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Daniel Schorr, who died yesterday, is being remembered for his remarkable, decades-long career as a print, radio, and television journalist.  I’m familiar with one small slice of this story: I did an intensive study of his coverage of the intelligence beat for CBS News from 1974 to 1976 – coverage that ultimately cost him his job.  I came away from my research and from my interview with Schorr profoundly impressed by his commitment to disclosure and democracy.  Schorr was true believer in the public’s right to know, and the historical record is richer for it.

It was not easy to get Schorr to talk with me about the most painful incident in his career.  Read the rest of this entry »


The discussion about Anna Chapman, the alleged femme fatale of the Russian spy ring, shows that our spy narratives have changed very little in sixty years, especially for women.  There always has to be a dead drop, a furtive exchange of bags in a subway station, and a femme fatale, preferably with red hair and a Russian accent.  That’s how it works, even when it doesn’t.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the news media and the FBI insisted on shoving all the accused female Red spies into familiar roles from film noir, even when these roles were patently inappropriate.  In 1948, some newspapers described KGB case officer Elizabeth Bentley, for example, as a “svelte young blonde” in a “form-fitting black dress” who had enticed naïve New Dealers into revealing their secrets. If she was attractive, see, then she must be telling the truth.  To discredit her story, her critics called her a frumpy, middle-aged spinster and emphasized her preference for flowered dresses and funny hats. And, they pointed out many times, she wasn’t even a real blonde.

Judith Coplon, a Justice Department employee who passed some documents to the Russians in 1949, fit more neatly into the femme fatale role, though the papers couldn’t decide if lethal women were hot or frigid.  Coplon was described by the New York World Telegram as  “an attractive dark-haired girl with full lips and a shapely figure” encased in a “black  form-fitting sweater” who whispered her not guilty plea “though lips brilliantly marked with lipstick.” Sometimes, according to the press, Coplon’s eyes “stared hotly” and “burned,”  while at other times they spouted “cool hate” that “flowed out, like a black river jetting into the eyes of the prosecutors.” She was hysterical, just like a communist; no, she was expressionless, just like a communist.  Then there was her “bosom,” which “heaved,” “quivered,” and, best of all, was inadequately obscured by her thin blouse.

Married women received the “black widow” treatment.  The Hearst press ran an article headlined “Mrs. Rosenberg Was Like a Red Spider” which explained that Ethel, a “homely girl,” had early on “felt a need to dominate a man.” “There is a saying that in the animal kingdom, the female is the deadlier of the species,” the reporter continued.  “It could be applied to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.”  Alger Hiss’s wife, Priscilla, was similarly described as a hard-eyed femme fatale who manipulated her mousy husband into doing her ideological bidding.

These stereotypes weren’t confined to the press.  FBI documents refer to Priscilla Hiss as “the bitch in the case” and Bentley as a slut (though definitely not a lying slut).  Whenever Bentley stopped cooperating with her FBI handlers, they wrote memos about how difficult it was to deal with women in menopause.

However powerful, these narratives of man-eating temptresses and man-hating wives and spinsters often obscured the messier truth.   Bentley was neither svelte nor spinsterish; but she was one of the most important Soviet spies ever in North America, and her defection was an unmitigated catastrophe for Soviet intelligence.  The silly press coverage about her hair color made it easy to miss her significance.  Ethel Rosenberg was merely an accessory to her husband’s crimes, but it was much easier for American officials to execute her if they believed that she dominated Julius.  And that she was a menopausal, promiscuous spiderwoman with a heaving bosom.

Wallace Stegner famously said that California is like the rest of America, only more so.  But when did he say it, and in what context? Yesterday I tracked down the original quote, which appeared in an editorial Stegner wrote for a special Golden State edition of Saturday Review magazine in 1967.

The references to Max Rafferty, Ronald Reagan, and Gary Snyder may seem dated, but in many ways the essay describes the California we know today:

If the history of America is the history of an established culture painfully adapting itself to a new environment, and being constantly checked, confused, challenged, or overcome by new immigrations, then the history of California is American history in extremis.

