.

The just deserts in May's chronicle was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was propelled forward in the outcry over Liuzzo's slaying. That was some comfort to Liuzzo's damaged children, who never received an official acknowledgement from the FBI of its negligence in unleashing a man like Rowe. May's book makes that recklessness abundantly plain and infuriating, and he marshals it to argue against the use of informants altogether. "In order to protect their cover, informants commit the very acts they are supposed to forestall and therefore make U.S. intelligence agencies complicit in these crimes."

That is an over-reach, but the caution May sounds in The Informant is worth heeding, now more than ever. After the intelligence failures of 9 / 11 and Iraq, the Bush administration is eager to restore the United States' network of spies in the war against terror. For those it enlists, the dangers will be real, the pressures nearly unbearable. Nevertheless, The Informant serves as warning that in choosing who to send on our behalf, willingness cannot be the only test of suitability.

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