State Secrets: Police Surveillance in America
The Glass House Tapes
The makers of the radical movements of the Sixties experienced political repression as heathens encountered religion: with awe, resignation, and dependence. In the beginning, the State revealed its terrible, almost magical power to harass, isolate, and ultimately destroy insurgent forces. That begat the outbreaks of “paranoia” endemic to the movements in the latter years of the decade. At last, some radicals came to believe that the repression was itself a validation of their strategies and even a justification for their politics.
Like sinners and shrivers, the new subversives and their scourges were bound together in an ecology of surveillance and security. Political groups checked their own reality by the amount of police attention they received. An organization possessed of a bona fide infiltrator found not only status in the movement but a sense of historical importance. The complementary needs of the hunter and his quarry, and the spy and his mark apply to political relationships: there’s the well-known story of the exiled Bakunin and his tsarist police agent flirting, as it were, in the cafés of Switzerland and exchanging touching personal favors for many years. Upon the old anarchist’s death, the lifelong agent slid into a state of deep grief and could not be consoled for his loss.
It is not likely that the FBI, military intelligence, local police “red squads,” and the twenty-odd agencies, plumbers, and snoopers who comprise the national surveillance system in America grieved mightily over the demise of the organized New Left. But it’s true that the system’s primary justification for existence faded with the end of the Sixties, and no doubt the lives and careers of the agents involved deteriorated as well. Within the resulting bureaucratic void the exposures of “Watergate” activities could more easily emerge: no longer was there a rationalization for them nor were there “security” reasons for keeping the lid on.
In some sense, the national intelligence and surveillance edifice constructed by successive administrations and by a variety of local and specialized agencies was a successful barrier to the development of a permanent radical movement. The power of State security forces to badger activists and undermine their constituencies, though not always terrible and hardly magical, distracted radicals from politically serious projects. For a long time, their only important tactics involved “organizing around” one or another trial, grand jury inquiry, or police raid. ‘ ‘T D A’ ‘—The Day After—demonstrations were standard actions following the completion of court cases. Fears of that legendary “FBI agent behind every mailbox” paralyzed organizational work and diverted much energy to security checking and rumor sifting.
But in another way, that State security edifice was not much more than a house of cards. Its strength came as much from the exaggerated fears of the New Left activists as from impenetrable intelligence techniques. There simply were not vast armies of police spies with sensors in their socks, taps on all telephones, and cameras in every window slit recording the minutiae of protest planning from Montgomery to May Day. In fact, the infiltration and surveillance of the New Left, the civil rights movement, and even of many black groups were hit-or-miss, randomly a brutal, rarely evaluated—a poor approximation of the technofascist nightmare that haunted the radicals’ heads.
The significant infiltrators we know about can be counted on a dozen hands. Convictions in major political trials (theirs, as it may turn out for Watergate, as well as ours in the Movement) have been few in this era, even though pretrial detention for the poor, black, or unfamous remains a sticky problem. The grand jury “fishing expeditions” against the left were dangerous and divisive, but the mass contempt imprisonments they were meant (by the now-departed Assistant Attorney General, Robert Mardian) to produce rarely materialized. And the vaunted national computer files and indices remain extravagant and sinister totems, good for scaring away subversive spirits, but not yet effective for very much more. In no other techno-industrial country could the dozens of fugitive Weather-people still at large here escape the extensive dragnets the G-men have laid for them over the past two and a half years. And from what I gather, they have eluded the most sophisticated computer checks, surveillance teams, and grand jury fishings.
Neither the success nor the failure of what the five authors of State Secrets call the “police surveillance system” can be taken completely on its own terms. In both their nastiness and ineptitude, the intelligence operations of the last decade only foreshadow what an effective system would be like in a “postconstitutional” America, where the contest between civil libertarian traditions and demands for social control is decided in favor of the latter. I don’t think that contest is yet fully formed, or nearly decided. None of the eruptive forces beneath the clash—economic conglomeration, imperial economic and political warfare, labor alienation, minority disenfranchisement, family disintegration—has reached the point where “technofascism” is a necessary remedy for the right: no more than revolution is a ready response for the left. The surveillance and intelligence system is an early rehearsal for a play not yet scheduled definitely for production.
Until now, most serious students of the national security state (domestic division) have found it conventionally wise and politically urgent to lay out cautionary scenarios and frightening synopses of the abuses of police intelligence power in the Johnson and Nixon ages (with their antecedents, of course, in McCarthyite and Palmery days). Much of the work so far—especially FBI turncoat Robert Wall’s confessions and Frank Donner’s thorough analysis, both published in earlier numbers of this paper1—is chilling stuff and more than worth the telling. They recite the case histories of infiltration and harassment of the movements, catalogue the bureaus involved in surveillance with their tens of thousands of agents and clerks. They draw the connecting lines that link federal and local snoops and a data-spewing computer core in an intelligence network.
