WASHINGTON -- The federal government has agreed to pay $170,000 to the widow of a Communist Party member whom the FBI harassed during its widespread investigation of radicals in the 1950s and 1960s, the American Civil Liberties Union said Thursday.
Under the agreement, the government is paying Lillie Albertson of New York City $170,000 in settlement of her claims against the FBI for its illegal surveillance and harassment of her and her late husband, William Albertson.
'I'm glad it's over,' Lillie Albertson said of the settlement. 'It's a vindication of Bill. They were wrong. There was no justification for what they did, what they did was un-American.'
Albertson was a prominent official in the U.S. Communist Party in the 1950s and 1960s. He was targeted by the law enforcement agency as part of its COINTELPRO operation, which sought to infiltrate, spy on and disrupt the activities of radical and dissident groups, especially those on the left but also including the civil rights movement and some national church organizations.
According to the ACLU, which had brought the lawsuit on behalf of Lillie Albertson, the FBI wiretapped the Albertsons' telephone and followed them for years.
The agency's harassment culminated in 1964 when the FBI planted a forged letter designed to make it appear that William Albertson was an FBI informant in what was called a 'snitchjacket' operation.
Albertson's colleagues discovered the letter and expelled him from the party. As a result, he lost his job and his family was ostracized and harassed by both the FBI and his former associates.
In 1975, three years after Albertson' death, an FBI document surfaced under the Freedom of Information Act showing the bureau's role in framing him.
Additional documents were later released, including one in which FBI agents wrote of the letter plant that, 'If it does not result in Albertson's outright expulsion from the CP, at the very least it may be expected to raise suspicions causing his isolation and neutralization within party ranks.'
In 1977, the ACLU filed an administrative claim on behalf of Albertson's widow seeking money damages from the FBI and in 1984 filed suit in federal court in Washington, D.C.
'At long last, by making this payment to Ms. Albertson, the government has conceded that its actions were wrong -- that however abhorrent a person's political beliefs may be to the government, the government may not seek to silence or punish that person for those beliefs,' said Kate Martin, director of the ACLU's National Security Litigation Project.
'The government attacked the Albertsons because it did not like their politics, deliberately and secretly setting out to silence them,' Martin said. 'If the rule of law means anything, it means that the government should not get away with this.'
Albertson said the FBI agents involved 'knew they were guilty, that we were right and they had done something illegal. If the perpetrators pay, they'll think twice about doing it again to someone else.'
During the long litigation process, the government had sought to dismiss the case on national security grounds -- contentions rejected by both the federal district court and the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The government had requested the Supreme Court review the case, but is withdrawing that request as part of the settlement.