What the FBI Repairman Wore When He Tried to Bug Edward Said

The FBI was probably tapping Edward Said’s phone right up to the day he died in September of 2003. A year earlier, when he was already a very sick man, Said was scheduled to speak at an event at the Kopkind Colony summer session near Guilford, Vermont. The morning of Friday, August 2, the day he was scheduled to arrive, John Scagliotti picked up the phone at the Colony’s old farmhouse and found it was dead. He went to a neighbor to report the fault.

“Within half an hour,” Scagliotti remembers, “there was a knock at the front door, and there was a man who said ‘I hear you have phone problems’. Now I am a gay man. I know what a phone service repair man is meant to look like. In the Village the phone man is a gay icon. Tool belt, jeans, work shirt, work boots. This man has a madras shirt, Dockers slacks, brown loafer shoes. [J. Edgar Hoover’s gay icon, from an earlier era. A.C.] He goes to an outside junction box, and a few minutes later the phone is working. Off he goes.”

A month later, in the course of a complaint to the phone company about an unusually high bill, Scagliotti suggests that the trouble may have stemmed from something the repairman did. After further checking the phone company tells him they’d never sent a repair man that day.

As it happened, shortly thereafter Said’s assistant called in to say Said was too sick to make the 5-hour drive from New York. But had he done so, we can opine with near certainty that the Bureau would have been ready to monitor whatever calls he may have placed from rural Vermont. The reason for the near-certainty is that we now know that the FBI had begun began spying on Said over 30 years earlier.

David Price is professor of anthropology at St Martins University in Washington state. As anyone glancing through his excellent book Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists will know, David is expert at getting secret government documents, by use of the Freedom of Information Act. Last year, on behalf of CounterPunch, he requested the FBI’s file on Said.

As those who read Price’s piece here yesterday will have learned, the FBI released to Price 147 pages of Said’s 238 page FBI file. Large sections of the file remain blacked out, with stamps indicating they remain Classified Secret until 2030, 25 years after their initial FOIA processing. Most of the file, Dr Price tells us, documents FBI surveillance of his legal, public work with American-based Palestinian political or pro-Arab organizations, while other portions of the file document the FBI’s ongoing investigations of Said as it monitored his contacts with other Palestinian-Americans.

The FBI’s first record of Edward Said appears in a February 1971 domestic security investigation of another (unidentified) individual. The FBI collected photographs of Said from the State Department’s passport division and various news agencies. Said’s “International Security” FBI file was established when an informant gave the FBI a program from the October 1971, Boston Convention of the Arab-American University Graduates, where Said chaired a panel on “Culture and the Critical Spirit”.

Employees at Princeton and Columbia Universities, swiftly and shamefully, gave FBI agents biographical and education information on Said, and the Harvard University Alumni Office provided the FBI with detailed information.

Some will say that since he was a Palestinian, a political one and also a member (before he broke with Arafat) of the Palestinian National Council, Said was a legitimate object of concern for the FBI and the Bureau would have been remiss not to have kept an eye on him.

But labeling Said as a friend of Arafat misses the point that the FBI’s surveillance of this US citizen found absolutely no evidence that he broke any laws–not even jaywalking or tape recording songs off the radio. As Price says, “FBI action needs to be based on demonstrable wrongdoing, not thought crimes or having unpopular friends. The American right perhaps understands this better than the left, and given the anti-Bush flutter I’m hearing on talk radio, they seem to understand the threat to democracy represented in unfettered surveillance expeditions.”

Another way of viewing the FBI’s surveillance of Said is in the context of their surveillance and harassment of other prominent activists, people like Martin Luther King, who advocated democratic lawful solutions to problems of social justice. Price: “Had the federal government chosen to support rather than harass and monitor activists willing to work within extant systems like Said and King, they could have precluded the coming of more radical and violent efforts. In effect, the FBI’s surveillance and harassment of Said creates the conditions for the development of more violent efforts to resolve the Palestinian problem. If you spy on and block those advocating reason, you are aiding and abetting those who will follow with violence.