Nick Egleson and Paul Cowan get behind these conventions and the horror stories in their new book State Secrets. They suggest the deeper nature of the movements themselves and the people in them which invites infiltration, which makes paranoia most paralyzing, and which concentrates on repression as the primary material of politics.
Problems of leadership, male chauvinism, and class-biased behavior run throughout the forces of dissent in this country [Egleson writes]. They are the basic features of the culture against which the movement is rebelling, yet they plague the very groups that are trying to eliminate them.
In a case Egleson recounts, the FBI agent Larry Grathwohl infiltrated the Cincinnati Weatherman collective. He took up with a woman who was a heavy in its “collective leadership,” moved easily around Weather circles, and eventually fingered most of the Weather elite for a Detroit grand jury indictment.2 Grathwohl exhibited the signs of a working-class education and culture in an organization of young student radicals guilty about their middle-class origins. In the land of bourgeois radicals, the authentic proletarian is king. Although he may be immediately suspect for his difference, he is at the same time immune from criticism: no one wants to look a gift prole in the mouth. (Similar immunity is granted to blacks in predominantly white radical groups, and veterans in antiwar organizations.)
The rhetoric of “collective leadership” in the Cincinnati Weatherman project (and most others I’ve seen) far outstripped the realities of decision making. In what was actually a leadership vacuum, Grathwohl was able to provoke, steer, or suggest action that would eventually constitute indictable offenses. And since the “heavy” role of Grathwohl’s lover (so much for the strictures against monogamous relationships) could not be questioned lest the sin of male chauvinism be committed, misjudgments and unexamined tactics flowed freely without much control.
When Grathwohl was finally exposed as an agent, Egleson writes, “the myth of Grathwohl’s expertise spread on the movement grapevine and contributed to the exaggerated image of police efficiency and skill; in so doing it set the stage for more fear, more mistakes and (hence) more infiltration.”
Political paranoia is no joke. Like the simple neurotic variety, it grips the victim in an intractable fear of lurking danger from which there is no escape. I still remember with a shudder those awful times in my own Movement days when the FBI knocked on my door and disordered my world for the next many hours. After one (innocuous) visit, I spent all afternoon trying to get rid of a particularly unimportant piece of contraband that I was sure would send me up the river for life if the brown-shoes ever got hold of it; I roamed the alleys of my Washington neighborhood looking for a garbage pail in which to throw it, knowing full well that spies were everywhere, everything was under surveillance, there was no place to hide.
The worst of it was soon over for me, but a permanent form of institutional paranoia set in with even more disastrous consequences for the left. Granted that only paranoiacs can really understand the universe, political paranoia is still the death of action. After Grathwohl, movement activists became obsessed with infiltrators, both real and imagined. The obsession made it difficult to handle the real ones, and impossible to determine the unreality of the imagined.
Those who were real were dangerous enough. Louis Tackwood, the Los Angeles police and FBI informer who delivered his “oral history” to the authors of The Glass House Tapes,3 was a provocateur who took part in a series of busts of the Panthers, the Soledad Brothers, and other black organizations in California. Jack Weatherford, a “poor white” Southerner with a college education, was blackmailed with a suspended drug conviction and emotionally blackmailed with a homosexual liaison with a narcotics agent, and agreed to infiltrate and expose members of a Columbia, South Carolina, GI organizing project. Tom Mosher (little on him is yet published, except for his testimony before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee) was the star graduate of the Uptown Chicago community action program run by former student radicals. Like Weatherford a poor white Southerner, Mosher moved North, picked up the radical lingo, and was sent to college at Stanford, at which point he provoked acts of disruption (and probably arson) which got his friends there in serious trouble with the law.
But the imagined agents often posed a bigger problem than the real ones did. Groups of radical feminists in New York and Washington spent the better part of a year checking out one of their comrades, “Vee,” who exhibited some psychological quirks that seemed either inappropriate or bizarre to the other women. For example, she talked a good revolutionary lesbian line, but still maintained relationships with men and “male-dominated” activities. She seemed to gravitate to the leaders of movement groups and was accused of status-seeking and social climbing. She kept a bulging address book. None of it proved that she was an infiltrator. Egleson writes:
Vee’s accusers…are as bound up in old culture ways as is Vee. Faced with the choice of two explanations, one assuming human failings and no malicious, conspiratorial purpose, and the other presupposing a conspiracy, they chose conspiracy. In this respect…they behaved like the police. They chose a conspiracy theory over a sociological one. It is a habit of our culture that we have not overthrown.
The origins and sociology of the New Left in its way, and the black movements in another way, made easier a certain kind of surveillance and infiltration. In the early years, the taste for “openness,” public meetings, and nonauthoritarian decision making gave access to any informer who wandered into a church basement or store front project office from the street. Later, that openness was abandoned; but the radicals’ inability to sort out provocative behavior from fearless activism, mindlessness from authentic working-class reactions, and aberrant behavior from strung-out freakiness made even “secure” organizations prone to agentry.
