News Release

Beyond “Deep Throat”: The FBI and American Democracy

ATHAN THEOHARIS
Professor of history at Marquette University, Theoharis has written a number of books about the FBI, most recently The FBI and American Democracy: A Brief Critical History. He said today: “Contrary to what some are implying, it was hardly unprecedented for the FBI to leak derogatory information about people — they typically did it to people they called ‘radicals’ or ‘subversives,’ like Martin Luther King Jr. But it’s not even unprecedented for the FBI to leak information about an incumbent president during an election year. It did that to Truman in 1948 and also leaked information about the Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson in 1952.

“Dating from the 1940s the FBI massively monitored the political and personal activities of U.S. citizens (both radical and liberal) and in doing so resorted to what it called ‘clearly illegal’ investigative techniques (break-ins, wiretaps, bugs, mail opening). We do not know the full extent of misuse of federal authority today, but since 9/11 there have been episodes showing clear surveillance of political activity.

“The Nixon administration in its wiretapping of reporters and members of the White House and National Security Council staff from 1969-71, its authorization of the Huston Plan, creation of the ‘Plumbers’ in 1971, and solicitation of derogatory information on the White House press corps in 1970 reflected a concern for secrecy to advance its own potentially controversial policy decisions. The current administration has shown an extraordinary concern for secrecy, particularly with regard to its Iraq policy. Recently, we’ve seen the release of the Downing Street Memo which shows us that the administration’s disinformation about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was a matter of intent and not just a matter of evidence we could weigh.”
Downing Street Memo text
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KIT GAGE
Gage said today: “I am director of the First Amendment Foundation and NCARL [the National Coalition Against Repressive Legislation]. NCARL began its life as the National Committee to Abolish HUAC (the House UnAmerican Activities Committee). Because NCARL defended people’s right to belong to whatever organization they chose, free from arrest or government harassment, it was targeted for disruption and neutralization as part of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program. We know this because we sued the FBI and eventually got 132,000 pages of files documenting the efforts — millions of tax dollars it spent going after a group that engaged in no violent activity. It was routine for the FBI to illegally wiretap and break into houses and offices of activists without a judge’s OK.

“That was what Mr. [Mark] Felt [“Deep Throat”] was charged with and found guilty of — supervising that behavior. His behavior was abhorrent and illegal, and it directly violated the separation of powers the founders so valued. While we recognize that in leaking information to the press Mr. Felt helped bring down the Nixon administration by exposing its illegal activities, leaks to the press were commonplace in the FBI. Fortunately, the abuses of the FBI also came out at about the same period as the Nixon administration ended. Because of the resulting outrage, for a period of years, secret searches and taps without evidence of criminal behavior apparently mostly stopped.

“Following 9/11 that has all changed. It’s a sad turn of events that now again, as we celebrate the fact that all the illegal behavior that was Watergate became public, we note that the government can now legally engage in secret searches and wiretaps without any evidence that the targets have engaged in criminal activity. All that is needed is that they have some connection to a foreign entity — for a foreign intelligence search. Mr. Felt was convicted for supervising that behavior. Now the Congress seeks to expand it.”
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For more information, contact at the Institute for Public Accuracy:
Sam Husseini, (202) 347-0020; or David Zupan, (541) 484-9167