Like the rest of America, California is unformed, innovative, ahistorical, hedonistic, acquisitive, and energetic – only more so.  Its version of the Good Life, its sports, pleasures, and comforts, are increasingly copied by the envious elsewhere.  It creates an art and literature as nervous, permissive, and superficial as itself.  It has its own intensified version of the Brain Drain, borrowing both ideas and the men who generate them.

It borrows from everywhere – in nothing is it so American…. Read the rest of this entry »

I was extremely pleased to find today that the 1939 LaFollette committee hearings on free speech and the rights of labor, all seventy-something volumes, were printed, bound, and on the shelf in my library, and I could check out every single volume and take it home until June 2011.  Which got me thinking about public universities, public libraries, and their accessibility to the public, even the Unabomber.

Everyone in Davis knows the Unabomber allegedly used our university library to, um, write his 1995 manifesto.*  The manifesto liberally borrowed from a book by a San Francisco stevedore-cum-philosopher named Eric Hoffer – and I mean “borrowed” in the sense of “if a student did this, she would be referred to Student Judicial Affairs.”   When newspapers published the Unabomber’s manifesto, a UC Davis student noticed that several sections matched underlined passages in the Shields Library copy of Hoffer’s True Believer.

In other words, it looked like the Unabomber had used our library to do his research.  The student notified the librarians, the librarians notified the FBI, the FBI notified the local press, and everyone in Davis began to imagine that they had seen Theodore Kaczynski hunched in a neighboring carrel.

Of course, just because someone underlined the relevant passages in the UCD copy of Hoffer does not mean that Kaczynski underlined those words.  But this scenario always made a certain amount of sense to me.  If one were a hermit in Montana, and one wanted to take a bus to the nearest big library that was completely open to the public, one might indeed think of UCD.  The university library has no barriers to the use of its stacks.  No one has to show identification; there is no visible security.  Anyone can walk in off the street, past the wonderful Arneson egghead sculpture, and read, say, part 66 of the LaFollette committee hearings, or Eric Hoffer’s True Believer, or any other of the 3.5 million volumes in the stacks here, without having to identify or justify himself.

I looked at the three copies of True Believer in the stacks today, and one of them was indeed marked up, with underlining and mysterious notations.  As creepy as it is to think that the Unabomber might have held this book in his hands, I must admit I have a populist pride in the very public nature of my public university’s library.

*See Sacramento Bee, “Unabomber Used Library at UC Davis?” April 10, 1996.

In Potsdam for a workshop recently, I took the opportunity to tour the site of the 1945 conference that marked the end of the last war and the beginning of the next (cold) one.  Schloss Cecilienhof is a fake-Tudor mansion that the Emperor built during the Great War (yes, when the Germans were fighting the Tudors’ successors).  Ex-Crown Princess Cecilie fled the palace in 1945, when the Red Army was threatening to batter down the doors.  The Soviets then turned the sprawling complex into a field hospital.

The Allied leaders had wanted to hold the first post-European war conference in Berlin, but there were few places left standing after the onslaught of Allied bombing and Soviet invasion. Schloss Cecilienhof was the closest venue capable of housing the Allied leaders and staff in style, so the Soviet casualties were moved out, and Truman, Stalin, and Churchill moved in.  (Halfway through the conference, the British electorate decided to replace Churchill with Clement Attlee, so you can find pictures of both flavors of the Big Three.)

According to the tour guide, 70 percent of the visitors to this site are Japanese, because, he said, this was where Truman made the decision to “launch nuclear attacks,” and they feel the need to make a pilgrimage.  I was struck by the difference in phrasing – in my experience, Americans always talk about the decision to “drop the bomb.” Launching nuclear attacks sounds so much more aggressive, and even downright un-American.

I also wondered what sort of curriculum in Japan might persuade thousands of Japanese to traverse the globe to visit an old palace where Truman received a telegram saying, yes, this bomb really works.  As Bart Bernstein has shown,* there was no “decision” to use the bombs, and Truman never even signed a direct order.  Yet, the Japanese are there, snapping pictures, and taking the opportunity to buy snow globes of the Big Three (with Churchill, of course) in the gift shop.

As a Cold War nerd, I must admit that I now have a hankering to visit Yalta. And, of course, Bretton Woods.

*“Truman and the A-Bomb,” Journal of Military History, 62:3.

