“The minute the FBI makes recommendations on what should be done with its information, we become a Gestapo.”
—J. Edgar Hoover
I wasn’t bad or famous enough to get onto President Nixon’s enemies list, but FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover – not as picky – included me as Subject No. BA 100-24104 in his agency’s covert and illegal counter-intelligence program, a.k.a. COINTELPRO.
From 1965 to 1971 — and while the FBI was assembling my 115-page file – I worked on voting rights projects in Maryland and Georgia, spoke out against U.S. foreign policies, drove a taxi in Baltimore, edited copy at the Baltimore Sun, put out a weekly political newsletter, spent a year as an anti-Vietnam war organizer, and directed an addiction treatment clinic — all perfectly constitutional activities.
Then on March 8, 1971, the self-styled Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI burgled the agency’s office in Media, Pa. By liberating suitcases stuffed with files, the “commission” outed COINTELPRO, Hoover’s super-secret, extra-legal counterintelligence program that began spying on thousands of Americans in 1956.
Under the Freedom of Information Act and for 10 cents a page, I obtained my COINTELPRO file. Shadowing me at meetings and picket lines and recording what I said and wrote and with whom I met, the banal assemblage discovered nothing, prevented nothing, and ultimately proved nothing. Riddled with redactions, repetitions, and errors, J. Edgar’s surveillance was a big waste of federal employees’ time and taxpayers’ dollars.
What triggered Hoover’s minions to spy on me? I was targeted after I mailed my draft card back to Local Draft Board No. 36 in Towson in April 1965. Even though I’d been discharged from the Army three years earlier, not carrying a draft card was still illegal. Protesting LBJ’s decision to send the 82nd Airborne — my old outfit — into the Dominican Republic, I told my draft board that I refused to carry it any longer. When the feds looked closer, they found that I fit into two of their very favorite subversive profiles: pro-civil rights plus anti-Vietnam war, and so they started watching.
As Selma exploded and the Vietnam war escalated, 1965 was tumultuous and I was swept into the turmoil. That August, I joined the “Assembly of Unrepresented People” on the National Mall, and along with another 200-plus civilly disobedient anti-war protesters was arrested on Capitol Hill while trying to present Congress with our “Declaration of Peace with the People of Vietnam.” The FBI was watching.
Leaving SNCC in 1966, I became a Baltimore Sun copy editor and in my free time produced a political newsletter, “The View From Here,” which expressed liberal-to-left views on social, political, and economic issues, including Vietnam and civil rights. The FBI was watching.
In early 1968, I was persuaded by Catholic activist Phil Berrigan to leave the Sun and organize full-time against the war, giving me a front-row seat for this watershed year. A year later, I was invited to direct Man Alive, a struggling methadone maintenance clinic in Baltimore. Though deeply involved in the intricacies of treating opiate addicts day-to-day, I continued to engage in anti-war activities, including the May Day demonstration in 1971, when I was arrested again, this time with 20,000 others. The FBI watched all of this.
Hoover’s surveillance might have had consequences. With its litany of “captioned-subject-went-here” and “Whitman-said-this,” the faceless folks at COINTELPRO included two incidents, either of which could have put me in serious legal jeopardy, including prison.
The first was in October 1968, when marshals seized me in the U.S. Courthouse in Baltimore and accused me of handing out leaflets while the Catonsville Nine were being sentenced. After sitting in a holding cell for an hour while munching on a bologna sandwich, I was released by Maryland’s U.S. Attorney, Steve Sachs, who apologized.
The folks at COINTELPRO, however, interpreted this courthouse altercation completely differently, alleging instead that I assaulted three federal officers, a felony. Although the marshals had grabbed me, the FBI instead described them as my “victims.”
The report read:
“Deputy U.S. Marshal [name redacted]-Victim; Deputy U.S. Marshall [name redacted]-Victim; and U.S. Marshall Frank Udoff-Victim: Crime on a Government Reservation – Assaulting a Federal Officer.”
But Mr. Sachs elected to do nothing, and this matter was dropped.
The other entry in my file with potentially serious consequences came on the heels of my arrest during the 1971 May Day demonstrations in D.C. As I walked along M Street near Mount Vernon Square, I was arrested by D.C. police without provocation, charged with disorderly conduct, held until late that evening, and released on $50 bail.
The dicey bit came several weeks later. After being found not guilty — the cop who testified wasn’t even able to place me at the scene — I was puzzled when the judge remarked, “I really hoped we could get this man.”
Ultimately, my file suggested why the judge made this unnerving statement. Dated May 10, 1971, a report was titled, “NAME CHECK REQUEST ON MAY DAY DEMONSTRATORS” and was focused on “179 individuals who were arrested on May 3, 1971.” I was one of those individuals and the judge had likely read this in advance of my trial.
Because my COINTELPRO file reported my arrest in 1965 and the courthouse incident in 1968, I remain convinced my May Day judge had been handed this erroneous report to review before he found me not guilty. (After May Day, I was a plaintiff in a civil liberties lawsuit against the D.C. government and was awarded a $1,100 settlement in 1981.)
Because I was “connected” with SNCC and “participated in anti-war and anti-draft demonstrations” and “urged civil disobedience,” the FBI put me on its “Agitator Index” in 1969. I was later upgraded to “Priority III of the Security Index,” whatever that meant.
To this day, I remain tickled by parts of the file.
Despite its overweening interest in what I said and what I did and with whom I associated, the FBI never actually interviewed me. Why? “There is no indication that an interview of WHITMAN would prove productive, and it is believed that an interview of WHITMAN would not be prudent.”
My high school in Dedham, Mass., informed Hoover & Co. that I was “generally considered to be a good campus citizen and a good student.”
Presumptuously, J. Edgar’s intensely anti-Communist agency labeled me as a “non-Communist Party (CP) member.” Accuracy demands should that I have been described as “a Democratic Party (DP) member,” but that wasn’t the agency’s purpose.
Also odd was the entry: “At the time of Reverend PHILIP BERRIGAN’s arrest in New York City on 4/20/70, he had in his possession the name of captioned subject. The significance of WHITMAN’S name in BERRIGAN’S address book is unknown.”
In a May 1971 memo, the Baltimore FBI office reported, “this case is being placed in a closed status by the Baltimore Division.” For whatever reason, they had tired of me.
As it related to me, COINTELPRO never reached “Gestapo” level. Those anonymous informers just watched and watched and reported and reported.
Spies and snitches never prevented me from speaking out, writing, demonstrating, and organizing. Didn’t prevent me from shepherding newspaper and TV reporters to Catonsville to witness the Berrigans’ raid on the draft board. Didn’t stop me from organizing and joining numerous anti-war and civil rights protests, including civil disobedience. COINTELPRO just watched and reported — just creepy when you think about it.
Once-burned, twice shy, eh? During the COINTELPRO years, the FBI spied on thousands of activists using informers, typewriters, telephones, and index cards. It created long lists of so-called subversives and put them on its “Agitator Index” and “Security Index.” But, given 2022-level technologies, the agency’s spy powers are limitless.
A new version of COINTELPRO can happen again, anytime, and a new generation of fired-up constitutional activists may find it already has.
Gren Whitman has been a leader in neighborhood, umbrella, public interest, and political groups and committees, and worked for civil rights and anti-war organizations. He is now retired and lives in Rock Hall, MD.