William C. Sullivan

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William C. Sullivan
William C. Sullivan (FBI agent).jpg
William C. Sullivan of the FBI
William Cornelius Sullivan

(1912-05-12)May 12, 1912
DiedNovember 9, 1977(1977-11-09) (aged 65)
Cause of deathaccidental gunshot
Burial placeSt. Michael Cemetery in Hudson, Massachusetts
EducationAmerican University
Alma materGeorge Washington University
OccupationHead of FBI intelligence
Years active1940s - 1970s
EmployerFederal Bureau of Investigation
Known forCPUSA and COINTELPRO investigations
Political partyDemocrat
Spouse(s)Marion Hawkes

William Cornelius Sullivan (1912–1977) directed Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) domestic intelligence operations from 1961-1971. He headed the Justice Department's new Office of National Narcotics Intelligence from June 1972 to July 1973.


William Cornelius Sullivan was born on May 12, 1912, in Bolton, Massachusetts. He graduated from Hudson High School and held advanced degrees from American University and George Washington University. Sullivan received an honorary doctorate from Boston College.


FBI career summary[edit]

Sullivan joined the FBI early in World War II, when he was dispatched by J. Edgar Hoover on an undercover intelligence mission to Spain. Sullivan returned to FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., and took the first in a series of administrative posts that culminated in a decade as head of the domestic intelligence division, starting in 1961, and a brief tenure as the FBI's third-ranking official behind Hoover, the director, and his longtime confidant, Clyde Tolson.

Break with Hoover[edit]

Sullivan claimed[when?] Hoover's concerns about the American Communist Party were overemphasized when compared to violations of Federal civil rights laws in the segregated South. This friction worsened as Sullivan made his opinions public. Many FBI insiders considered Sullivan the logical successor to Hoover. However, on October 1, 1971, Hoover abruptly had the locks changed on Sullivan's door and removed his nameplate. Under the circumstances, Sullivan was forced to retire.

Sullivan then became even more vocal about Hoover's controversial domestic counterintelligence programs, collectively labeled COINTELPRO, including operations that he himself had conceived and administered. These were intended to spread confusion and dissension among extremist political groups in the United States, ranging from the Communist Party (CPUSA) on the left to the Ku Klux Klan on the far right.

Sullivan described the frameup of party leader William Albertson in a June 30, 1964, internal document filed by him and fellow FBI agent Fred J. Baumgardner:

My memorandum dated 6/12/64 was approved, authorizing a unique counterintelligence operation calculated to cast suspicion on Communist Party (CP) National Committee member and Executive Secretary of the New York District Organization, William Albertson. It was our intention to place Albertson in the unenviable position of being suspected as an FBI informant through the use of a planted bogus informant report prepared by the Laboratory in Albertson's handwriting on paper used by him with a ballpoint pen of the type he uses.[1]

In 1975, he testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee, "Never once did I hear anybody, including myself raise the question, is this course of action which we have agreed upon lawful, is it legal, is it ethical or moral?"

Civil rights feuding[edit]

Nearly unredacted copy of "suicide letter" sent to Martin Luther King Jr..

Sullivan was instrumental in arranging for the mailing of a tape recording in 1964 to Coretta Scott King, that contained secretly taped recordings of her husband Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking with other women. In a memorandum, Sullivan called King "a fraud, demagogue and scoundrel". He also gave orders to track down fugitive members of the Weather Underground in the early 1970s.

According to his autobiography, The Bureau: Thirty Years in Hoover's FBI, Sullivan felt that Samuel Pierce, later to serve in the Ronald Reagan administration, would be a better representative for the civil rights movement than King. He wrote the following recommendation in a letter to Hoover:

It should be clear to all of us that Martin Luther King must, at some propitious point in the future, be revealed to the people of this country and to his Negro followers as being what he actually is – a fraud, demagogue and scoundrel. When the true facts concerning his activities are presented, such should be enough, if handled properly, to take him off his pedestal and to reduce him completely in influence. When this is done, and it can be and will be done, obviously much confusion will reign, particularly among the Negro people... The Negroes will be left without a national leader of sufficiently compelling personality to steer them in the proper direction. This is what could happen, but need not happen if the right kind of a national Negro leader could at this time be gradually developed so as to overshadow Dr. King and be in the position to assume the role of the leadership of the Negro people when King has been completely discredited.
For some months I have been thinking about this matter. One day I had an opportunity to explore this from a philosophical and sociological standpoint with an acquaintance whom I have known for some years... I asked him to give the matter some attention and if he knew any Negro of outstanding intelligence and ability to let me know and we would have a discussion. He has submitted to me the name of the above-captioned person. Enclosed with this memorandum is an outline of (the person's) biography which is truly remarkable for a man so young. On scanning this biography, it will be seen that (Samuel Pierce) does have all the qualifications of the kind of a Negro I have in mind to advance to positions of national leadership...
If this thing can be set up properly without the Bureau in any way becoming directly involved, I think it would be not only a great help to the FBI but would be a fine thing for the country at large. While I am not specifying at this moment, there are various ways in which the FBI could give this entire matter the proper direction and development. There are highly placed contacts of the FBI who might be very helpful to further such a step. These can be discussed in detail later when I have probed more fully into the possibilities.

