One of the unintended consequences of the Trump presidency, or rather the lengthy and complex probes into the President’s alleged misdemeanors, has been the elevation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) into a sort of national savior whose two shining knights, Robert Mueller and Jim Comey, both former FBI heads, are struggling manfully to rescue America from a disaster so expansive and boundless it has yet to be named.
Such a stark contrast to the FBI of old, the FBI of J Edgar Hoover’s filing cabinet and Cointelpro, of the hounding of Martin Luther King and countless dirty tricks would be hard to find. But that is what we are told.
Those days have gone, standards are higher, the agency has cleaned up its act, Hoover is dead and gone. Mueller and Comey are the proof. The people now love the FBI, or at least a lot of them do, especially those on the American ‘left’.
Maybe, but I was prompted to wonder about this when I listened to David Remnick’s interview with James Comey, whose account of his life in the FBI and of his dealings with Trump, is sailing up the bestseller’s list.
Comey revealed to The New Yorker editor that in the course of one of their chats, he and Obama had disagreed about the meaning and extent of ‘mass incarceration’, the term widely used in the US to mean the overwhelmingly disproportionate jailing of Black men and the parallel over-targeting of that community by America’s law and order agencies.
Obama argued that ‘mass’ was the correct term since such a large slice of one community had evidently been targeted with devastating consequences for the entire Black community.
Comey disagreed. The fact that so many Black men were jailed was a coincidence. They were involved in crime, got caught and paid the price.
I suspect that Obama, a bit like Remnick, was too polite to call this out for the bullshit it was, but I couldn’t help but feel that in Comey’s assertion could be detected the essence of the racist soul of J Edgar Hoover.
Institutions are like human beings. They have a spirit which is passed on to their successors, rather like DNA, but time and social change do serve to dilute and even transform. I have no doubt therefore that no-one in the FBI would these days propose a new Cointelpro, or if they did that they would think they could get away with it, but I also suspect it would take longer than half a century for an agency to entirely expunge the pneuma of someone as baleful as Hoover.
By chance, or not, the excellent New York Review of Books (NYRB) chose this week to re-run a January 1972 memoir by a disillusioned former FBI agent by the name of Robert Wall, whose recollections of life as a special agent in Hoover’s heyday are such as to send shivers up the spine. Has all he writes about really been cleansed from the floors, chiseled from the cracks and scoured off the walls?
You can read it here, on the NYRB website, or below if you cannot access it – remember it when Mueller and/or Comey are smothered in garlands of praise:
Special Agent for the FBI | by Robert Wall
In May of 1965, after serving as a naval officer for several years, I arrived in Washington, D.C., to begin my training for the position of Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I was both naive and apolitical. I thought of myself as an intense idealist and was convinced that the FBI was an organization in which personal integrity was highly valued. To me the organization was above all a protector of the innocent public and only secondarily the relentless pursuer of wrongdoers. In short, I was an ideal candidate for the job. I would not question; I would simply learn to do as I was told, content to believe that the FBI would never direct me wrong.
This belief managed to survive my first two years in the bureau, during which I worked on criminal investigations and government job applications. It was when I was assigned to work in Internal Security in Washington, D. C., that I began to have my first serious doubts about the integrity of the organization, its motives, and its goals.
The Washington Field Office is the operating arm of the FBI in Washington, D.C. Like other field offices, we reported to the bureau’s Washington headquarters, but our office was one of the largest. Assigned to the office were between five and six hundred agents, broken up into squads of from a handful to fifty or sixty. Two squads worked only on applications for government jobs and five or six handled criminal investigations. In addition, there were nine squads assigned to do “security” work. One of those nine was charged with investigating all of the various individuals and organizations that allegedly threatened the national security or that advocated the overthrow of the United States government by force or violence.
It was to this squad that I was assigned in May, 1967, shortly before my second anniversary as an agent. I looked forward to the assignment because anything would have looked good to me after a few months spent investigating applicants for government jobs. But I realized that all my FBI experience until then had in no way prepared me for work in security. During the training course for new agents which I had undergone in 1965, instruction on “security” meant listening to stories of the bureau’s great accomplishments, e.g., the capture of the Nazi espionage teams that landed in Florida and New England during World War II, and, of course, the apprehension of Colonel Rudolph Abel. We learned also that the bureau had been able to break up the Ku Klux Klan and the Communist Party.
