He had the bureaucratic acumen of J. Edgar Hoover, the sleuth of Elliott Ness, the bend-the-rules toughness of Wyatt Earp.
But like these and perhaps other lawman, Hiram C. Whitley struggled to understand that moral character and clear thinking can be clouded by ideology and self-interest. As a result, he learned the hard way the ends does not always justify the means.
Whitley, the 19th-century head of the Secret Service, is the focus of a fascinating portrait by Charles Lane, a Washington Post editorial board member and the author of another Reconstruction-era piece, “The Day Freedom Died.”
Here, Lane examines how a public servant so ahead of his time in fermenting a federal agency dedicated to surveillance and eradication of domestic terrorism can be consumed by the same type of power lust that empowered the forces he was hired to stamp out.
Whitle is a shady character of questionable ethics. He fails in business and even gets involved in slave-catching. But he discovers his true passion in intelligence work and uses it to assist the Union cause during the Civil War. His ability to bust moonshiners in the post-war years takes him on an unlikely path to the Secret Service, which at that time is empowered to simply catch counterfeiters. His talents would impress a CIA operative: he uses disguise, intimidation and bribery to crack forgery rings.
At this time, the federal government, bent on instigating Reconstruction, is vexed by the impact of a violent yet stealth organization calling itself the Ku Klux Klan. Tasked with stopping the early KKK, Whitley employs his strategic insight to break the Klan’s hold in several Southern states.
The work of the Secret Service is lauded, but Whitley foreshadows the KKK’s eventual revival, stating the “spirit of Ku Kluxism still exists among the disaffected portion of the community.”
Nonetheless, Whitley revels in the prestige his successes have brought him. But it doesn’t make him the wiser. For all his experience navigating the nation’s underworld, Whitley is obtuse about political duplicity. He consorts to shenanigans that lead to the retraction and reformation of his beloved Secret Service.
In detailing Whitley’s life, Lane unearths an interesting parallel: The same worries modern-day civil libertarians have over a “surveillance state” that’s beyond democratic control existed 145 years ago.