Hoover had learned from the SOLO brothers, Morris and Jack Childs, who were members of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), but in fact were double agents working against the Soviet Active Measures program of the KGB, that one of King's consultants, Stanley Levison. Annually, the Solo brothers would travel to Moscow to pick up Soviet funding for CPUSA activities and distribute it on their return. Because such contacts suggested the civil rights movement was being co-opted by the CPUSA under the guidance of the KGB's Soviet Active Measures program, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered the tapping of King's telephone. The telephonic surveillance led to information concerning King's affairs,[2] and the reason why Sullivan thought King unworthy of leading the movement and being "a fraud, demagogue and scoundrel." Realizing the danger to the movement, King's Number Two man, Rev. Ralph Abernathy pleaded, on numerous occasions, that King cease and desist such behavior, as he was putting at risk the credibility of the movement. Eventually, King's behavior led J. Edgar Hoover to publicly call King a "notorious liar."

A number of days after Hoover called King "the most notorious liar in the country" at a press conference, Sullivan wrote an anonymous letter to King calling him a "filthy, abnormal animal" and telling him that there "is only one thing left for you to do".[3]

President Lyndon Johnson, not questioning the reason for Hoover's statement but realizing the political impact for the next election, forced Hoover to apologize. Hoover and King did meet at FBI Headquarters, but no one knows what happened. Some say Hoover had all of King's files and telephone transcripts on his desk. In the final analysis, it was Sullivan who was responsible for gathering all the information on King.

After Hoover's death in May 1972, U.S. Attorney General Richard Kleindienst appointed Sullivan director of the newly created Office of National Narcotics Intelligence under the Department of Justice in June 1972. Sullivan had hoped to replace Hoover as the director of the FBI, but was passed over by President Richard Nixon in favor of loyalist L. Patrick Gray.

Personal life and death[edit]

Sullivan married Marion Hawkes.

Sullivan died age 65 from an accidental gunshot wound, as recounted by Robert D. Novak:

Sullivan came to our house in the Maryland suburbs in June 1972 for lunch and a long conversation about my plans for a biography of Hoover (a project I abandoned as just too ambitious an undertaking). Before he left, Bill told me someday I probably would read about his death in some kind of accident, but not to believe it. It would be murder.
On November 9, 1977, days before he was to testify to the House Select Committee on Assassinations, twenty minutes before sunrise, sixty-five-year-old Sullivan was walking through the woods near his retirement home in Sugar Hill, New Hampshire, on the way to meet hunting companions. Another hunter, Robert Daniels, Jr., a twenty-two-year-old son of a state policeman, using a telescopic sight on a .30 caliber rifle, said he mistook Sullivan for a deer, shot him in the neck, and killed him instantly.
The authorities called it an accident, fining Daniels five hundred dollars and taking away his hunting license for ten years. Sullivan's collaborator on his memoir, the television news writer Bill Brown, wrote that he and Sullivan's family were convinced that the death was accidental.
Sullivan's death did not prevent publication of the memoir, telling all about the disgrace of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. After Watergate, with all the principals dead or out of office, it received little attention.

Sullivan is buried in his family's plot at St. Michael Cemetery in Hudson, Massachusetts, with his wife, as well as his parents, sister and other relatives.

Portrayal in Popular Culture[edit]

Sullivan is portrayed by the actor Tom Sizemore in the 2017 film Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House


  • Sullivan, William C. (1979). The Bureau: My Thirty Years in Hoover's FBI. Norton. ISBN 0-393-01236-0. ISBN 4-87187-338-2
  • World Communism: Strategy and Tactics
  • The Need to Teach About Communism in Our Schools
  • The University, Communism and the Community: An Address at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, October 18, 1961
  • "Freedom is the exception": Three lectures on the values of the open society

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "ALBERTSON, William - FBI HQ file 65-38100 covering period from July 1951 through December 1990". FBI. December 1990. pp. 9–11 (bio), 89 (1951 arrest), 394 (separation), 500 (2nd marriage), 2098–2101 (bogus document). Retrieved April 15, 2018.
  2. ^ Weiner, Anthony (2012). Enemies: A History of the FBI. London: Penguin. pp. 235–36. ISBN 978-0-141-04795-9.
  3. ^ "What an Uncensored Letter to M.L.K. Reveals".
  • William C. Sullivan, Ex-F.B.I. Aide, 65, Is Killed in a Hunting Accident. The New York Times, November 10, 1977
  • The FBI: A Comprehensive Reference Guide, by Athan G. Theoharis, Tony G. Poveda, Susan Rosenfeld, Richard Gid Powers, 1999

External links[edit]