My colleagues and I were discussing the craziest Nixonian moments the other day, and we decided to come up with a top ten list.  Here it is.  Add your own favorites in the comments.  (Alternatively, you could do the things the Disney folks did to Lincoln, and pick quotes from a variety of different moments to create a special Nixonian pastiche.)  Some questions to ponder:

— was Nixon really our craziest president, or would they all sound crazy if they’d installed voice-activated taping systems?

— who did Nixon admit to having a crush on (see the 14-second beep in item 10)?

1.  On thinking big (April 25, 1972)

Nixon: I still think we ought to take the North Vietnamese dikes out now. Will that drown people?

Kissinger: About two hundred thousand people.

Nixon: No, no, no, I’d rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?

Kissinger: That, I think, would just be too much.

Nixon: The nuclear bomb, does that bother you?…I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christsakes. Read the rest of this entry »

I happened to be in Disneyland on Lincoln’s actual birthday, February 12, and decided, in a particularly sadistic moment, to take my kids to see the new, revised “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” which just opened in December.  I had fond memories of the last iteration of the show, from the early 2000s, which featured a surprisingly good film and a robotic-yet-stirring rendition of the Gettsyburg Address (Ari informs me that the real Lincoln was actually a robot – “true fact”, he says – and suggests that the imagineers were just being authentic).   Surprisingly, my children did not believe that listening to an animatronic president speak on death and destruction was the best use of scarce Disneyland time, but I cheerfully dragged them out of the southern California sunshine and waited to be transported back in time to the Civil War….

Only to discover that the show is really about more recent wars, notably the Cold one.  The new version is actually a recreation of the original, 1964 “Great Moments” that debuted at the New York World’s Fair, and features not the Gettysburg Address, or the second inaugural, or any number of memorable Lincoln moments.  Instead, it features a pastiche of Lincoln quotes over a twenty-five year span, hacked from their context and smashed together, to create a rather disquieting figure who seems more Joe McCarthy than Honest Abe:

What constitutes the bulwark of our liberty and independence? It is not our frowning embattlements, our bristling sea coasts. These are not our reliance against tyranny. Our reliance is in the love of liberty, which God has planted in our bosoms. Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands everywhere. Destroy this spirit, and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors.

At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some trans-Atlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined could not, by force, take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years.

At what point, then, is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, that if it ever reach us, it must spring from amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we ourselves must be the authors and finishers. As a nation of free men, we must live through all times, or die by suicide.

According to Wikipedia, the whole speech – this is just a part – combines sentences from 1838, 1852, 1858, 1860, and 1864. What would cause someone to choose quotes about enemies within, instead of using an actual speech by a man who, I’m told, wrote some pretty good ones? In today’s climate, the speech comes across like some sort of Tea Party screed.

*Sorry, Ari.

The CIA has released documents confirming that it used an alleged deep-sea mining vessel called the Glomar Explorer to raise part of a sunken Soviet submarine from the floor of the Pacific Ocean in 1974.  This is a step forward for the agency, which in the past has refused to confirm or deny its connection to the Glomar Explorer, but agency officials are still declining to say how much the project cost, how much of the sub they recovered, and what, if any, intelligence they gleaned from the project.

The Soviet submarine sank for unknown reasons about 1,500 miles from Hawaii in March 1968, taking its crew and three nuclear missiles to the bottom of the Pacific.  A year and a half later, the CIA established a task force to study the feasibility of harvesting the 1,750-ton vessel from the ocean floor, some 16,500 feet down.  The task force concluded that it needed to build a huge, specially designed ship with winches that could lower a sling beneath the sub and gently hoist it to the surface.  The government hired Howard Hughes’s Summa Corporation to build the Glomar Explorer, which was disguised as a deep-ocean mining ship.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the mission: the Cold War began to cool down.  As U.S.-Soviet tensions began to ease, some White House advisers ordered a review of the project, “in light of increasing concern that … the developing political climate might prohibit mission approval.” The nation’s top defense officials were uniformly critical of the project.  The Chief of Naval Operations, the assistant secretary of defense for intelligence, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff all judged the program to be dangerously provocative, absurdly expensive, and unlikely to produce much valuable intelligence.  But CIA director Richard Helms convinced President Nixon to ignore his top military advisers and give the green light to the project. Read the rest of this entry »

If you haven’t seen the episode, feel free to read this. No real spoilers ahead.

