On May 2, 1972, when news suddenly broke that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had died in his sleep, the Savannah (Georgia) Morning News spoke for many Americans, some of us much relieved: “It was a shocker. If anyone on this earth seemed immortal, it was Mr. Hoover.”
He had molded the FBI into the most fearsome official investigative presence in American history, creating far more apprehension—not only among lawbreakers—than the fabled, relentless national 19th-century Pinkerton Detective Agency (“We never sleep”). Indeed, Hoover had warned Americans to expect “an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”
He intimidated presidents and members of Congress, letting it be known that he had secret files on their personal lives. But his most pervasive impact on the lives of many other Americans was his creation from 1956 to 1971 of COINTELPRO (counterintelligence program).
As I have often reported in the Voice from 1958 on, FBI agents not only persistently monitored but also infiltrated lawful anti-war, civil rights, black, civil liberties, and other groups. Posing as fellow indignant activists, agents secretly fomented bitter, disruptive divisions among some of these organizations. All of this, of course, in the name of national security against international Communism and the supposed enemies within this nation trying to undermine the government in other ways.
On March 25 of this year, I was, as if in a time machine, brought back to the Hoover years by New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer.
“For at least a year before the 2004 Republican National Convention,” Dwyer wrote, “teams of undercover New York City police officers traveled to cities around the country, Canada, and Europe to conduct observations of people who planned to protest at the convention . . . They made friends, shared meals, swapped e-mail messages. . . .[Among those surveilled who had not intended to protest] were members of church groups and anti-war organizations, environmentalists, and people opposed to the death penalty.”
This homage to the un-American legacy of J. Edgar Hoover—by this city’s mayor; Police Commissioner Ray Kelly; and Deputy Police Commissioner, chief spymaster, and CIA alumnus, David Cohen—has not stopped. We have only very incomplete knowledge of the depth and extent of past and present NYPD surveillance of lawful organizations in this city. The eye that never sleeps, under the Bush administration, as I’ve reported, is also on the job around the country with advanced technology and interconnected databasing that J. Edgar Hoover couldn’t have even dreamed of.
In New York, as in the Bush administration, the mayor and the police department are insisting—in the name of national security—on continuing secrecy concerning their revisions of the Fourth and First Amendments. In answer to one of the lawsuits against the city, by the New York Civil Liberties Union, J. Edgar Bloomberg refuses to unseal the files that Deputy Police Commissioner David Cohen collected before the Republican Convention—including not only alleged potential protesters but also, as Jim Dwyer reported in the March 25 New York Times: “the plans and views of people with no obvious intentions of breaking the law.”
Who are these people under suspicion? What do Deputy Commissioner Cohen and his diligent colleagues say about them? With which other intelligence agencies (including the FBI, Homeland Security, CIA, and units we don’t even know about) have these NYPD files been shared and databased?
I have a personal as well as a reporter’s interest in both the original COINTELPRO and its ever expanding continuance in this city and country. Years after the original J. Edgar Hoover expired, I obtained, through the Freedom of Information Act, my own abundant FBI files, covering COINTELPRO and earlier years. It told me, for the first time, the actual names of the Russian towns from which my late parents had come. Also in it was the name of the haberdashery store where, when I was 12, I worked during the “Great” Depression. I should have dedicated my memoir, Boston Boy (Knopf and now Paul Dry Books, Philadelphia) to my researcher, Mr. Hoover.
But also cited, according to my FBI files, was a meeting of “radicals” that I’d attended in North Africa. (I’ve never been to any part of Africa.) Another subversive indication: In my early twenties, I’d taught a jazz course at Boston’s Samuel Adams School, which had suspected “Reds” on the faculty.
There was no mention in the files that I’d often written in the 1940s of how reading Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon when I was 15 turned me into an indomitable anti-Communist.
What’s in my FBI files (or David Cohen’s) since I’ve been writing in the Voice about the Bush-Cheney violations of U.S. and international laws in the “war on terror” (sometimes referring to classified information) and violations of the Bill of Rights?
I expect many New Yorkers would also like to know if J. Edgar Bloomberg’s files have led to the FBI opening files on them as “persons of interest.”
But Peter Farrell of this city’s Law Department insists that the NYPD surveillance files “were not written for consumption by the general public.” And other lawyers in that department are forbidding the press to examine those files because the press “will fixate upon and sensationalize them.”
On February 16, the New York Law Journal reported that Federal District Judge Charles S. Haight, longtime presider over guidelines for police surveillance, charged the NYPD with “egregious” spying on “political activity.” The Intelligence Division had videotaped a protest by the Coalition for the Homeless in front of Mayor Bloomberg’s residence as well as a march by the International Action Center from Harlem to Central Park.
Said Judge Haight: “There was no reason to suspect or anticipate that unlawful or terrorist activity might occur.”
If the mayor decides on a race for the presidency, why not announce it at FBI headquarters—the J. Edgar Hoover building in Washington?