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.