As someone who knows a little too much about the subject, I’ve been eagerly awaiting Mad Men’s portrayal of the Kennedy assassination.  And when it came, on Sunday night, I thought the episode was beautifully done. But I found myself less intrigued by the portrayal of the event itself than by how the writers used the assassination to advance the one of the show’s main themes: that white, middle-class American women suffered from the feminine mystique in the 1960s, and they weren’t going to take it anymore.  In Mad Men’s universe, John Kennedy died Sunday night, but Betty Draper is just starting to live.

The writers have dropped hints throughout the season that the show would address the assassination: the brief shot of Margaret Sterling’s wedding announcement, with its portentous date; the eerie recreation of the Zapruder film with the John Deere accident in episode 6; the frequent references to dates as the episodes moved through 1963, with November always looming in the distance.  And, when the event finally came, the show handled it with grace and intelligence.  I loved the way that Walter Cronkite came on the television set in the background, with the volume on low, as Peter and Harry discussed office politics, completely oblivious to the news, and the sudden emphasis on TV, as everyone gravitated to sets throughout the episode.  Overall, there was the general sense of tragedy, loss, and confusion, especially after Oswald’s murder. “What is going on?” both Don and Betty ask, separately.

But the story of Betty’s gradual awakening was integrated with the narrative of the assassination in a way that brought home to me why so many women like this show.  I know a lot of men who despise it; they see a loathsome main character, Don Draper, who lies and cheats on his wife; they see pervasive misogyny, and it makes them feel uncomfortable and depressed.

Many women, though, understand and empathize with how the female characters are objectified and mistreated.  But at the same time, we know that, while sexism has hardly disappeared, women have a lot more options and, yes, a lot more power than they did in 1963.  As the show moves through the early 1960s, the anger builds, but the opportunities unfold.  We know where this story is going, and we like the ending.

On this day in 1986, President Ronald Reagan considered the abolition of nuclear weapons from the world, but then changed his mind.

The occasion was a summit between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland.  During the summit, Reagan briefly embraced Gorbachev’s proposal to abolish nuclear weapons.  Gorbachev’s price? A promise by the U.S. to confine the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to the laboratory.

The president’s neocon aides were horrified. Richard Perle, who regarded the notion of nuclear abolition as “ludicrous” and “delusional,” almost single-handedly torpedoed the Reykjavik deal.  Perle didn’t think SDI would work, but he decided to use it as a poison pill to destroy Gorbachev’s initiative.  In Arsenals of Folly, Richard Rhodes describes the remarkable conference that Reagan and his aides held in a bathroom, which was the only room available, with the president perched on the toilet and ten advisers crowded around, as Perle and others convinced Reagan that he could not give up SDI.  Reagan proved even more attached to the myth of a mission missile shield than to his vision of a nuclear-free world, and he walked away from the deal, to the relief of his aides.

My favorite two-sentence analysis of Reykjavik is in Reagan’s America, by Garry Wills:

Sophisticated workers for the president had to search their souls.  They resembled a crew of absentminded mini-Frankensteins who had fiddled at separate parts of a monster for benevolent but widely varying purposes, only to see him break the clasps and rear himself up off the table in a weird compulsion to do some monstrous Good Thing that none of them had ever believed possible.

The mini-Frankensteins brought the monster back under control that day.  Soon, though, after the Iran-contra scandal discredited the hawks, more moderate officials began to reclaim control and to urge Reagan to agree to steep cuts in the nuclear arsenal.  The result was the INF treaty, a safer world, and that famous stroll in Red Square, with Reagan arm-in-arm with the evil emperor.

On this day in 1933, about 350 farm workers gathered in the small central California town of Pixley to listen to Pat Chambers, a 33-year-old Irish-American Communist union organizer.  Chambers’s union, the Cannery and Agricultural Workers International Union, was coordinating the largest farmworker strike in U.S. history up to that point: a walkout by 20,000 mostly Mexican cotton pickers up and down the Central Valley to protest wages as low as ten cents an hour.

