Yesterday, a 14-year quest for justice by Albertson's widow, Lillie, ended when the FBI agreed to pay her $170,000 to settle her $1 million lawsuit against the government.
"I just want to say that I'm very happy . . . to know that the case is over. . . . I feel it's a vindication of my husband," Albertson said calmly in the Washington headquarters of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"What they did was un-American and, while some of us were considered un- American in those years, what the government did to us was just as un- American."
Without bitterness in her voice, Albertson, 63, said she hoped the cash settlement "will make our government think twice before doing this to someone else." But she added, "Nothing can compensate me."
Officials at the FBI and the Justice Department declined comment yesterday on the Albertson case.
The harassment of William Albertson was merely one episode of the FBI's counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) of the early 1960s. The program authorized federal agents to spy on their targets, write spurious letters, contrive leaflets, concoct anonymous accusations, plant phony news stories and play other dirty tricks aimed at breaking up Communist, New Left and other dissident groups.
ACLU lawyers said the Albertson settlement was by far the largest arising
from the COINTELPRO campaign of domestic harassment.
Although the FBI and the Justice Department issued no apology to Lillie Albertson, her lawyer, Kate Martin, interpreted the settlement as an admission by the government that it had illegally sought to silence Albertson for his political beliefs.
"It is difficult to distinguish the FBI's actions from those of the KGB or the secret police of any totalitarian regime," said Martin, director of the ACLU's national security litigation project.
Censored FBI documents released in 1975 under the Freedom of Information Act disclosed part of the plot against Albertson, an American Communist official in New York who became a member of the party's policy-making national committee in 1964.
Memos showed that Hoover approved the plot to plant a bogus informant report in a party member's car, and that the FBI believed the scheme dealt ''an extremely damaging blow" to the Communist Party. "Incentive awards" were recommended for the agents responsible.
Today's FBI is widely credited with observing safeguards designed to protect political minorities from government harassment. Last year, however, FBI Director William S. Sessions acknowledged that, from 1983 to 1985, FBI agents unjustifiably investigated members of a liberal group that opposed the Reagan administration's policies in Central America. He suspended three agents and censured three other FBI employees.