But nothing in this training was meant to define how the FBI views national security or threats to it. We were told instead that only a handful of experienced and carefully picked agents, the “cream of the crop,” were selected to work in this most difficult and challenging field. Furthermore, information about the security work of the FBI was supplied on a “need to know” basis only, and there was no immediate need to tell us much more.
Later, in September, 1967, I was sent to the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia, for a two week in-service training in “Basic Security.” But this consisted mainly of an elaborate rehash of the noninformation we had received during new agents training. Nonetheless, I was eager to learn more about the work of the squad and the men assigned to it.
The heyday of this squad was during the late Forties and early Fifties when those who were called Communists, pinkos, reds, Commie symps, fellow travelers, and sundry other names were being “discovered” and routed from all levels of American society. By the time I arrived on the scene the squad was jokingly referred to by some as “the graveyard,” owing to the advanced age of some of the agents and the motionless manner in which they conducted their investigations now that their prime had passed. Of the dozen or so agents on the squad, all were near or past their twentieth year of service in the bureau. Most of them had spent the better part of their careers on the squad as “red chasers.”
Each of the older agents would willingly relate how he had shared in the FBI’s successful smashing of the Communist Party. The stories most often had the flavor of back fence gossip, for they concerned not some insidious plot to overthrow the government, but rather the clandestine love affairs of various Party members.
One agent told me that he spent twelve years of his bureau service in “lookouts.” A lookout is a place where an agent can sit (sometimes stand, kneel, lie, or squat, but usually sit) unobserved and look out to see what the person under investigation is doing. One of these lookouts which he recalled fondly was in a hotel room across an airshaft from a room rented by a Communist Party “angel” in a downtown Washington, D.C., hotel. In fact this agent had spent some years of his life peering across the airshaft at his wholly innocuous subject. The blinds in the room he watched were never closed. He liked to tell of the lively sexual activities he had seen. He seemed to think that, in the absence of other evidence, they confirmed that something subversive was taking place.
Another agent told of months spent watching the suburban home of a suspected “Commie” where the only information of value obtained was that after the suspect left for work in the morning his wife would signal to her lover, who lived two streets away, by switching on the back porch light. The lover would then jump in his car and race over for a morning visit. The agent’s report indicated the time elapsed from the moment when the porch light went on until the lover arrived panting at the door, and then the length of his stay. The lover was not known to be a member of the Party, but was suspected of being a sympathizer, which may have been the justification used by the agents to account for the time they spent watching that particular house.
By 1967, the Communist Party in Washington, D.C., had only three members remaining. The main function of the squad then was to verify the residence and employment of the persons who once had been subjects of FBI investigation and who were still considered dangerous enough to keep track of, even though they were no longer active with the Party or any other subversive group, for that matter. Every three, six, nine, or twelve months the files on these persons would be reopened and assigned to an agent on the squad who would make certain that the individual still lived at the same address and worked at the same job.
To accomplish this task, the agent could use several methods. He could personally observe the subject at his home and follow him to work. Or he could request the agents handling one of the three remaining informants familiar with former Party members to ask the informants about the man in question. The latter method was usually chosen since it would eliminate any real work for the agent. After the informant had reported, the case could then be closed again. In closing the case, the agent could either certify that the subject was still worthy of the bureau’s attention or try to give him a lower priority, thereby lengthening the interval before the file had to be reopened. It was simpler and required much less paperwork to certify that the subject still needed watching. Thus the investigations of hundreds of perfectly harmless people continued on through the years.
By 1967, the antiwar movement was growing from its lean beginnings to a movement of national significance. The response of the bureau was consistent with its history. It determined that the movement was a part of the larger Communist conspiracy to overthrow the United States government. Having decided this, the bureau set about to investigate the movement to show the existence of the conspiracy.
Proof sufficient to satisfy the bureau was readily available. For example, it was noted that among the thirty-five to forty thousand persons who took part in the march on the Pentagon in October, 1967, approximately twenty persons who had once been named as members, suspected members, or sympathizers of the Communist Party were reported to be in the crowd. A few among them had actually assisted in organizing the march. Although the bureau always insists that it neither draws conclusions nor makes recommendations from the facts that it gathers, the FBI report on the march on the Pentagon was leaked to the press and its impact was obvious: the thousands who marched to protest the war in Southeast Asia were publicly labeled as mere pawns in a Communist master plan to spread dissent throughout the nation. They had been duped into giving aid and comfort to the enemy and demoralizing our fighting men.