The young organizer, who was still recovering from a broken jaw he suffered from a vigilante attack in a recent strike, stood on a truck bed, urging the workers to remain non-violent, but to protect themselves if they were attacked. As Chambers spoke, a caravan of cars and trucks filled with forty growers roared into town and pulled up behind them.  The men spilled out of the cars, brandishing pistols, rifles, and shotguns.  Chambers told the men, women, and children to move into the union headquarters across the street.

As the workers and their families rushed to the safety of the building, the growers pursued them.  When one grower fired his weapon into the air, a striker angrily approached him and shoved his rifle barrel to the ground.  Another grower began beating the striker, and then shot him dead.  The vigilantes emptied their weapons into the fleeing crowd, killing two workers and wounding eight. Mobs killed another striker in the town of Arvin that same day.

The violence that day was not unusual for the California fields.  Infuriated by the increasing militancy of workers during the Great Depression, California growers and their allies responded with mob violence and official repression. Up and down the state, vigilantes beat pickets with axe handles and clubs, raked them with fire hoses, and smothered them with tear gas.  Police arrested strikers for vagrancy or loitering, federal officials cut off their relief payments, and landlords evicted their families.  Carey McWilliams used the term “farm fascism” to describe the response of corporate growers to the unionization of their workers.  In this dangerous atmosphere, only the Communists were willing to organize California’s field workers.  As one AFL organizer said, “only fanatics are willing to live in shacks or tents and get their heads broken in the interests of migratory laborers.”

Although federal mediators forced the cotton growers to raise wages, there was still no justice on California’s factory farms. After a local jury quickly acquitted the men charged with the Pixley killings, California officials then proceeded to decapitate the union, charging Chambers and 16 other union leaders with violating the state’s criminal syndicalism law.  Chambers went to San Quentin for his sins, but an appeals court set him free in 1937.  California farm workers were not so lucky: they would have to labor under miserable conditions until the 1960s, when Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers helped them win some protections and the right to unionize.

After fielding yet another media call about the supposed “dismantling” of the CIA by the Church Committee, I feel moved to systematically address the neoconservative assumptions that dominate the current debate.  In 1975, staffers in the Gerald Ford White House, most notably chief of staff Dick Cheney, started an organized effort to spin the press coverage of Senator Frank Church’s investigation of the CIA.

The talking points of the Ford administration are now taken as gospel truth.  This is not just a matter of historical accuracy; it’s directly relevant to the current discussion.  Because if the Church Committee did destroy the CIA, then we can say that “history tells us” that all CIA investigations are inherently destructive and will endanger our safety.

So, let’s look at the record.  Right after Watergate, Senator Church’s Senate Select Committee to Investigate Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities launched a massive inquiry into past crimes of the CIA and FBI.   Despite the heated rhetoric you hear these days, it did not do certain things.

1.  The Church Committee did not dismantle the CIA.

The committee revealed that the CIA had committed crimes and abuses of power, including mail opening, wiretapping, illegal spying on American citizens in the United States, and assassination plots against foreign leaders.  Thanks to the Church Committee, we now know that the CIA engaged mafia dons to stab, poison, shoot, and blow up Fidel Castro; that it tried to poison Patrice Lumumba’s toothpaste; and that it hired goons to kidnap the general in Chile who was trying to uphold his country’s constitutional democracy and thus stood in the way of a US-backed coup.  (He was killed in the course of the kidnapping.)  The committee also revealed the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO program, including the harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr.

As a result of the committee’s investigation, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which requires warrants for wiretapping, and created the Senate Intelligence Committee. FISA did not destroy the CIA; it merely required intelligence agencies to explain to a top-secret panel why they wanted to wiretap people in the United States, thus avoiding the bad old days when J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon listened to the phone conversations of anyone who had the nerve to criticize them.  The creation of the Senate Intelligence Committee actually laid the foundation for reducing the number of oversight committees; there were eight congressional committees with jurisdiction over the CIA in 1976, but only two – one intelligence committee in each house – after 1980.  So, it’s hard to see how this legacy amounts to “dismantling” the CIA.

2.  The Church Committee did not prompt the firing of hundreds of CIA agents.

It was Jimmy Carter’s CIA director, Admiral Stansfield Turner, not the committee, who cut 800 positions from the covert operations side of the agency.  The positions were eliminated mostly through attrition. Though he only fired 17 people, this episode is often exaggerated by agency supporters and falsely attributed to the influence of the Church Committee.

