When I read a news story about the FBI “taking cues from the CIA to recruit thousands of covert informants in the United States as part of a sprawling effort to boost its intelligence capabilities,” (ABCNews.com July 25) I had a déjà vu experience.
As a kid, I listened to the radio show “The FBI in Peace and War,” in which the Bureau always got its man and whose Agents operated under strict codes of decency. In the 1960s, “The FBI” morphed to television. Toward the end of each episode, Inspector Erskine, the heroic FBI Agent, played by Efrem Zimbalist Jr., would show photos of “the most wanted criminals” and ask the TV public to become informers to help capture them like America’s Most Wanted today. Coincidentally, the TV FBI agents and the bad guys drove new Fords. Coincidentally, Ford sponsored the show. J. Edgar Hoover, who directed the FBI for 48 years until he died in 1972, approved the script for every episode.
My father corroborated the real messages of both programs: “Don’t screw around with the FBI. They’re powerful and hate Bolsheviks.” (He referred to his own childhood in Kiev when the Tsarist secret police went after the Reds. His experiences in “the old country” led him to try to scare me away from activities that might bring me into conflict with any form of police.)
He was generally correct in his assessment. As a kid growing up in the Bronx, I recall the patrol car screeching to a halt during stickball games. The cops would jump from the car, grab our stick and break it in half. This proved more of a deterrent to continuing our game than the droppings of the fruit and vegetable man’s horse, which inevitably fell on third base (a manhole cover).
In eighth grade I went into Manhattan to sell pennants and flags during a Thanksgiving Day parade. An oversized cop threw me into the paddy wagon along with two other hopeful vendors and my board full of supplies — until the parade ended. I had neglected I subsequently discovered to pay the proper toll to the police that vendors had to cough up before the cops granted you their “license” to sell at the parade.
In 1952, we Stuyvesant high school students marched in sympathy with striking teachers. As we arrived at City Hall the Cossacks charged. The cops on horses swung clubs at students. One cop grabbed the school newspaper’s photographer camera and tossed the Leica under his horse, which trod on it.
In 1954, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Cardinal, the University of Wisconsin Student Newspaper. I argued the campus left youth group deserved the right to bring Communist speakers to campus. It got published and the Bureau opened a file on me. From then on, the FBI collected my public and private correspondence, tapped my phone and had informants writing reports about my activity. A typical phone intercept reported that “subject spoke with father” and detailed my plans to travel with my family from San Francisco to Santa Monica. Then, “subject appeared at father’s house and was seen talking with father through window. Topic of conversation unknown.”
How depressing to receive in 1974 1000 plus pages of my file after making a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Hundreds of blacked out pages stared at me along with public statements I’d made and articles I’d written including transcripts from informants and telephone intercepts.
The CIA also collected files. In 1982, in response to an FOIA request, the Agency sent me copies of letters I had written to and received from friends in the Soviet Union and Cuba. From the 1950s on, the CIA spied on thousands of US citizens. In June 1970, President Nixon brought together Hoover, CIA Director Richard Helms and other intelligence heavies to expand and “coordinate efforts against domestic dissenters,” (Verne Lyon, former CIA undercover operative, Covert Action Information Bulletin, Summer 1990.)
The FBI’s COINTELPRO (1956-1971) became public thanks to a mysterious group that in August 1971 stole the files from the FBI Media, Pennsylvania office and circulated them. The archives provided a context for the Bureau’s and its obsessed director’s intentions: disrupting opposition within the United States. Proven non-violent civil rights leaders like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. along with thousands of others became targets of FBI surveillance and harassment. Indeed, the COINTELPRO order directed FBI agents to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” actions of certain key leaders of anti-war and civil rights movements.
In 1971, I co-produced with Paul Jacobs a ten minute segment for “The Great American Dream Machine,” a Public TV magazine show in which three former FBI informants spoke on camera that they had followed orders by their Special Agent handlers to commit crimes: burn down University of Alabama dormitories and bomb a Post Office and bridge in Seattle. The stolen documents verified our claim that FBI “informants” often served as “agent provocateurs.”
We invited an FBI spokesperson to rebut our charges. The Bureau refused. Instead, a high FBI official visited the head of Public Broadcasting and told him our segment was communist inspired. The brave head of public television cut it from the show, which ran ten minutes shorter that week. Other producers, in solidarity with us, refused to offer a segment to fill it up. Subsequently, the New York public TV station aired the segment wrapped inside of a panel. (The Bureau got our show cut, but never found the burglars who stole the incriminating files.)
In a similar case, “The Camden 28,” Catholic activists broke into a draft board in Camden, New Jersey in August, 1971 to destroy draft records. A recent film about the case showed the ineptitude of the Bureau to garner sufficient evidence and sympathy from a jury to convict the accused even though they were caught in the act.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, the Bureau turned to radical environmentalists and botched a California case against Judy Bari. The government paid millions of dollars to compensate victims of the FBI’s unconstitutional acts.
In 1971, Robert Wall, an FBI Special Agent, quit. In a filmed interview, he told me that in the late 1960s his supervisor in the Washington DC Field Office ordered him to spy on the Institute for Policy Studies where I have been a fellow for thirty plus years and on Stokely Carmichael of SNCC and the Black Panthers. “Stokely hadn’t committed a crime, nor did we have any evidence that he planned to commit any. But he couldn’t take a shit without us looking in on him.”
The late FBI Special Agent Robert Scherrer told me how humiliating it was in the late 1960s to visit elderly Jewish grandmothers. “They always served me tea and cookies. “I hoped my face didn’t turn red from embarrassment.” Scherrer, who played a key role in solving the 1976 Letelier-Moffitt assassinations, said “I joined to become part of a professional police organization, not to spy on old ladies. They may have believed in Marxism. Big Deal. They also invited me to their grandson’s Bar Mitzvahs.”
After years of scandals involving infringement on people’s constitutional rights and unsolved high profile cases remember the anthrax scare?” — has the Bureau changed?
In its recent unclassified report to Congress, the FBI anticipates a new national ring of informants that will provide secrets about terrorists. Like COINTELPRO, this effort will aid in “intelligence and counterterrorism efforts.”
Bureau officials also propose expanding the already massive collection of data on U.S. citizens, keeping old wire tape transcriptions, and doing more “black bag” jobs break-ins. We know from news stories that the FBI failed to integrate its data about plans of the 9-11 fiends. It has no disclosed whether existing telephone taps have led to countering any terrorist plots. Why would Congress believe that more FBI intrusion into citizens’ lives and more rat finks among the public would make us safer?
According to ABC’s “The Blotter,” a recent unclassified report told Congress that the FBI, driven by a 2004 directive from President Bush, wants to recruit more than 15,000 informants in the US, entailing a complete overhaul of its database systems at a cost of around $22 million. The FBI apparently wants to maximize the information provided by “more than 15,000” informants. Many of the new and old informants will apparently be U.S. citizens and residents, but the FBI also wants to go overseas.
As Yogi Berra would say: “it’s déjà vu all over again.” Bush’s “new” initiatives under the guise of fighting terrorism repeat the Palmer Raids of 1920 against Bolsheviks and the Cold War COINTELPRO. The anti-Bolsheviks are at it again in the very post Bolshevik era. Hey, it’s safer doing surveillance on law abiding citizens than it is trying to catch hardened criminals!
SAUL LANDAU writes a regular column for CounterPunch and progresoweekly.com. His new Counterpunch Press book is A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD. His new film, WE DON’T PLAY GOLF HERE (on globalization in Mexico) is available through email@example.com