Had the bureau believed its own propaganda, it would have investigated only the “Communist agitators” in the antiwar movement. Instead we were directed to investigate all the leaders in all the local peace groups and to determine among other things the source of any money used to finance the movement. From there it was a simple step to the investigation of anyone connected to the peace movement in any way. The number of investigations was limited only by the time available and the problem of distinguishing the organizers and leaders of mass rallies from the passive followers.
To deal with the peace movement the FBI followed its usual practice of planting informants. It was easy to recruit young people to infiltrate the antiwar organizations and other groups in the so-called “New Left” since large numbers of volunteers were needed to hand out leaflets, run mimeo machines, answer phones, stuff envelopes, and similar chores connected with political organizing. All one of our FBI informants needed to do was walk into the office and state briefly that he was opposed to the war and wished to volunteer his services. He would seldom be challenged to prove his allegiance to the movement. Then, with little additional effort, he had access to mailing lists, names of contributors, copies of leaflets and handbills, and was able to report in detail on any organizational meetings that might take place.
Since an organization gave an informant a convenient base from which to operate, the bureau tried to place informants in all the organizations likely to participate in any mass march or demonstration. Then if a coalition of groups was formed to plan a large rally, at least one informant would, we hoped, be among those selected to represent a group when the coalition met to plan its activities. Frequently this was the case.
The informants were always directed to look especially for any indication that violence was being planned by any group or individual within a group. This was the rationale by which the bureau justified its infiltration of these political organizations, although during my three years working on radical groups I never found any evidence that would lead to a conviction for criminal violence.
But the bureau also had an active counterintelligence program which was titled “Cointelpro—New Left.” This program was designed to develop means to thwart and undermine the activities of any organization that fell into the category of “New Left.” A frequent tactic was to leak stories to the press and television shortly before any mass march or rally. This was easy enough to do. Agents in our offices would write often fanciful press releases warning that violence was expected on the day of the rally, or that the organizers of the march were in contact with Hanoi, or that some known Communists were active in organizing the march. Our superiors in the Internal Security Division at FBI headquarters would then pass on the information to conservative newspapers, which published it immediately. The purpose of such stories was not only to influence the general public but to scare away those whose commitment was weak and thereby reduce the number of persons who might otherwise attend.
Another purpose of the program was to create dissent among the various groups involved in the new left to prevent them from working together. In one case we addressed a letter to the leaders of the National Mobilization Committee (NMC) which said that the blacks of Washington, D. C., would not support the upcoming rally of the NMC unless a twenty thousand dollar “security bond” was paid to a black organization in Washington. At the same time we instructed some informants we had placed in the black organization to suggest the idea of a security bond informally to leaders of the organization. The letter we composed was approved by the bureau’s counterintelligence desk and was signed with the forged signature of a leader of the black group. Later, through informants in the NMC, we learned that the letter had caused a great deal of confusion and had a significant effect on the planning for the march.
I should stress that such “counterintelligence” activities were carried on frequently, although some were quite absurd. For example, some of the agents in our office tried to confuse peace demonstrations by such collegiate tactics as handing out leaflets giving misleading information about the time and place when the marchers were supposed to meet.
The FBI claims to be a nonpolitical organization and asserts that it is not a national police force. But in its intelligence and counterintelligence work on the new left it was engaging in activity that clearly was political. Moreover, in trying to suppress and discourage a broad-based national political movement, it acted as a national political police.
The FBI has always been divided about college campuses. It wants to know what is happening on the campus, yet it is afraid of being charged with interfering with academic freedom. When the antiwar students began challenging the legitimacy of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), the propriety of secret military research projects in colleges and universities, and the legality and morality of the draft, they turned their campuses into centers of political activity.
