When I read a news story about the FBI “taking cues from the CIA to recruit thousands of covert informants in the
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
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
He was generally correct in his assessment. As a kid growing up in the
In eighth grade I went into
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
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
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
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
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
In a similar case, “The Camden 28,” Catholic activists broke into a draft board in
After the Soviet Union collapsed, the Bureau turned to radical environmentalists and botched a
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
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
As Yogi Berra would say: “it’s dÃ©jÃ 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’s new book is A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD. His latest film, WE DON’T PLAY GOLF HERE is available on DVD from [email protected]