Posted on May 29th, 2008 at 6:08 pm by Steve
In 1942, eight Nazi spies came ashore on Long Island, the vanguard of a German attempt to sabotage America's transportation and manufacturing infrastructure. Because they wanted men who knew the terrain and the culture, the Germans selected men who had lived in the U.S. It turned out that the leader of the first group (a man named Dasch) actually had no intention of completing his mission: he planned to turn himself in to the FBI and reveal the plot as soon as possible, because he hated the Nazis. He enlisted one of his suborniates – Burger, a man who himself had spent 17 months in a concentration camp – in his plans, and called the FBI. The FBI hung up on him. Undaunted, Dasch traveled to Washington and asked to meet with J. Edgar Hoover. He was rebuffed, transferred from office to office, and eventually met with an underling of Hoover's. The underling listened to his story and was attempting to shuffle him out the door of the office when the German spy threw open the briefcase he was carrying, which contained the $84,000 in cash the Nazis had supplied him with. That got the FBI's attention. The FBI then interrogated Dasch and promised him his freedom in exchange for cooperation. He and Burger gladly divulged all of the details of their operations, enabling the FBI to intercept the next round of four spies who had just landed. Then, they arrested all eight of them, including the one who had turned himself in (repeatedly) to the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover told President Roosevelt the same story he told the nation: that cunning detective work by the FBI had foiled this Nazi plot. He somehow forgot to mention the fact that the spies had turned themselves in and revealed their entire plot. Roosevelt was determined to see these spies put to death. Knowing that they had not yet actually committed any crimes in the U.S. (other than being German and having instructions to commit sabotage), Roosevelt insisted that they be tried by a military tribunal rather than a civilian court – the first such trial since the Civil War. In words that have an eerie resonance today, Roosevelt wrote to his Attorney General:
Surely they are as guilty as it is possible to be and it seems to me that the death penalty is almost obligatory... I won’t hand them over to any United States marshal armed with a writ of habeas corpus.This newly-constituted military tribunal heard their cases, and sentenced all eight of the men to death. Roosevelt didn't learn that Hoover had lied to him until he actually read the transcripts of the tribunal. Even at that, he only commuted Dasch's sentence to 30 years of hard labor, and Burger's to life in prison. The other six men were executed within the week. And today, this case, Ex parte Quirin – wherein the executive chose to sidestep the American justice system in order to ensure his desired outcome – is the legal basis for the Military Commissions set up to try so-called "Enemy Combatants" at Guantánamo Bay. I learned all this from an incredible story on the website Damn Interesting!