The bureau’s first response to this student activism had a cautious note. We were instructed to investigate to determine who was responsible for the demonstrations and uprisings on the campuses, on the theory that they were organized by outside agitators traveling around the country, but not to conduct investigations on campus. We were told to plant informants in violence-prone student groups but not to use students themselves as informants. Then as campus activity increased we got the green light to recruit students again but were warned to choose only those who were “mature” and reliable. Those students selected were to be admonished strongly that the bureau was not interested in “legitimate campus activity” (a term as definable as “New Left”).
I was understandably somewhat anxious when in November, 1967, I was assigned the case titled “Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).” Here was the organization that the bureau had singled out among all the other young activist groups for special attention. I was told that I had to prepare a comprehensive report on all SDS activities in the Washington, D. C., area in less than a month. Every campus SDS chapter was to be identified, as were the names and backgrounds of all officers of the various groups, the number of members in each chapter, the activities of each group, including especially any activity where violence or destruction of property took place.
The agent previously assigned to the case assured me that a brief letter to the bureau would suffice since there was no significant SDS activity in Washington, D. C., a fact that he had dutifully reported three times in the preceding year. (This particular agent was at the time moving up the ladder of bureau success to a supervisory position and I felt certain that his astute handling of the SDS case was largely responsible.)
With very little effort I was able to learn that there were already four campus SDS chapters in the city and an SDS regional office had just been set up. Realizing that it would be impossible in the time remaining to compile all the information demanded by the bureau, I chose to imitate my predecessor and reported that there was no significant SDS activity in the Washington, D. C., area. Shortly thereafter, when the squad was beefed up, I arranged to have the SDS case reassigned to one of the newcomers.
The bureau’s ambivalence regarding campus unrest was apparent when the Washington Field Office received a request from then Assistant Director William Sullivan to analyze the activity on campuses, point out the causes, and recommend the appropriate FBI policy for dealing with student movements. Since our squad was closest to the problem, the job of preparing the position paper was turned over to us. Our squad supervisor elected to assign the task to an older agent who had recently been assigned to the squad This agent had little experience with college matters but had as yet been assigned few cases and had more time available. He also had a reputation for being able to “write well,” that is, to say what the bureau wanted to hear in the language to which it was accustomed.
When I learned of the choice I was disturbed. The agent chosen, if described by a friend, would have been called an extreme conservative. In the banter of the office I had hung the label “fascist pig” on him. He in turn called me the “Father Groppi” of the office, or “Grop” for short. I knew that he saw a conspiracy in every campus demonstration and felt that swifter police action was the first and best answer to any problem of disruption by college students. So I knew what tack he would take.
At this point I was still naïve enough to believe that the bureau was amenable to change and I saw this paper as an opportunity to “affect the bureau from within.” So I went to my supervisor and asked for his permission to take over the assignment of preparing the paper for Sullivan. He refused because, in his words, “You’re too young to place the SDS in proper historical perspective with the old guard Communist organizations.” Undismayed, I “borrowed” the rough draft of my colleague’s paper and proceeded to draft a reply and counterproposal. In essence I contended that university administrators needed to re-evaluate the role of the university in our society and take the initiative away from radical agitators by instituting needed changes before the demand for these changes became the rallying point for student discontent.
I concluded that if university administrators could recognize the issues behind the student uprisings, meet with student representatives, and be willing to compromise, they would generally be able to avert destructive confrontation. I recommended that the bureau keep its hands off the universities, even those that had already suffered disruption, because the FBI had no legal justification to intrude; any intrusion would, moreover, be taken by students as an indication of attempted repression by federal authorities.
When I dropped my paper on the supervisor’s desk, he handled the situation with the skill of a diplomat. Rather than choose between the papers, he gave both to a third agent to prepare a compromise paper to be presented to Sullivan, setting out the principal points on both sides of the issue. He promised also that I would have the opportunity to make an oral presentation to Sullivan at a later date.
About two weeks later, I returned to the office unexpectedly in mid-morning to discover that a meeting with Sullivan had been arranged at 1 P.M. that day. Angry at what appeared to be an attempt to keep me out, I went to the Coordinating Security Supervisor (my supervisor’s supervisor) who had originally received the request from Sullivan that set the whole paper-writing flurry in motion. In his smooth Dixie manner he assured me that no slight had been intended. I had not been invited to the meeting merely because of an administrative oversight. Certainly I’d be allowed to have my say.