Because the FBI has yet to release the whole Said file, Price says, ” we don’t know what they are withholding but I wonder if it doesn’t show the sort of illegal wiretapping and surveillance that we now know that President Bush has illegally charged the NSA to conduct on an unknown number of Americans. The FBI’s unusual step in re-classifying these files for another quarter century raises the very real possibility that they did this to hide just what steps they were taking to spy on Said, I’ll challenge this in an in-house review and my lawyer is gearing up for a suit in federal court to get a judge to look and see if the FBI was illegally spying on an American who was breaking no laws.”
How To Live Past 90:
“It’s A Great Life if You Don’t Weaken.”

Sanora Babb died on December 31, aged 98. Harry Magdoff died on New Years Day, at 92. Frank Wilkinson died a day later, at 91.

My line has always been that to get really old it pays to have been a Commie or at least a fellow traveler. In younger years they tended to walk a lot, selling the party paper. They talked a lot and above all, they never stopped thinking. The quickest way to kill someone is to send them off to quasi-solitary, torn from their comfortable nest and thrown into a nursing home or into managed care, where people talk about them at the tops of their voices, referring to them in the third person. You can see them dying before your eyes, their brains turned to mush. It takes about a year to kill them off, unless a “surprise birthday party” wipes them out even earlier.

Trotskyists tend to be more feverish and stressed out, hence less likely to turn the bend into their Nineties. As for Maoists (over here), I don’t know. As Chou En Lai answered, when asked what he thought of the French Revolution, Too soon to tell. The ex-Maoists I know are mostly still in their mid-60s.

I don’t know whether Sweezy and Magdoff ever took a day’s exercise. When I used to see them in the editorial offices of the Monthly Review they looked as though they’d been marinating in tobacco smoke there for decades. They certainly thought a lot, to great effect. They liked Mao too.

Frank Wilkinson was a feisty soul. He led the fight for public housing in Los Angeles in the late 1930s and 1940s, which earned him the savage enmity of the Chandlers and thus the Los Angeles Times. If his plans had gone right, we’d have public housing built by Richard Neutra instead of Dodger Stadium. He did time for refusing to testify before Congress, then went on to be a great campaigner for the First Amendment, just like his friend and fellow Communist, Dick Criley who died a few years ago up in Carmel Highlands, also in his high nineties. Dick’s sister, Cynthia Williams, is still peppy after a tremendous ninetieth (NOT a surprise) birthday party last fall in Carmel Highlands. Her wonderful piece of advice to the partygoers, “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.”

Sanora Babb obviously didn’t weaken, though she endured some zingers in her long span, the worst being the fact that she wrote a novel about migrant workers in 1939 that was to be published by Random House, until Random House’s other novelist on migrant workers, John Steinbeck, scored a huge hit with The Grapes of Wrath. Bennett Cerf cancelled Babb’s novel, Whose Names Are Unknown. It had to wait 65 years until it was published to great acclaim in 2004. Babb thought she was a better writer than Steinbeck and some smart people agree with her.

Her obit in the Los Angeles Times was vivid:

She was born in an Otoe Indian community in Oklahoma
in 1907, the year the state was admitted to the union. As the Los Angeles Times obit recounted, “As a child she followed her itinerant father’s restless path across Oklahoma to a broomcorn farm in Colorado, where her grandfather had homesteaded an arid tract of land. She and her family lived with him in a one-room dugout, an underground room dug out of the dirt. She was bitten by a rat, witnessed the stillbirth of a brother and gave up precious belongings to help her family survive repeated crop failures.

Her grandfather taught her to read from a volume about the adventures of legendary frontiersman Kit Carson and newspaper articles about murders and scandals that he had plastered on the dugout walls for insulation.

Reading on though the obit, I came to this passage:

Babb joined the Communist Party and, like many other left-leaning writers of her generation, sought foreign adventures, visiting the Soviet Union in 1936 and reporting on the Spanish Civil War for the British journal This Week.

Now my father Claud’s famous newsletter, which he published from the early 30s on, was called The Week. He fought in the Spanish Civil War. I asked myself, Was there another journal, This Week? A day or two later the LAT ran a correction, noting that “The journal was called The Week, and she did not report on the war but edited accounts of it.”

