The IRS Persecuted Dissidents During the Watergate Era

In , the U.S. Congress’s Joint Committee on Internal Revenue Taxation issued a report called “Investigation of the Special Service Staff of the Internal Revenue Service.”

The focus of the report was on the Nixon administration’s use of the IRS to go after political opponents, though the “Special Service Staff” project itself dated to the Kennedy administration and was ostensibly designed to gather information on “extremist” groups and individuals and “Ideological Organizations.”

Because of this focus, in addition to going after people on Nixon’s “enemies list,” the Special Service Staff also targeted war tax resisters — under its mandate to “coordinate activities in all Compliance Divisions involving ideological, militant, subversive, radical, and similar type organizations.” The group would come to track 8,585 individuals and 2,873 organizations — and about 800 of these involved war tax resisters.

In , as the Watergate and related scandals were kicking up dirt, the IRS commissioner said that the Special Service Staff would stop investigating subversives in general, and the IRS would stick to investigating only those groups and people that promoted or practiced tax resistance. According to the Joint Committee report, after this point:

…except for 230 cases relating primarily to war tax resisters, no field referrals were made from SSS files after .

The IRS focus on war tax resisters as such did not begin until , according to the Joint Committee report:

Field referrals on war tax resisters

In the SSS began to take account of what it called “war tax resisters.” A “war tax resister” generally was defined as an individual or organization that refused to pay Federal income or excise taxes as a protest against the United States’ participation in the Vietnam war or who encouraged others to refuse to pay taxes. (However, the staff reviewed several cases included by the SSS in the war tax resister group of cases where noncompliance occurred because of a tax protest that was not directed toward the Vietnam war.)

The SSS classified approximately 800 files as “war tax resisters,” and it referred to the field 550 of these cases. These referrals occurred in two groups, the first a group of 320 cases during , and the second a group of 230 cases during December 1973, after the SSS had been terminated. Unlike the other field referrals… where the SSS recommended that the field take specific action, the tax resister referrals were sent out for the information of the field offices and for whatever action they “deemed appropriate.”

The Joint Committee staff examined about 10% of the war tax resister case files in the course of its investigation. Here is what it found:

Origins of SSS Activity on War Tax Resisters

Information in the SSS files indicates that SSS employees first began to take account of the war tax resistance movement early in ,1 when the SSS began receiving FBI reports on this activity. However, it appears that the SSS began to focus on war tax resisters around mid-. On , members of a war tax resistance organization held a demonstration at the National Office of the IRS in Washington, D.C. According to an SSS report, the SSS acquired copies of a tax resistance publication shortly after this demonstration and by mid-, the SSS had used this publication to establish a list of 192 individuals and organizations active in the war tax resistance movement. An SSS report also states that during , the SSS received from the FBI a list of underground newspapers in the United States and a list of the editors of these papers.2

During , the SSS received additional FBI reports on tax resistance organizations and individuals, and publications the SSS received had begun to carry more articles on this topic. The SSS files also contain information indicating that some IRS offices were having additional problems with tax resistance. (However, it is not clear whether the SSS became aware of these problems during .)

At the end of , the Washington Post carried an article on war tax resisters. memoranda in the SSS files indicate that this article came to the attention of Commissioner Johnnie M. Walters. These memoranda also indicate that Mr. Walters was concerned about tax resisters, and his concern was communicated to the IRS employees charged with tax compliance. Memoranda in the SSS files indicate that the SSS participated in drafting a report on tax resisters (dated ) to the Commissioner from the Acting Assistant Commissioner (Compliance) John F. Hanlon. Mr. Walters returned this report with comments directing increased IRS action in this area. Thereafter, the SSS apparently intensified its activity dealing with war tax resisters.

Sources of War Tax Resister Files

The names for the SSS tax resister files were derived from several sources. One major source was publications, such as tax resistance newspapers and underground newspapers received by the SSS. These publications contained lists of individuals or organizations active in tax resistance. They also contained signed letters to the editor and articles on tax resistance activities. (As noted above, the names of a number of newspapers were provided to the SSS by the FBI.)

The SSS also received names of tax resisters from other units in the IRS. IRS Service Centers sent the SSS the names of tax protesters who had come to their attention because of information on returns filed with the Service Centers or letters of tax protest received by the Service Centers. Additional names and information were referred to the SSS by other IRS offices (including letters from the public complaining about the attitudes and activities of the tax resisters).

A third major source was FBI reports. As noted above, the SSS received a number of FBI reports on tax resistance individuals and organizations, and also received a list of underground newspapers.