It seemed obvious to me then that they did not want me to attend the meeting but they didn’t want to be too obvious about it. So I spent some time preparing an oral argument while I awaited the one o’clock meeting. At 12:45, just as I was bringing my shoes to a new luster, my phone rang. The Coordinating Supervisor on the other end advised me that unfortunately Mr. Sullivan’s office had only four chairs for visitors and since I had been the last to request a part in the presentation and would be the fifth person, there was no choice but to exclude me. He tried to calm me with lavish praise for my initiative and willingness to tackle difficult problems, but he managed only a hollow laugh when I suggested that I’d accept standing room.
I was certain that my exclusion was just another example of how people on the lower levels of a bureaucracy act as a buffer for those higher up the ladder. They decided what the man at the top wanted to hear and they gave him just that. They had heard and read Mr. Hoover’s statements that the SDS was a subversive group that traveled about the country seeking to destroy the institutions of higher learning and they could not make a presentation that deviated from that line.
The final result was an order directing intensified investigations of student agitators and expanded “informant penetration” of campus SDS groups. Predictably, the informants reported the names of hundreds of students who had done no more than say they were interested in SDS or had dropped in at a meeting. Our Washington squad alone opened dozens of cases on freshmen college students who attended orientation sessions sponsored by SDS on Washington, D. C., campuses. Soon we had so many new cases that we had to request additional agents to handle this new “threat to national security.”
While we were investigating antiwar groups and student activists, the squad also handled what were called “Racial Matters.” This category was an absurdly and frighteningly broad one. Investigations on almost anything done by or for black people could be opened simply by labeling it a Racial Matter. Here, for example, are some of the “cases” we investigated:
—A group of teen-agers from the ghetto areas of Washington, D. C., who marched to the city council chambers and demanded restoration of funds for summer jobs for ghetto youth.
—Two busloads of steelworkers who picketed the Department of Labor to protest discriminatory practices at the Bethlehem Steel Sparrow’s Point (near Baltimore) plant.
—A group of high-school students who staged a protest in their school cafeteria complaining that the food was not fit for human consumption.
—Two members of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who opened a bookstore on 14th Street in northwest Washington. The FBI quickly responded with an investigation titled “Drum and Spear Bookstore, Racial Matter.”
When the poor people’s march was organized to dramatize the plight of the poor in our nation and a camp was set up near the Washington Monument, this was a Racial Matter. More logically perhaps, investigations of the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party, and similar groups were also Racial Matters.
Clearly the bureau had no rational criterion for opening these investigations. The only consistent pattern that I found was that if an individual or group is black and does something to gain attention it is likely to be investigated.
Our guide to Racial Matters at the field office was the early edition of the Washington Post. A typical news item would read: “Police arrested six persons early this morning when a crowd gathered as detectives of the Metropolitan Police Department were attempting to arrest a suspected narcotics peddler at the corner of 14th and U Streets, N.W. Some rocks and bottles were allegedly thrown at police,” etc. Inevitably, when such a story appeared, we would receive a call from the supervisor of the Racial Desk in bureau headquarters asking what we knew about the incident. It was his firm conviction that incidents of this type were a manifestation of the conspiracy by blacks to take over their community by driving out the police.
So that we would not be embarrassed when the supervisor called, it became standard practice for one of the early arrivers in the office to scan the paper for articles like the one above. He would clip the item, call the precinct to verify the names of the persons arrested, and then paraphrase the news item in a teletype message to bureau headquarters, advising them that we were following the incident and would report any further developments. A month or two later, the agent to whom the case was assigned would close it with a letter stating that the incident was apparently spontaneous and not part of a conspiracy, and giving an estimate of the damages, the names of those arrested, and the background of those who already had records in FBI files.
Often the supervisor on the Racial Desk at the bureau would request specific information about a case under investigation by the field office. The agent to whom the Drum and Spear Bookstore case was assigned received such a request. For months he had been investigating the bookstore, watching its operations, checking out its owners, looking into its bank records, trying to ascertain the source of its funds. He had found nothing connected with crime, conspiracy, or evil doings. Now he was instructed to go to the bookstore and purchase a copy of the “Little Red Book” containing the quotations of Chairman Mao Tse-tung. It was pointless to ask what purpose the purchase of this particular book would serve. It was obvious to us that the supervisor felt that the bookstore, by selling this book, was somehow implicated in the Oriental branch of the Communist conspiracy.
