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A Byte Out of History: The Ragtime Bug

A Byte Out of History
The Case of the Ragtime Bug

02/20/04

Here’s a hypothetical for you. What would you do? It’s February 1944 in New York Citywartime. One of your informants contacts you and tells you that the leadership of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) is planning a secret meeting in a midtown Manhattan recording studio.

Here’s what you know as background: That this organization has accepted secret money and foreign control from the Soviet Union since its formation. That it has conspired to commit passport fraud; to provide cover for foreign agents; to collect and pass U.S. secrets to Soviet intelligence; and to recruit spies. And that you are on firm legal ground to find out the purpose of the meeting. You have heard that its leadersWilliam Z. Foster and Earl Browderare wrangling over the future direction the organization should take: to support or not support the U.S. war effort.

Do you:

  1. Install a hidden Closed Circuit TV camera in the meeting room studio?
  2. Hide under a sofa in the room?
  3. Round up all your musically talented agents and put them in rehearsal there?

The real thing.

If you guessed option #1, you get partial credit, though CCTV surveillance hadn’t been invented yet. If you guessed option #3, you were entirely correct. A call went out to every agent in the New York City area: Report in if you can play a musical instrument, it said.

Step #1: Ahead of time, the Bureau rented the studio where the CPUSA was to meet. While some agents struck up a little ragtime there, other agents placed listening devices.

Step #2: The Bureau rented the studio right next door and “played” there throughout the long CPUSA meetingone set of “musicians” arriving with their instruments, playing some compositions, then departing and letting in the next “combo” to play new music, all to keep up the ruse while a handful of agents steadily manned the bugs.

“I think Comrade Browder is also subject to making a mistake,” Foster was heard to say. Browder, he argued, was wrongthe CPUSA should not forget the class struggle and it must not support the capitalists.

The upshot.

Ironically Comrade Foster was right, by Soviet lights, but not at that particular moment in time. Moscow briefly forsook the party line to support Browder’s idea because it needed the help of its U.S. military ally in the wartime effort. Foster lost much prestige and had to acquiesce, for the time, in Browder’s leadership.

Less than a year and a half later, though, Moscow’s tactics again shifted. Browder was denounced by a major European communist, a signal taken by all to be at the command of Moscow. He was immediately expelled from the CPUSA and his nemesis, William Foster, took over. It was back to business as usual.