“Since 1972, John Lennon has continued from time to time to lend his support to various extremist causes, but does not appear to owe allegiance to any one faction.” That's a sentence from an unmarked, undated document stamped “confidential” that appears to have originated with MI5. . . .If the British intelligence on Lennon was banal, the US effort was downright ludicrous. When Professor Wiener secured access to the bulk of the FBI files nine years ago, he discovered that the FBI could not get even basic details right, like Lennon's address in New York. They hatched plots to arrest Lennon on drugs charges, which never materialised, and drafted a wanted poster whose most striking characteristic was that the photograph they used was not of Lennon at all, but of another rock singer with long hair and glasses called David Peel. The [ London] Independent, 21 December 2006
For me this has a very familiar ring. In the early 1950s, near the end of the Korean War, I registered with my draft board as a conscientious objector. The only legal grounds were religious, and so I had to sign a statement that:
I claim the exemption provided by the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 for conscientious objectors, because I am conscientiously opposed by reason of my religious training and belief to participation in war in any form and to participation in any service which is under the direction of military authorities.
In support of this declaration, I had to answer a series of questions concerning the “source of [my] training”, the “individual upon whom [I relied] most for religious guidance”, and “the actions and behavior in [my] life which…most conspicuously demonstrate[d] the consistency and depth of [my] religious convictions.”
To determine whether each applicant was telling the truth, the FBI carried out an investigation. The draftees that the ST&S Act had in mind were cut-and-dried pacifists such as Friends and Seventh Day Adventists. I however was a Methodist preacher’s kid who had become a high church Anglican and a Candidate for Holy Orders—an oddball the system didn’t know how to cope with. My application dragged on for a couple of years.
At one stage I was asked to appear for an interview with one of the members of my draft board. Obviously he had not been properly briefed, for he did something that would have brought the wrath of J. Edgar Hoover down upon his astonished head. Horror of horrors, he let me look at my FBI file.
At that moment I lost any residual faith I might have had in their investigative competance. If my name and address had been blacked out I would not have recognized myself. There was not a single informant whose name was familiar: they appeared to be neighbors I had never spoken to or distant associates who knew nothing of me beyond the mere fact that I existed. What they lacked in solid information they compensated for by sheer invention; apart from my registration at College of the Pacific in Stockton, hardly a pseudo-fact was even close to correct. There was nothing malevolent in the report, but their powers of observation were as unreliable as their intelligence.
I wish I could remember even a few details, but it was over half a century ago and I had only a couple of minutes to examine the report. I muttered a few words of thanks, with a polite suggestion that there were some slight errors. Fortunately there were no accusations against which I needed to defend myself: in fact the report contained no useful evidence one way or the other.
The investigation dragged on for another couple of years until I was finally drafted into the army as a noncombatant on the grounds that my objections were not “sincere enough” to give me total exemption. Since equal sincerity was required for either option, this was nonsense, but by then I had run out of steam. I shrugged my shoulders and accepted the compromise.
The result was two months expensive and superfluous training as a dental technician followed by a two-year tour of duty at a US Air Force base in the English Midlands as Base Librarian. At my request I was given an attractive young British assistant to keep the library open while I sojourned in London at the English Speaking Union, got fitted for a suit in Dover Street, and filled my evenings with plays, concerts and fine dining. Old Sam could be a generous Uncle to his luckier nephews.
EIGHT years later when I was working at KPFA, I would be retroactively grateful for the FBI’s sloppy indifference. (What’s in my current file may be a different story.) In 1962 Jack Levine walked into the offices of WBAI in New York City. A former Special Agent, he was so alarmed by what he had learned during his training that he had gone to America’s major newspapers and magazines to tell his story. Every one of them was so frightened of the omnipotent and onipresent J. Edgar Hoover that they escorted him straight out the door. That left Pacifica Radio, the listener-supported non-commercial network that made a habit of putting a cocked pistol to its head and inviting the authorities to pull the trigger.
In a long and detailed interview, Levine told of the FBI’s massive infiltration of legitimate organizations, its fundamental threats to democratic procedure, and the entire staff’s “pitifully cult-like” adulation of their invincibly narcissitic director. He did not include the juicy bits that later emerged concerning Little Miss Hoover’s cross-dressing, but the bombshell put Pacifica at the top of his blacklist. Within a year he had instigated a Senate hearing on the stations’ loyalty and legality and a delay in the renewal of its licenses that would cost the network sizeable lawyers fees, countless hours of anguish — and ultimately, as targeted staff were fed to the wolves, their corporate integrity.
THAT was then. In America today the option for conscientious objectors is perfectly straighforward—don’t volunteer. But those who campaign actively against their country’s chronic invasion syndrome are up against security forces that make Hoover’s FBI look like pussy cats. “The American public, and indeed the American Congress,”says Seymour Hersh, “is preconditioned for war,” and in the new Beatitudes, the peacemakers are no longer blessed. Campaign hard enough and you’ll find yourself on a no-fly list; keep making trouble and you’ll appear on a “wanted” poster fitted out with a turban. Ultimately, like an old tune in the hands of a master musician, you may even be extraordinarily rendered.
©2007 John Whiting
July 2009: FBI error and incompetance? It’s still happening.