The agent dutifully made his way to the Drum and Spear where he learned that they had sold their last copy of the book. Rather than order a copy to be mailed to the supervisor, a cheeky solution which he admitted considering, he returned downtown, bought a copy at Brentano’s, and duly passed it on to the bureau supervisor, just as if it had come from the Drum and Spear. Thereafter, the written description of the Drum and Spear contained the note that radical literature including the “Little Red Book” of Mao Tse-tung was obtainable there.
As I worked on Racial Matters in Washington (a city whose black population comprises more than 70 percent of the total), the appalling racism of the FBI on every level became glaringly apparent to me. It seemed that every politically dissident black man was a candidate for investigation. Perhaps this racism was no worse than in other branches of government, but it was extremely discouraging to find it so firmly entrenched in an organization of supposedly educated, professional men charged with responsibility for investigating violations of the civil rights laws.
The documents stolen from the Media. Pennsylvania, office of the FBI demonstrate the endemic racism of the bureau. In one memo that J. Edgar Hoover directed to all offices of the FBI, he ordered that “all black student unions and similar organizations organized to project the demands of black students, which are not presently under investigation, are to be subjects of discreet preliminary inquiries, limited to established sources and carefully conducted to avoid criticism, to determine the size, aims, purposes, activities, leadership, key activists, and extremist interest or influence in these groups.” The stated purpose for these investigations was that these groups are the “target for influence and control by violence prone Black Panther Party (BPP) and other extremists.”
Only the fact that the organizations to be investigated were black could explain the horrendous abuse of logic that the bureau used to justify this invasion of campuses throughout the country. J. Edgar Hoover had publicly announced that the small and largely ineffectual Black Panther Party was the greatest single threat to the security of the country. Having itself created the threat, the bureau set out to neutralize it. Even if Hoover could have seriously documented his charges against the Panthers, which he never did, it was absurd to investigate hundreds of people whose only connection with the Black Panther Party was that the party was trying to influence them. Hoover might similarly have justified an FBI investigation of every member of a “working class” union because the Communist Party directed its propaganda and organizing effort at workers, or an investigation of every college student organization because the SDS sought to influence and control students.
Nor was this assault on the black student unions an isolated incident. I could cite many similar ones, for example the FBI’s interest in the Smithsonian Institute when it opened an annex in the largely black Anacostia section of Washington, D.C. One of the annex’s first events was a program for Black History Week centered on the life and contributions of Frederick Douglass. The FBI actually paid informants to attend the program and report the contents of the speeches given during it.
In the case of Stokely Carmichael the FBI was particularly determined and vicious. When he moved to Washington, D. C., in December, 1967, our squad kept him under surveillance twenty-four hours a day, following him about the city from lookouts and cars, and on foot. The investigation became even more intense a few days after Martin Luther King was assassinated. When blacks in Washington, D. C., as well as in many other cities, outraged by the murder, rioted for a day and a half, in the Washington Field Office a fifty-man special squad was assembled to get Carmichael for inciting to riot. We were directed to gather evidence showing that Carmichael had plotted, planned, and directed the rioting, burning, and pillage that took place in Washington, D.C. Fifty agents spent their full time for over a month on this one case.
One man, who later admitted that he had “been mistaken and perhaps exaggerated a bit,” claimed that Carmichael had a pistol which he fired into the air and then told the crowd to go home and get guns. A great many others stated firmly that Carmichael had urged the crowd not to dishonor Dr. King’s memory by rioting and had politely asked shop owners to close their shops in his memory. Lacking any substantial evidence on which to base a charge, the bureau nevertheless submitted voluminous reports on the minute by minute activities of Carmichael that were heavily weighted to imply that he had actually incited the mobs. Had Carmichael not decided to leave this country and go to Africa, the FBI, I am confident, would eventually have found something with which to bring an indictment against him.
