Writers and surveillance, then and now

Media Mob, over at The New York Observer, points to two articles from this past week about FBI surveillance of writers: “The FBI’s 15-Year Campaign to Ferret out Norman Mailer” ran in The Washington Post yesterday, while the AP reported a few days ago that David Halberstam was also spied on. “The FBI monitored Halberstam’s reporting, and at times his personal life, from at least the mid-1960s until at least the late '80s,” the AP reports, noting that “only 62 pages of a 98-page dossier on the writer” have been released.

As for (former PEN President) Norman Mailer:
Agents questioned his friends, scoured his passport file, thumbed through his best-selling books and circulated his photo among informants. They kept records on his appearances at writers conferences, talk shows and peace rallies. They noted the volume of envelopes in his mailbox and jotted down who received his Christmas cards. They posed as his friend, chatted with his father and more than once knocked on his door disguised as deliverymen.
None of this is terribly surprising: as the AP report mentions, “the agency’s now-defunct counterintelligence programs known as COINTELPRO monitored and disrupted groups believed to have communist and socialist ties in the 1950s and '60s.” Among the FBI’s targets in the 1960s was Andy Warhol, and we included a rather comical FBI report on the artist in our latest issue. In 1968, concerned citizens notified authorities about lewd behavior in Oracle, Arizona, where Warhol was filming a movie. The FBI sent two agents to spy on these activities, which led to paragraphs like the following being sent back to headquarters:
The men played with each other’s rear ends. One had flowers sewed on the seat of his trousers in the shape of a diamond. One fellow was hanging by the knees, face down, out of a tree, and kissing on the lips one of the other men on the horse. All the men looked like hippies and all were very vulgar in their conversations. The men were trying to kiss each other.
After the agents saw the finished (and mildly pornographic) movie at the San Francisco Film Festival, they noted in their report that "there was no plot to the film and no development of characters throughout." Your tax dollars at work.

While the reports about Mailer and Halberstam are unsurprising, they should nonetheless remind us that the progress made in the late 1970s on the matter of privacy has largely been reversed since 2001. For the last several years PEN has been fighting to restore the safeguards that were first established after the abuses of the 1950s and 60s came to light.

Just this summer, PEN joined the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other leading international human rights organizations, journalists, and attorneys in filing a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the newly enacted FISA Amendments Act, a law that grants the Administration the power to carry out and expand the illegal eavesdropping activities it has engaged in secretly since 2001. As you may have heard, Barack Obama voted in favor of this disappointing legislation, so there’s no guarantee that the next administration will be a stronger ally in this particular fight than the current one is. In other words, there is much more work to be done.

Bonus: Two minutes of highlights from the Warhol film so eloquently described by federal agents above. It's called Lonesome Cowboys. Enjoy.

1 comment:

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