Neither infiltrators nor the fear of them “killed” the New Left movement. A combination of vacuous ideology, immaturity in historical understanding, and State power—mostly the State’s power to ignore protest, absorb dissent, and continue its grisly business—deadened the Sixties’ phase of radical insurgency in America. Certainly the end of America’s actual combat in Vietnam removed the primary stimulus for the Movement. But surveillance and infiltration softened the movements for the big kill, and revealed to the people in them some of their own weaknesses quite apart from the obduracy of the ruling powers.
There were also ways in which the movements avoided some of the traps of earlier left organizations. For example, the permanence and rigid structure of the Communist party and its easily acquired rhetoric allowed FBI infiltrators to sign up, move in, and take over the old party cells. What Donner calls the “anarchic radical milieu” of the Sixties baffled the intelligence mongers and confounded many of their plans for infiltration. Ideology was an unknown quality even to New Left radicals; to the FBI it surpassed all understanding. The documents removed from the FBI offices in Media, Pennsylvania, in March, 1971 (included with annotations in State Secrets), speak more for the FBI’s bumbling, incomprehension, and wastefulness than for its omnipotence. As the authors point out, the Bureau was never formidable enough to create the illusion of the agent behind every mail box. The radicals made most of that fantasy themselves.
“The Bureau is not a paper tiger,” Egleson writes. Of course not; neither is the police surveillance system a product of radicals’ fantasies. The Nixon surveillance plan for extralegal disruptions, mailcovers, infiltrations, and burglaries against the radic-lib enemies of his reelection was as close as America has come to the real horrors of a security State. It was presumably “rescinded” five days after Nixon approved the plan, drawn up by his Young Americans for Freedom adviser, Tom Charles Huston. In view of the activities of the “plumbers,” however, it is hard to believe that all of it was rescinded, or that it could not be revived. Bo Burlingham, in a study of intelligence operations against the left, concludes that the Huston plan was born of the White House’s distrust for the FBI, and that the entire affair had as much to do with bureaucratic quarrels as security fanaticism. But it’s unwise to misjudge the evil of technofascism because of its banality.
I don’t think, though, that the security apparatus is being worked out according to diabolically determined plans designed to turn America into a fascist state or a totalitarian nightmare at some specific date. There is still too much bureaucratic infighting, too little sophistication, too much ambivalence about civil liberties—even in the heart of darkness in the J. Edgar Hoover Building—to set a straight course to 1984. And I’m more than a little suspicious of the political rhetoric that postulates strict timetables.
“Technofascism” and the double-refined techniques of social control are real and present dangers, but the conditions have not yet taken shape that will allow it all to congeal. The potential is now more clear than the reality. My own visions of the worst that could happen extend beyond the governmental intelligence system into the reaches of corporate activity. Watergate, after all, is about the uses of corporate influence and extragovernmental power as much as about executive action. There is as much danger from the deployment of the technology for control in the hands of “private” psychiatric, medical, educational, and business institutions as in the arsenals of the police or the FBI; and in fact the computerized channels between government and private intelligence have largely been constructed (e.g., the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the Nixon Administration’s law allowing the government to commandeer all bank records for intelligence purposes).
Perhaps a supranational SMERSH is still only a Hollywood fiction, but the Howard Hughes organization, for only one example, already has an array of espionage and intelligence weapons that it can use against its own enemies list. Such corporate security systems are not at all responsible to popular politics, nor restrained by easily applicable laws. Tax regulations and vague conspiracy charges are weak ways to deal with overweening corporate power.
Civil liberties have a good press these days, largely as a result of Watergate and in consequence of the low level of organized social disruption. All that could change quickly, of course. The real civil liberties crisis has to do with the still unresolvable conflicts that will intensify with the passage of time: the pressure of population, the shortage of resources, the routinization of work, and the availability of exotic machinery for social control. The spirit of the people may be greater than the Man’s technology; but the spirit may not always be willing.
Robert Wall, "Special Agent for the FBI," January 27, 1972, and Frank Donner, "The Theory and Practice of American Political Intelligence," April 22, 1971.↩
The Justice Department recently chose to drop all the charges in the Detroit case rather than reveal the complete dossier of wiretaps and surveillance operations against SDS.↩
The book is unfortunately hyped and over-dramatized in the way its principal "editor," Donald Freed, wrote his screenplay for the assassination film Executive Action.↩
Robert Wall, “Special Agent for the FBI,” January 27, 1972, and Frank Donner, “The Theory and Practice of American Political Intelligence,” April 22, 1971.↩
The Justice Department recently chose to drop all the charges in the Detroit case rather than reveal the complete dossier of wiretaps and surveillance operations against SDS.↩
The book is unfortunately hyped and over-dramatized in the way its principal “editor,” Donald Freed, wrote his screenplay for the assassination film Executive Action.↩