The bad old days at the FBI
Clark Kerr, who was president of the University of California from 1958 to 1967, had a witty send-off when the state’s board of regents — upset by the rising tide of protests on campus — removed him from office. He was leaving as he came, he declared, “fired with enthusiasm!” What Mr. Kerr did not know at the time was that he was also fired, at least in part, by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
According to newly released documents, the FBI waged a defamation campaign against Mr. Kerr, whom J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director, regarded as too liberal, passing on false information about him to conservative regents. The FBI also spied on Berkeley faculty members, staff and students whose politics it despised. And it sabotaged Mr. Kerr’s attempt to join the Johnson administration.
These revelations, first reported this month in The San Francisco Chronicle, came to light as a result of a 17-year campaign by a reporter there to obtain the records under the Freedom of Information Act. The documents provide disturbing new details of the FBI’s abuse of power in the 1960’s, and they are a cautionary tale for today, as the Bush administration aggressively expands the role of domestic intelligence operations.
The FBI was drawn into University of California politics, remarkably, by a question on a 1959 English aptitude test. It asked high school students applying to the university what the dangers were to a democracy when a “national police organization, like the FBI, . . . operates secretly and is unresponsive to public criticism.” Mr. Hoover was enraged and engaged in a covert campaign to make the university repudiate the question. Under pressure from Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, the school retracted the question and professed its “highest respect” for the FBI
Throughout the 1960’s, according to The Chronicle, the FBI investigated not only students active in Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, but also their family members, a CBS reporter who covered them and a company that produced an album of Free Speech Movement Christmas carols. It also prepared a 60-page report on the school’s political makeup, including a list of faculty whose politics the bureau found questionable, who were to be detained in case of a national emergency, without a judicial warrant.
Among the faculty members under FBI watch were 54 professors whose families subscribed or contributed, in the bureau’s view, to “subversive publications,” and others who were involved in “illicit love affairs, homosexuality, sexual perversion, excessive drinking or other instances of conduct reflecting mental instability.” The records also detail how the FBI, when called on to conduct a routine background check on Mr. Kerr in 1964 to clear him to be appointed secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, falsely portrayed him as “pro-Communist.” President Lyndon Johnson ultimately decided not to appoint Mr. Kerr to the post.
The documents should be required reading for the Bush administration and Congress as they consider how to reconfigure domestic intelligence. These accounts of the FBI’s malfeasance are a powerful reminder of how easily intelligence organizations deployed to protect freedom can become its worst enemy. —NYT