Repression / Federal

Donner, Frank J. The Age of Surveillance: The Aims and Methods of America's Political Intelligence System. New York: Vintage Books, 1981. 552 pages.

As a former director of the American Civil Liberties Union Project on Political Surveillance and someone who had been identified as a Communist in front of Congressional committees during the 1950s, it's not surprising that Connecticut-based attorney Frank Donner (1911-1993) emerged as the foremost scholar of U.S. domestic political surveillance. He wrote two major books on the subject: "The Age of Surveillance" (1981) on political intelligence by federal agencies, and "Protectors of Privilege" (1990), which looks at surveillance by police departments in major U.S. cities.

"The Age of Surveillance" has several chapters on the FBI and Hoover, and one each on the White House and CIA, the Internal Revenue Service, military surveillance, kangaroo grand juries, the role of Congressional committees, and private-sector intelligence. Most of the material in this book concerns surveillance during the late 1960s and early 1970s, although some historical background is included that goes back to the Palmer raids of 1919. The book is scholarly in tone, straightforward in its reporting, and very well-documented. It received high marks from a broad range of reviewers.


Halperin, Morton; Berman, Jerry; Borosage, Robert; and Marwick, Christine. The Lawless State: The Crimes of the U.S. Intelligence Agencies. New York: Penguin Books, 1976. 328 pages.

Published at the height of Watergate and the numerous revelations about the CIA and FBI, this book tries to put together much of the information known at that time in a comprehensive and coherent manner.

Separate chapters deal with the following: CIA operations at home and abroad; the FBI's vendetta against Martin Luther King and its covert operations against other American dissenters; the domestic use of military intelligence; the National Security Agency; the IRS; and the use of grand juries to investigate, harass, intimidate and prosecute dissenters -- a picture that adds up to "the lawless state." The authors conclude by offering a long and detailed program to reform these practices.

As extensive as the book is, we now know that the U.S. government was a lot more lawless than the authors were aware at the time.

-- William Blum


Mackenzie, Angus. Secrets: The CIA's War at Home. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. 241 pages.

In 1970, Angus Mackenzie launched a newspaper with his brother and two friends. It was one of more than 500 alternative periodicals produced by the counterculture. Most were harassed and infiltrated by local police, as well as by the FBI, the CIA, and military intelligence. Mackenzie and many other editors were arrested numerous times on trumped-up charges. When the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was given new teeth, Mackenzie filed requests to learn more about this repression. After long litigation and relentless efforts to defend the First Amendment, he still didn't have the full story. But he did have a garage full of official documents. His family published this book from his notes, after Mackenzie died in 1994 from a brain tumor.

Several beginning chapters describe the repression of the sixties, and the rest is a chronology of the machinations behind the FOIA from 1975 to the present, as federal agencies progressively undermined the law. Defenders of openness and free speech were out-maneuvered, especially the ACLU. The favorite technique of the CIA requires that all employees sign a lifetime secrecy contract. This stood up well in court, so the Pentagon used it as a weapon against whistleblowers trying to expose waste and corruption. By now the battle against secrecy has been lost, even though the Cold War is over and the rationale for keeping secrets is largely extinct.


Mitgang, Herbert. Dangerous Dossiers: Exposing the Secret War Against America's Greatest Authors. New York: Donald I. Fine, 1988. 331 pages.

For years, journalist Herbert Mitgang has been using the Freedom of Information Act to track FBI and CIA surveillance of this country's artists, writers, and academics. As this readable book demonstrates, much of the "intelligence" government snoops amassed was mere rumor and misinformation. (The FBI, in particular, seems to have understood virtually nothing about the work or the politics of the men and women it hounded over the years.) And the whole project seems, finally, surreal. No one in the dossiers Mitgang has examined had any political following. Few even had worked-out political ideas. How can G-men stalking a painter like the late Georgia O'Keeffe, let's say, possibly make this country more secure? Why all this surveillance?

The answers emerge from the files Mitgang has assembled. Populist cartoonist Bill Mauldin, for instance, had an FBI file opened on him after he helped integrate veterans' housing after the Second World War. Novelist Norman Mailer's sin was to criticize J. Edgar Hoover in public. And so it goes. The FBI, alas, has functioned less as a crime-fighting agency than as a domestic political police. And Ronald Reagan, for one, began his political career as an FBI informant reporting on fellow actors. -- Steve Badrich


Olmsted, Kathryn S. Challenging the Secret Government: The Post-Watergate Investigations of the CIA and FBI. Chapel Hill NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. 255 pages.

It may come as a surprise to viewers of "The X Files," but prior to the 1970s there was almost no information in the officially-acknowledged public record to suggest that the FBI and CIA had ever engaged in illegal or questionable activities. Then in the wake of Watergate, reports surfaced in the press of CIA involvement in the coup in Chile, and massive domestic spying by the CIA and FBI against war protesters. These were followed with stories of CIA plots to kill foreign leaders. The Church Committee in the Senate, and the Pike Committee in the House, were formed to investigate.

Congressman Michael J. Harrington (D-MA), and journalists such as Seymour Hersh (New York Times) and Daniel Schorr (CBS), played a significant role in exposing this secret history. At the time, many thought that the momentum for exposure would lead to significant reforms. But a year later the climate had changed dramatically. Harrington was in trouble with the House Ethics Committee for leaking information about Chile, the Pike Committee report was suppressed by Congress, and Daniel Schorr was fired from CBS after leaking the Pike report to the Village Voice. The author suggests that the momentum for reform was lost when the revelations became more than a deluded, complacent public could comfortably bear.


Reavis, Dick J. The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. 320 pages.

This book is based on interviews with Waco survivors, trial transcripts, and the not-yet-released transcript of the telephone conversations between Branch Davidian members and the FBI negotiators. It shows convincingly that the BATF and FBI, as well as some sensation-mongering journalists who didn't bother to question the propaganda fed to them by the authorities, all share as much responsibility as Koresh himself for the deaths at Waco. The actions of Judge Walter S. Smith, Jr. at the San Antonio trial one year later added to the tragedy. Journalists, at least, should have known better. When the Fort Worth coroner's office reported that six of the mothers and children died from "blunt force trauma" (meaning that the tank's boom sent chunks of concrete tumbling onto their heads), several newspapers interpreted the phrase to mean that the victims were bludgeoned to death by other members. This was about average for American journalism during the 51-day siege.

One shortcoming of this book is that Reavis spends too much time describing the strange and uninteresting theology behind Koresh's beliefs. Another is that he doesn't mention the Cult Awareness Network, a group that helped set the stage for the hysteria. If Reavis had omitted much of the former and added the latter, a book that's merely good and well-written could have been better.


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