Quite by accident I learned that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was aiding in the hunt for something with which to pin a charge on so-called “Black Militants.” In early 1969 I was checking the background of a former member of SNCC, a man I had been investigating for almost two years. On three occasions I tried to close the case because I could find no indication that the subject was doing anything that would warrant an FBI investigation. Each time permission was refused; his status as a former member of SNCC being sufficient justification for going on with the investigation. I learned that the IRS had requested his arrest record from the Identification Division of the FBI. When I went to the IRS I found it had secretly set up a special squad of men to investigate the tax records of a list of “known militants and activists,” and that the FBI was supplying the names of the persons for the IRS to include in this list. After talking to several IRS officials I was sent to a locked sound-proofed room in the basement of the IRS headquarters in Washington where I found a file on my subject, among hundreds of others piled on a long table.
There are hardly any limits on the bureau’s activities in compiling political information, particularly about the new left. A case in point is the Institute for Policy Studies, an organization set up by dissenting officials in Kennedy’s administration to carry out independent studies in international and domestic questions. The Institute caught my attention shortly after I began investigating the new left. Reports from FBI informants showed that many of the leaders and spokesmen of antiwar and civil rights organizations called at the Institute when they visited Washington.
I reasoned that if there were a conspiracy that linked all these groups the Institute was the logical place to look for it. I drafted a memo to that effect and requested that a case on the Institute be opened and assigned to me. My supervisor quickly agreed: he was then trying to increase the case load of the squad to justify a request for an increase in manpower.
Most of the information about the Institute’s work is easily available and I was soon able to accumulate a vast dossier on it including biographical sketches of its founders, sources of its financial support, a general idea of its day to day operation, and a pile of scholarly studies published by it. After analyzing this data I concluded that the Institute was not the secret mastermind of any conspiracy to overthrow the government but simply what I described in my report as a “think-tank of the Left,” where a wide variety of current and former government officials, lawyers, journalists, radicals, and others were holding seminars, doing research, writing reports, etc. I closed the investigation. To do otherwise, incidentally, would have meant a mound of paperwork that would have occupied me full time for months.
About a year later another agent newly assigned to the squad came to see me with the closed file of the Institute and asked whether I thought the case ought to be reopened. This agent, like so many others, had strong right-wing views and could not believe that the Institute was merely sponsoring seminars and doing the other work I had described. It seemed necessary to him to think that a grand new left conspiracy existed. In spite of my opposition, he had the case reopened and began a full-scale investigation of the Institute. He began monitoring the checking account of the Institute to determine where its money was going. He asked for telephone company records and compiled a list of the Institute’s long distance telephone calls. He attempted to place informants in the Institute as student interns and gathered every available paper published by it. Individual investigations were then opened on the people who worked for or received money from the Institute.
When I left the bureau in April, 1970, the case on the Institute was still being investigated with gusto, and a huge collection of papers and reports on it had accumulated. So far as I have been able to determine, the FBI has found no evidence whatever of any illegal activity by the IPS, but the Institute continues to be investigated.
My experience has shown me that the FBI in its pursuit of blacks, the antiwar movement, and college activists was not an impartial, disinterested finder of fact but rather a relentless guardian of orthodoxy, a police force which sought to cause harm to movements that boldly questioned the policies of the government. It engaged in these activities not simply because of the political prejudices of the director and his staff, but, to a large extent, to justify its own existence. Each attack on any outspoken critic of American institutions was intended to show the FBI as the indispensable protector of the public. To each slanderous name-calling or alarmist leak to the press, Hoover added a soft-spoken if tendentious appeal to Congress for more money and additional personnel. Enemies of the public were created to justify the bureau’s role as defender of the “National Security” against domestic foes who sought, according to Hoover’s propaganda, to subvert the country.
This is not to say that an effective federal investigative agency is not needed to deal with crimes or that the FBI itself has not done efficient and honest criminal work (although it has for years been reluctant to act vigorously against organized crime). But my years in the FBI convinced me that most of what the bureau does in matters of internal security consists of investigations and rumor mongering that are foolish, pointless, and time-wasting so far as protection of the public from violation of criminal laws is concerned; while the agency is all too effective in harassing legitimate political activity. At the same time, all of the investigations I have referred to here have resulted in adding more names and dossiers to the millions in the FBI’s files. The FBI is thus creating a proliferating store of secret police files on innocent people, often based on bizarre allegations and dubious information, and sometimes on nothing at all.
What I saw and did as an agent for the FBI exposed for me the wisdom of the old question: Who will watch the watchers? I have no easy answer to it.