[Part 3 of 7]
On March 8, 1971, several people broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania and stole hundreds of files from classified record storage. Information from these files was gradually leaked to the press, and in time newspaper articles began divulging information about COINTELPRO, an FBI operation that targeted both groups and individual U.S. citizens considered to be subversive by the Bureau and other government entities. Aside from its discriminatory selection of targets, the operation became controversial largely for its use of wiretapping and other intrusive techniques. The turn of events led to COINTELPRO’s dismantling, but the story was kept alive by a number of complementary developments taking place across the nation.
Amidst the furor surrounding the Watergate scandal, the public was also made aware of the Central Intelligence Agency’s efforts to overthrow democratically elected foreign governments, as well as the agency’s direct support of several infamous dictatorships. The public disillusionment that followed these disclosures set the stage for a number of committees seeking to investigate improprieties initiated by both the CIA and the FBI.
Another blow to FBI secrecy came on May 2, 1972. That morning J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Bureau for 48 years, was found dead in his bedroom after suffering from a heart attack. The FBI was put under new leadership, and without Hoover’s powerful presence to fend off critics, the Bureau found itself increasingly vulnerable to congressional oversight.
A number of committee hearings were held over the next several years to investigate FBI conduct from the previous decades. Initially these were relatively discreet, though in time two committees succeeded in uncovering a substantial portion of previously classified FBI conduct. Much of the sensitive information uncovered by these committees was eventually released and leaked to the public.
Having aired new revelations about domestic FBI spying practices, members of Congress pursued further legislative measures to address public concerns and dismay. In 1974 the Privacy Act was passed and important amendments were made to the Freedom of Information Act, which in turn enabled citizens to access copies of their own personal FBI files.
In March 1976, the philosopher and activist Corliss Lamont wrote an article for publication in The Nation, which detailed his personal experience of applying for and reading through his FBI file. Lamont discussed the means by which he used the Freedom of Information Act to access 274 pages of his 1,526 page Bureau file, and the sometimes amusing but generally troubling information that his reading uncovered. He discovered acquaintances that had been harassed, travel that had been recorded and even cancelled checks that were regularly retrieved from his local bank. As if to predict the path that Linus Pauling would soon follow, Lamont sternly ended his piece with the following:
The most serious part of the documents deals with the bureau’s weird attempts to prove that I was a member of the Communist Party, an organization I never dreamed of joining. In this unceasing attempt, the FBI relied primarily on various ex-Communist perjurers.
The FBI’s treatment of me is characteristic of its harassment over the years of tens of thousands of Americans who held liberal or leftist views. The bureau’s anti-democratic practices not only violate our civil liberties but also drain away tens of millions of dollars, a senseless waste of the taxpayers’ money – for what? The accumulation of vast files of useless information.
Less than two weeks after the publication of Lamont’s article, Linus Pauling wrote to Francis Heisler for assistance. Heisler, a Carmel, California volunteer attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, had counseled Pauling on a number of legal matters since the late 1950s. In his letter to Heisler, Pauling provided an impassive request for the transfer of his up-to-then classified FBI information.
I think that it might be worthwhile for me to get what information I can about the FBI record for me, and perhaps also for my wife, Ava Helen Pauling. If you think that this is a good idea, would you enter into correspondence with the Director of the FBI, with this end in view?
I would think that it would be desirable to get as much material as possible. At any rate, it would be interesting to know how big my file is.
Though Pauling began the process of requesting his FBI files in 1976, it took several years and substantial correspondence to receive them. In the meantime, he began petitioning other agencies, including the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Armed Forces, the Department of State, the National Archives and a host of other government bodies in order to see what they had tucked away in their own separate files devoted to him.
In early 1977, as part of this effort, Pauling sent a letter to the CIA requesting information as to whether his mail had been opened during an operation that was officially ended in 1973. Under the code name HTLINGUAL, CIA agents had opened, read and copied 215,000 first class letters that were sent by or to various American citizens over a period of about 20 years. Attaching an article titled “Did the CIA open your mail?” Pauling wrote his letter under the auspices of the Freedom of Information Act, literally demanding to know if any of his mail had been tampered with under the specified covert operation. Pauling also became particularly interested in the events surrounding the various difficulties that he had encountered with his passport.
While Pauling was aided by various encounters with published material that made him aware of his ability to request previously classified files, he also received help from a number of acquaintances familiar with the protocols inherent to the Freedom of Information Act. For example, attached to a series of forms issued by the Department of State, correspondent Herman Berg shared with Pauling the specifics of how to request the desired information:
Here is your chance to find out the details about what happened to your passport in the 1950s. Enclosed is the material to launch Freedom of Information Request #8903183 with the State Department.
The search part might entail Secretary of State Dean Acheson as well as other department heads. It is also where the real meat might be, as well as running up the meter.
From 1977 to 1989, Pauling received a variety of responses to his inquiries. Aside from his massive FBI file, Pauling also acquired a substantial cache of content from the CIA and State Department. These files highlight more specifically the interactions that occurred between the FBI and other intelligence gathering agencies, and also present much of the information that is redacted in large portions of Pauling’s FBI files.
The entire process seems to have been arduous and wearying on Pauling’s end, (likely as well for those responsible for retrieving and copying his files) and it was also fairly expensive. All in all Pauling wrote hundreds of dollars worth of checks to the various agencies in order to receive copies of his files. It appears, however, that the information was easily worth the cost, as Pauling seems never to have hesitated to pay whatever price necessary to more fully understand a portion of his harried past.