Field Referrals of War Tax Resister Cases

According to information supplied by the IRS, the SSS had compiled files on approximately 800 war tax resister individuals and organization. Of these 800 cases, 550 were were referred to the field. The referrals of war tax resister cases were transmitted to the field in two groups, the first, a group of 320 cases sent out during , and the second, a group of 230 cases sent out on (after the SSS had been formally terminated)… The 550 total field referrals of “war tax resisters” included 397 individuals and 153 organizations.3

First group of field referrals. — The first group of field referrals was transmitted by the SSS under a memorandum from the Assistant Commissioner (ACTS) to the District Directors. The SSS transmittal memorandum, entitled “War Tax Resisters,” contained a discussion of the war tax resistance movement and a number of exhibits designed to acquaint the District Director with the scope and activities of this movement. A list of the individuals and organizations located in the particular IRS district to which the memorandum was sent was attached to the transmittal letter, along with tax filing history for these individuals and organizations, where this information was available. Unlike the other field referrals… these referrals did not recommend that specific action be undertaken by the field offices, but said that the district should take action as it “deemed appropriate.” The transmittal also asked that a memorandum of any actions taken and results obtained by sent to Paul Wright. (The transmittal memoranda did not mention that the referrals came from the SSS.)

The staff examined a 10-percent random sample of the SSS files on this first group of war tax resister field referrals. The sample included 27 individuals and 6 organizations. The reports from the field included in the SSS files examined by the staff indicate that the referral resulted in field activity in a minority of the cases and that the field activity was by the Audit or Collection Divisions, with no indication that any Intelligence Division action occurred.

The staff examination indicates that some of these field referrals were made without previous analysis to see if there was likelihood of a tax violation. The SSS files on one of the cases referred to the field contained no evidence that the SSS had obtained and reviewed tax information (such as an Individual Master File printout) to determine whether the taxpayer may have failed to comply with the tax laws. In another case the Individual Master File printout showed that tax returns had been filed for all prior years with no balances owed; on this printout an SSS employee had noted that there was no basis for audit action. However, approximately one month later this case was referred to the field.

Not all of the cases in the first group of referrals involved “war” tax resisters. One organization referred to the field was a tax protest group generally classified as an “extremist White racist” group; there was no indication that this group was anti-war. Similarly, another case involved an individual who opposed the progressive income tax rate structure, and there was no indication this individual was anti-war.

Second group of field referrals. — The second group of field referrals was sent out on , using a different form of transmittal memorandum than was used with the first group. The transmittal memorandum for these referrals was entitled “Information Items” and the District Directors were advised that the attached materials were forwarded for their information and for whatever action they “deem appropriate.” The memorandum also advised that it was not necessary to report any action taken, as was required with the earlier group of referrals. (Apparently no reply was requested because the SSS had been terminated.) Finally, there was attached a list of the individuals and organizations with their tax filing history, if this information was available.

The staff also examined the SSS files of a 10-percent random sample of this group of field referrals. This sample included 22 individuals and one organization. Printouts from the Individual Master File were obtained by the SSS for all of the 22 individuals examined; a master file printout was requested by the SSS for the one organization (but none was found because the organization had never obtained an Employer Identification Number). In comparison with the first group of field referrals, the SSS files on these referrals contained considerably more information indicating possible noncompliance with the tax laws, to support the referral of these cases to the field. (According to the SSS files, two of the names in the staff sample did not involve tax resisters and two of the names were derived from the Justice Department’s “Inter-Divisional Information Unit” list…)

  1. IRS concern generally with the failure to pay Federal taxes as a war protest had developed much earlier. For example, the Internal Revenue Manual contained guidelines for the handling of war tax resistance cases as early as . The guidelines originally pertained to failures to pay Federal income taxes, but by they also included telephone and transportation excise taxes.
  2. According to a , memorandum from Paul Wright to the Director of the Collection Division, the SSS considered that underground newspapers were important to the examination of the war tax resister group because they acted as a “conduit for their movement,” and contained numerous articles on how to file false returns and otherwise confuse IRS operations. “Underground newspaper” was defined to include newspapers of anti-establishment orientation which advocated violent or subversive means to achieve their ends. According to the IRS, the SSS had files on 148 underground newspapers.
  3. The staff examination of administrative files and the other field referrals indicates that prior to , there were several referrals of cases which could be classified as war tax resisters. A number of underground newspapers were also referred to the field under regular field referral procedures. The SSS also several times sent information concerning war tax resisters to field offices on an informal basis.

The SSS was so tainted by Nixon’s use of it that the IRS Commissioner told Congress that after it completed its investigations, he would try to have its files destroyed. This also made it difficult for the IRS to use information gathered by the SSS in its ongoing actions against war tax resisters.

So some such actions were abandoned in mid-stream: Notably, the seizure and sale of Ernest and Marion Bromley’s home. In , after the IRS had already seized and auctioned off the house, the agency (under sustained pressure from the Peacemakers and their supporters) backed off, cancelled the sale, and dropped its enforcement actions against the Bromleys and the Peacemaker movement (see The Picket Line ).

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