Now available under the Freedom of Information Act, the FBI released some 400-odd pages detailing its surveillance of the late historian Howard Zinn from 1949-1974. [For a refresher, I eulogized Zinn here and posted more comments here.] The FBI made the interesting admission that Zinn was targeted due to his politics:
In the 1960s, the Bureau took another look at Zinn on account of his criticism of the FBI's civil rights investigations. Further investigation was made when Zinn traveled to North Vietnam with Daniel Berrigan as an anti-war activist.
Salon's Justin Elliott writes that the FBI spied on Zinn for a quarter-century "despite having apparently no evidence that he ever committed a crime." (Probable cause? What's that?) TPM's Megan Carpentier notes that the files not only "detail the FBI's somewhat absurd practice of collecting newspaper clippings, public speeches and publicized speaking dates for people it declared dangerous to the country," but "also contained some interesting details about the official's plans to end Zinn's academic career at Boston University" by collaborating with university officials who wanted Zinn out.
Over at The Progressive, where I read many of Zinn's essays, Matthew Rothschild mentions a curious incident in November 1953 where the FBI tried to coerce Zinn into becoming an informant:
Zinn told them "he was a liberal and perhaps some people would consider him to be a 'leftist.' Zinn said that he had participated in the activities of various organizations which might be considered Communist fronts but that his participation was motivated by his belief that in this country people had the right to believe, think, and act according to their own ideals. . . . According to Zinn, he was not ashamed of his past activities and did not believe that he or his activities constituted a threat to the security of this country or Government."
Two months later, the files describe another refusal:
Again, Zinn denied that he or his wife had ever been a member of the Communist Party. And again, Zinn refused to name names. "He stated under no circumstances would he testify or furnish information concerning the political opinions of others."
This didn't sit well with the FBI's hierarchy:
On January 10, 1964, Hoover wrote a memo ordering Zinn's name to be "included in Reserve Index, Section A," a classification that would mean he could be rounded up if an emergency were declared. In this memo, Hoover says Zinn "has continued to demonstrate procommunist and anti-United States sympathies."
The files later described Zinn as "a dangerous individual who may commit acts inimical to the national defense and public safety of the United States in time of an emergency." Rothschild quotes Zinn's daughter, Myla Kabat-Zinn, as being unsurprised:
"We all expected this...Anybody who was active in protesting and speaking out at that time kind of expected to have an FBI file. My father always knew they had a file on him."
Chris Hedges explained the FBI's fear of Zinn as "an example of how genuine intellectual thought is always subversive:"
It always challenges prevailing assumptions as well as political and economic structures. It is based on a fierce moral autonomy and personal courage and it is uniformly branded by the power elite as "political." Zinn was a threat not because he was a violent revolutionary or a communist but because he was fearless and told the truth. [...] The file exposes the absurdity, waste and pettiness of our national security state. And it seems to indicate that our security agencies prefer to hire those with mediocre or stunted intelligence, dubious morality and little common sense.
Hedges concludes that "one walks away with a profound respect for Zinn and a deep distaste for the buffoonish goons in the FBI who followed and monitored him " and amplifies this point beyond Zinn:
There is no reason, with the massive expansion of our internal security apparatus, to think that things have improved. [...] We are amassing unprecedented volumes of secret files, and carrying out extensive surveillance and harassment, as stupid and useless as those that were directed against Zinn. And a few decades from now maybe we will be able to examine the work of the latest generation of dimwitted investigators who have been unleashed upon us in secret by the tens of thousands. Did any of the agents who followed Zinn ever realize how they wasted their time? Do those following us around comprehend how manipulated they are? Do they understand that their primary purpose, as it was with Zinn, is not to prevent terrorism but discredit and destroy social movements as well as protect the elite from those who would expose them?
The FBI didn't much appreciate Zinn or his efforts to make the US a more open nation, and the dislike was mutual. Zinn's piece "Federal Bureau of Intimidation" is available (among other places) at the History Is a Weapon website. In it, Zinn not only called the FBI "one of the creeping hands of totalitarianism running through the democracy," but also stated that he had read a large portion of his FBI file (other content in the speech dates it to between the 1992 and 1996 elections):
I sent away for whatever information the FBI had on me, through the Freedom of Information Act. I became curious, I guess. I wanted to test myself because if I found that the FBI did not have any dossier on me, it would have been tremendously embarrassing and I wouldn't have been able to face my friends. But, fortunately, there were several hundred pages of absolutely inconsequential material. Very consequential for the FBI, I suppose, but inconsequential for any intelligent person.