A new me?
What the FBI did to my self-image as a subversive
After recently reviewing Seth Rosenfeld’s book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, I decided it was time to make a Freedom of Information Act request for my own FBI file.
That the bureau had a file on me was a foregone conclusion. After all, my credentials as a bona fide subversive—at least what the FBI would consider as such—were impeccable. Or so I thought.
I started my subversive career early on as a red-diaper baby, growing up in a Communist family in New York in the 1940s and ’50s, when the fearmongers were conducting a frenzied search for subversives under every rock, when FBI agents made visits to our home, when people we knew went to jail for no other reason than their ideas and beliefs.
In college, I carried on my family’s “subversive” tradition, marching in civil-rights demonstrations and picketing Woolworths department stores. I supported the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy and participated in demonstrations against the New York City air-raid drills that required citizens to hole up like rats in civil-defense shelters.
After college, I engaged in more subversion. In fall of 1964, I was beginning my second year of graduate school at UC Berkeley when all hell broke loose on campus. From the outset, I was right in the middle of it, an active participant in the Free Speech Movement and one of some 800 students arrested in the historic December 2 Sproul Hall sit-in. During my years at Berkeley, I also participated in many protests against the war in Vietnam.
The civil-rights, anti-nuclear, anti-Vietnam War and student movements were all crawling with FBI agents and informants, in accordance with longtime bureau director J. Edgar Hoover’s conviction that anyone critical of the status quo had to be a dangerous subversive.
In the mid-’80s, I founded and directed Baseball for Peace, a grassroots effort to create understanding between the people of the United States and Nicaragua based on our common national pastime. Under the aegis of the Sandinista government’s official agricultural union, we took groups of American citizens to Nicaragua to play ball and distribute equipment, even as the Reagan administration was funding the contra war to topple the Sandinista government.
More recently, in my last book, Manufacturing Hysteria: A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America, I documented just how sinister and widespread FBI surveillance of civilians has been, going back to the original Bureau of Investigation, created in 1908. By 1958, 20 percent of all Americans—14 million people—had been investigated for one reason or another.
After the book was published, I wrote an op-ed piece for The Sacramento Bee, criticizing the FBI’s revised Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide. The original DIOG had been controversial in its own right and had alarmed many privacy advocates; the new guide grants agents significantly broader powers of surveillance and investigation.
So, then, given my long career of “subversive” activities, I was eager to see what my FBI file looked like. As noted, I never doubted that they had one on me.
I filled out the FOIA request form, and several weeks later received an answer from the FBI, stating that it was “unable to identify main file records” pertaining to me.
Say what? But there must be some mistake. No FBI file? A certified subversive like me? I mean, I knew Mario Savio. I visited Pete Seeger at his Beacon, N.Y., home. I met top Sandinista officials in Nicaragua. How could I have slipped through the cracks?
OK, I wasn’t expecting a thick file. Except for Baseball for Peace, I never had much of a leadership role. A small file would have satisfied me. But not even having been on its radar? Now, that’s a real blow to my self-image.
But, let’s face it, the FBI has never been the most efficient agency. So, I guess while it was investigating other dangerous “subversives” like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Satchel Paige, Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Steve Allen and countless others, the bureau must have missed me.
Not that I was ever in the class of King, Paige, Einstein, Roosevelt or Allen. But damnit, I was sure I was a subversive. Now, though, without an FBI file to prove it, I’m going to have to figure out who I am all over again.