3.  The Church Committee did not name or cause the deaths of CIA agents.

The committee named only the highest-level officials, whose names were known to everyone.  Some extreme anti-CIA activists did publish lists of the names of agents in the field, and as a result, terrorists killed the CIA station chief in Athens, Richard Welch.  The Ford administration, led by Cheney, waved the bloody shirt and implied that the committee had been responsible for Welch’s death, but even CIA officials themselves later admitted that this was just spin.

4. The Church Committee was not an unambiguous victory for liberals.

As I argue in Real Enemies, after forcing the nation to confront its past, Church found that he had strengthened a trend he abhorred: the ultra-right, libertarian rejection of all governmental authority. The percentage of Americans who said they distrusted the government actually increased during and after Church’s investigation.  Still, the senator was certain he had done the right thing. “We must never become weary of being vigilant,” he said. “We dare not shrink from another redemptive investigation.”

If Frank Church and his colleagues did not destroy the CIA, then what did they do?  They revealed that our nation had made mistakes, in hopes that we would not repeat them.  They proved that we do indeed live in a constitutional democracy, where the rule of law is (eventually) respected.  And they pushed Dick Cheney over the edge, convincing him that Democrats are America-hating traitors who will stop at nothing to undermine our nation’s defenses.

The current claims by the so-called Birther movement that Barack Obama is not a “natural-born citizen” of the United States may seem part of the lunatic fringe. But the Birthers’ basic premise – that the U.S. president is actually the agent of an enemy conspiracy – has a long history in America, and it highlights the tension between American openness and American paranoia.

Read the rest of this entry »

Louis Warren once again helps us understand the historical roots of California’s current crisis. Thanks, Louis.

California’s crisis is such that the number one manufacturing and farming state is unable to sell its bonds. As I explained in my last post, this condition stems in part from constitutional requirements of the supermajority.

Some commentators on the right prefer a different explanation. This is the useful canard that California is congenitally left, and that liberal policies lead inevitably to financial collapse.

To be sure, the left is not blameless in this debacle. But much of California’s political upheaval of the last decade and a half has been driven by the collapse of the state’s once-formidable Republican Party. Alarmingly, national Republicans now seem to follow their lead. Progressives may think this cause for celebration – – but if the Republican Party in the U.S. becomes what it is in California, America has some hard days ahead. Read the rest of this entry »

On this day in 1987, a West German teenager flew 400 miles across the Soviet Union in a small plane to land at the heart of what Ronald Reagan called the evil empire.  He said he wanted to strike a blow for world peace, and, bizarrely enough, he succeeded.

Mathias Rust was a 19-year-old bank clerk in Hamburg when he got his idea to deliver a 20-page manifesto on world peace to Mikhail Gorbachev.  He hoped that he could prove the good intentions of the Soviet Union, and thus help end the Cold War, by flying unmolested over its territory.

He started his odyssey by flying to Reykjavik, the site of the historic Reagan-Gorbachev summit a few months earlier.  Reagan’s rejection of Gorbachev’s offer to rid the world of nuclear weapons had depressed Rust, but then spurred him to action.  After visiting the site of the conference, the young pilot flew to Helsinki, filed a fake flight plan for Stockholm, and set off southeastward on his adventure.

It was bold, but also crazy.  Four years earlier, the Soviets had shot down a Korean Air Lines jet that had wandered into their airspace, killing 269 people.  Rust knew he might meet a similar fate.  So he brought along a motorcycle helmet in case he needed to make an emergency landing. Read the rest of this entry »

On this day sixty-five years ago, American forces broke out of the Anzio beachhead and began the long process of pushing the Germans out of Italy.  In American military history, the invasion is known as a poorly executed near disaster.  In my family’s history, it is remembered as the moment when my father came to terms with the role of  chance in an individual’s life.

Read the rest of this entry »

On this day in 1993, the FBI assaulted the fortress of an apocalyptic Adventist sect near Waco, Texas, and a fire broke out that killed at least 80 children and adults. Two years later, an American militia sympathizer exacted what he saw as revenge by bombing the federal building in Oklahoma City and killing 168 people, including children in the day care center.

