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Files Upon Files

by HOWARD LISNOFF

Fred and I demonstrate, or rather vigil against the war in Iraq, each Saturday in front of the town hall in a small town in Massachusetts.  I joined Fred after being absent from the antiwar movement, or what is left of that movement, for about four years. Usually it’s just Fred and me, with another person occasionally joining us.  The majority of passersby flash the peace sign or thumbs up or call out their approval.

A few Saturdays ago Fred and I discussed surveillance by the F.B.I.  Fred has never petitioned the government for any file they may have collected about him, but he certainly must have a file since he has been a peace activist since the 1960s and is a writer.

I received my F.B.I. file exactly twenty-five years ago.  I was a war resister in the military and my file came full of so-called redactions, most lines impossible to completely read.  I’ve remained an antiwar activist ever since, but have balked at the lengthy process of procuring any files the government may now have, since the process is lengthy and each government agency that a person suspects of having collected a file has to be applied to individually. However, I applied to the F.B.I. to have my file corrected after having been turned down for teacher certification in Florida in 2006, since the F.B.I. listed me as a deserter from the military even though I was discharged in 1973 under honorable conditions.

During the 1950s Fred tells of being questioned by F.B.I. agents in his Brooklyn neighborhood, an experience he recalls as bizarre because of the slick, neatly suited appearance of the agents who questioned him about his father who worked for a prominent Left newspaper.  The scene of agents questioning a young child is quite unfathomable, though very believable in a society obsessed with the surveillance of anyone not fitting into the mold of political and social acceptability. When Fred finally received his father’s F.BI. file it was voluminous. Again, the redactions were everywhere on those documents!

My mother was a mild progressive.  She had written and protested against the Vietnam War for many years when she joined the antiwar presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy in 1968.  By the late spring our telephone had been made the obvious target of a wiretap.  Hissing and pervasive unexplained noises constantly became audible on a phone line that had previously operated perfectly.  Often, spurious voices could be heard on the line while conducting a conversation.  When my family went to look at the phone terminal box outside of our home, it had some sort of adaptor added to it, which mysteriously disappeared many months later.  My mother never petitioned for files from the government, though I’m certain they exist.

In the post-September 11, 2001 political environment, with the Patriot Act and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I wonder just how much information the government now has about its citizens in a so-called open society?

HOWARD LISNOFF is an educator and freelance writer.  He can be reached at howielisnoff@gmail.com.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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