So the beautiful Sanora (described as such in the obit) sat in London, in The Week’s dingy offices on Victoria St, editing my father’s dispatches from the front. Alas, the beautiful Jean Ross, to whom my father was married at the time, is no longer around to ask for her memories, though I think she spent some time in Spain with my father. By 1938 Sanora was back in California, working for the Farm Security Administration, writing copies notes on the tent camps and protests of the migrant workers. She apparently showed these notes to Steinbeck, and of course also used them as factual buttress for her novel.

Jean, the woman whom Isherwood drew on for the character of Sally Bowles, was also a Communist, but fell far short of the lefty longevity I’m touting, dying in her early sixties, just like her daughter Sarah, my half sister, whose wonderful detective novels (Thus Was Adonis Murdered, The Sirens Sang of Murder, The Sibyl in Her Grave) should be on every shelf. They were certainly both women who never stopped thinking and in Sarah’s case at least, talking. Sarah smoked a pipe, which is what killed her. I don’t know about Jean. A wonderful person, though her’s was a quieter soul.

I should add that my father’s first wife, Hope Hale Davis, my niece Laura Flanders’ grandmother, has only just died. A Communist in the 1930s, Hope lived to be 100. I saw her in Cambridge, Mass., just after she had reached three digits and she certainly hadn’t stopped thinking, confiding her vitriolic views on Bush whom she reckoned “must be very bad in bed.”

Sanora Babb was married to the great cinematographer, James Wong Howe. They got together in the late 30s, but couldn’t get married at the time because of California’s race laws, fervently espoused by the loathsome Chandlers of that era. She wrote a number of books, and had pieces in two editions of Best American Short Stories, which came out in the early Fifties. Around the samer time my father had a very good one in Best American Detective Stories, called “Total Recall”. I think it kept us in the chips for months. I had “Heatherdown” in Best American Stories, around 1984 but I don’t think I ever got a dime.

And If You Want to Grow Really Old

My daughter Daisy calls from London to tell me she’s reading a book, The Spirit-Wrestlers, about the Dukhobors by Philip Marsden in which he quotes a Russian book called May You Live to be 200. This book cites the work of a professor at Baku’s Institute for Advanced Training for Physicians. The prof spent years interviewing people who’d lived to be very, very old. Some common features he deduced:

A diet of 2,500 ­ 3000 calories a day, limited alchohol (whatever that means), great amounts of tea, no coffee, plenty of pomegranates, not much bread,a great deal of dairy produce, boiled lean meat, many walnuts.

Work routine important. Work all your life. Walk at least 5 kms a day.

Attitude: avoid negative thoughts and excessive emotions. One 155-year old said he’d never envied anyone and he didn’t see people who annoyed him.

Sex: continue regularly. Many oldsters who’d procreated at advanced age ascribe potency to honey and walnuts.

Other things in book: Pushkin knew lots of old people. The oldest person was a woman of 194 who could thread a needle. She died by being swept off a path by an avalanche. A woman in the 1950s, at age of 154, could recall meeting Pushkin and Nekrasov.

And Best Get Along with Your Cat

This from AP, January 2.

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Police aren’t sure how else to explain it. But when an officer walked into an apartment Thursday night to answer a 911 call, an orange-and-tan striped cat was lying by a telephone on the living room floor. The cat’s owner, Gary Rosheisen, was on the ground near his bed having fallen out of his wheelchair.

Rosheisen said his cat, Tommy, must have hit the right buttons to call 911.

“I know it sounds kind of weird,” Officer Patrick Daugherty said, unsuccessfully searching for some other explanation.

Rosheisen said he couldn’t get up because of pain from osteoporosis and ministrokes that disrupt his balance. He also wasn’t wearing his medical-alert necklace and couldn’t reach a cord above his pillow that alerts paramedics that he needs help.

Daugherty said police received a 911 call from Rosheisen’s apartment, but there was no one on the phone. Police called back to make sure everything was OK, and when no one answered, they decided to check things out.

That’s when Daugherty found Tommy next to the phone.

Rosheisen got the cat three years ago to help lower his blood pressure. He tried to train him to call 911, unsure if the training ever stuck.

The phone in the living room is always on the floor, and there are 12 small buttons _ including a speed dial for 911 right above the button for the speaker phone.

“He’s my hero,” Rosheisen said.



Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.