The Waco confrontation had been building for months. The leader of the cult inside the fortress, David Koresh, was preparing for the end times by stockpiling illegal weapons, which were delivered by UPS trucks. One day, a package broke open, and the UPS driver called the feds. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms planned a raid on the compound in February, but word leaked out to Koresh’s followers, known as the Branch Davidians. When the ATF charged the fortress, the Davidians met them with a hail of gunfire. Four ATF agents and two Davidians died in the shootout. The Davidians then shot and killed three of their own.

The FBI responded to the murder of their fellow federal officers with hundreds of agents, tanks, helicopters, searchlights, and stereo speakers intended to blast the Davidians out of the compound with unbearably loud music. After fifty-one days of tense negotiations, Attorney General Janet Reno, convinced that the Davidians were abusing the children in the fort, decided to force them out. Armored tanks poked holes in the compound walls and began pumping in tear gas. Several hours later, the fortress exploded in flames. At least 80 adults and children died in the ensuing inferno, which was broadcast live on television.

Read the rest of this entry »

On this day in 1962, two CIA officers met in New York with Las Vegas mobster Johnny Roselli to discuss plans for assassinating Fidel Castro. Roselli, an illegal immigrant from Italy who had worked for Al Capone in Chicago in the 1920s, shaken down producers in Hollywood in the 1940s, and skimmed the profits from casinos in Las Vegas and Havana in the 1950s, promised the CIA that he could find someone in Cuba who would be willing to kill Castro for the right price. The April 1962 conspiracy involved poison pills, which distinguishes it from the other CIA plots against Castro using poisoned cigars, bombs, exploding seashells, deadly fungi, LSD spray, mafia hit men, depilatory dust, and poison-filled syringes disguised as ballpoint pens.

The plots against Castro began in August 1960, during the Eisenhower administration, when some CIA officials decided to try to “undermine Castro’s charismatic appeal by sabotaging his speeches,” in the words of a U.S. Senate report. They plotted to spray his broadcast studio with hallucinogens; to douse his cigars with psychedelic drugs; and to dust his shoes with thallium salts, which would destroy his image as “The Beard.” Soon the CIA decided that these assaults on Castro’s image were inadequate, and moved on to actual assassination plots. After the first few schemes failed, agency officials thought of calling in some men who despised Castro as much as they did — and had considerable experience with killing people.

Castro had chased the mafia out of Havana in 1959 along with the other capitalists. As a result, some of America’s most notorious criminals were pleased to cooperate with their government in disposing of Cuba’s comandante. The CIA viewed Sam Giancana, the mob boss of Chicago, and Santo Trafficante, the mafia chieftain of Miami and formerly of Cuba, as “businessmen with interests in Cuba who saw the elimination of Castro as the first essential step to the recovery of their investments.” The attorney general saw them as two of the most dangerous men in the country and put them on his ten most-wanted list. In one of many ironies, the FBI was hunting them down while the CIA was hiring them to commit crimes.

At the meeting 47 years ago today, the CIA agents gave Roselli poison pills to drop in Castro’s drinks. When that scheme failed, they came up with more creative options. CIA scientists customized a diving suit for Castro by dusting it with a skin-destroying fungus and contaminating its breathing tubes with the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. They also developed an exploding seashell to be placed in Castro’s favorite scuba-diving bay. On November 22, 1963, as President John Kennedy was waving at the crowds in Dallas, one of his CIA operatives was delivering a hypodermic needle concealed in a ballpoint pen to a Cuban in Paris. The CIA planned for the Cuban to fill the pen with poison and stab Castro with it.

As I discuss in my new book, the Castro plots provide great source material for conspiracy theories about the assassination of John Kennedy. It’s easy – though not necessarily correct – to spin off theories about tales of betrayal, revenge, and retribution involving characters like Giancana, Roselli, and the target of the plots himself. Everyone has a favorite theory. For his part, Lyndon Johnson believed that “Kennedy was trying to get to Castro, but Castro got to him first.”

The plots were thoroughly documented in the 1975 report of Frank Church’s Senate Select Committee to Investigate Intelligence Activities, Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders (a misleading title, as the plots are not alleged but proven in the report itself). The report is essential reading for anyone interested in the secret foreign policy of this period, with its tales of undercover agents, with their unworkable James Bond devices, venturing into Johnny Roselli’s underworld.

The plots did not end well for Giancana or Roselli. Giancana was gunned down in his kitchen just days before he was to testify to the Church Committee in 1975. Roselli gave a colorful accounting of his many exploits to the committee, but did not show up when they recalled him for more testimony. His dismembered body was later found floating in an oil drum off the coast of Miami.  But Fidel managed to outwit them all, and reminded us yesterday that he is not dead yet.

On this day in 1971, a group of activists broke into an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania and stole about a thousand government documents with a mysterious notation, “COINTELPRO.” The public revelation of these documents ranks with the Pentagon Papers as one of the most significant exposés of government secrets in U.S. history.

The burglars, who have never been identified, entered the two-person office in Media as much of the nation was huddled around television sets to watch the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight. The activists did not fully understand the documents they found, but they quickly decided that the public had the right to see them.

About two weeks later, two prominent antiwar lawmakers and reporters at major newspapers received copies of the files in plain brown envelopes. Most of the recipients accepted the FBI’s judgment that the files were “secret”: the New York Times and Los Angeles Times did not write about the documents, and the legislators returned their sets to the FBI. But Washington Post editors believed that the public had the right to know about the spying. The Post broke the first COINTELPRO story on March 24, 1971, revealing how the bureau had used mail carriers and a campus switchboard operator to eavesdrop on a radical professor at Swarthmore College.

A Senate investigating committee headed by Frank Church of Idaho later revealed the vast reach of COINTELPRO, which was the acronym for the FBI’s counterintelligence program. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover started the operation in 1956 in response to Supreme Court rulings that made it more difficult to prosecute Communists. Under COINTELPRO, the bureau recruited “informants” – a euphemism for “informer” – to infiltrate the dwindling ranks of the Communist Party, disrupt its plans, and discredit its members. COINTELPRO agents planted “snitch jackets,” or false letters identifying a target as an informer, wrote anonymous poison pen letters, and spread rumors about political apostasies and marital infidelities. In other words, the FBI did not just monitor these individuals, but tried to break up their marriages, “seed mistrust, sow misinformation,” and provoke them to commit crimes so that they could be arrested.

The FBI originally directed this program at American Communists, but it soon broadened its definition of communism. By 1960, when the Communist Party counted about five thousand members in the United States, the bureau maintained more than eighty times that number of files on “subversive” Americans at its headquarters, and FBI field offices around the country collected even more. One purpose of COINTELPRO, according to an official memo, was to “enhance the paranoia endemic in [dissident] circles” and convince activists that “there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.” The agents believed that paranoid, divided dissident groups were easier to handle than purposeful, united dissident groups. In other words, the FBI conspired to create fear of conspiracy.

By the mid-1960s, COINTELPRO had expanded to spy on, infiltrate, and disrupt a wide variety of activist groups, including the antiwar movement, women’s liberation groups, civil rights organizations, and the black power movement. The FBI also targeted some “white hate” groups like the Ku Klux Klan, but most of its efforts went into disrupting the left. Most notoriously, FBI officials spied on Martin Luther King, Jr. At Hoover’s direction, agents wiretapped King’s phones, bugged his hotel rooms, and did everything they could to take him “off his pedestal and to reduce him completely in influence,” as one FBI memo put it. The FBI peddled evidence of King’s extramarital affairs to public officials and journalists. Just before King was to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, the assistant FBI director sent the new laureate his own copy of the evidence. King received a composite tape in the mail that included audio recordings of his alleged trysts. A letter sent with the tape concluded with this threat: “King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. …You are done. There is but one way out for you.” The FBI, in other words, tried to persuade the internationally recognized leader of the American civil rights movement to kill himself.

The Church Committee denounced COINTELPRO as a “sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association.” With all due respect to the committee, FBI agents are, by definition, not vigilantes; they’re agents of the state. In this case, they were state agents of repression. It took vigilantes who fought for the right to know – those burglars in Media – to bring this secret government program to public attention.

In the latest news in the California budget saga, the state Senate is still one vote shy of the two-thirds supermajority needed to pass the budget.  Last night, as he finally ended the weekend lockdown and let his members go home for a few hours, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg got angry at State Senator Sam Aanestad in particular and the Republicans in general:

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