FBI put Howard Zinn on a list of suspects to be detained in event of emergency - part 2

08/06/10 Seán Kinane
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Historian, author, and activist Howard Zinn died in January. He may be best known for his book A People’s History of the United States. Last Friday the FBI released more than 400 pages of files it has kept on Zinn since March, 1949.

Last night on the WMNF Evening News we brought you the first half of our analysis of those FBI files. We conclude the story tonight with The Progressive magazine editor Matthew Rothschild and Howard Zinn, who told us in a 2006 interview that he was aware the FBI had spied on him.

"What you learn when you send away for your FBI files, under the Freedom of Information Act, is you learn that they are recording the most innocuous, the most harmless kinds of activities. ‘Oh, he made a speech here. Oh, he wrote this article.’"

Zinn wrote a monthly column for The Progressive magazine from the late 1990s until he died in January. His editor at The Progressive, Rothschild, agrees that the FBI seemed obsessed with minor details of Zinn's everyday life.

“Well, the report is just ridiculous to read because they were so bureaucratic. They were omnipresent. They were recording the most protected aspects of the First Amendment, if anyone would in engage in them, and what magazines they read. There was a notation that he subscribed to the National Guardian, which is now defunct, but it was a good left wing magazine. He went to some peace marches in the late 1940’s. He was picketing a butcher shop in 1946, they had that down. I mean, it’s unbelievable the level of detail they have on every single aspect of his political activity. It’s just chilling to those of us who respect our First Amendment rights to see what was happening then, and to wonder if it’s happening now.”

Besides spying on every day activities, another theme that emerges from looking at the FBI's documents on Zinn is the frequency with which they use deception and lying to get information. For example, a 1957 memo from the FBI Director to the Special Agent in Charge in Atlanta admits the document is classified because "it contains investigative techniques, and contacts with confidential Informants." Some of those techniques include the FBI calling Spellman College and lying about the pretext of the call claiming they were out-of-town friends of Zinn and in another case that they were doing a credit inquiry. Rothschild says this practice is not uncommon.

“Well, it’s not ethical to my mind. I believe it is legal. Certainly, police are allowed to lie to people when they’re questioning people, so I assume the FBI is allowed to lie to people too. I was astonished by this so-called ‘pretextual’ word in a lot of these documents. What was astonishing in reading the whole file, 423 pages of it, was how creepy these McCarthyism days were, where your neighbor, your friends, your colleagues, your employers, the landlord, the post office delivery man, I mean, everybody was ratting you out. It was just amazing to me. And the infiltrators they had throughout the Communist Party. I mean, they had Communist Party informants in every chapter around the country, it seems, from reading this big file.”

But these FBI files on Zinn don't just reveal mundane facts; they also reveal how much power the FBI had. They included Zinn in what's called the “Reserve Index, Section A, since he is a professor and writer who has a background of known membership in the Communist Party (CP) and has continued to demonstrate procommunist and anti-United States sympathies.” That's a direct quote from one of the documents. So what does it mean to be on the Reserve Index? The FBI's files on Zinn tell us it “represents a special group of individuals scheduled to receive priority attention with respect to investigation, interrogation, or detention under the terms of the Emergency Detention Program following invoking of the Program and arrest of all Security Index subjects.” Rothschild couldn't believe the FBI considered Zinn a “dangerous individual who might commit acts inimical to the national defense and public safety of the United States in time of an emergency.”

“Well, this was shocking to me. Actually, he was on this list. Originally, J. Edgar Hoover said that he shouldn’t be on the most serious, so called, security risk. What the FBI had, was a program to detain hundreds of thousands of people in times of a national emergency, when a national emergency would be declared by the President, for instance. So they had a list of people whose political beliefs they disagreed with. They were on one of two, or a couple of files. One was called the Reserve Index. This was people who weren’t quite as dangerous, according to the FBI, as the other people who were in the Security Index. Howard Zinn was first put on the Reserve Index, and then Hoover approved putting him on the Security Index. So, the idea that the FBI had this list, and I think a lot of your listeners won’t know this, had this list of hundreds of thousands of people that they’d summarily interrogate and arrest in case of an emergency, that’s shocking. And again, I wonder whether a similar list exists today. Whether the No-Fly List is the comparable list in today’s America.”

WMNF: *“And we know how accurate the No-Fly List is.”*

“Yeah, it doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence when the wrong name is in there; the wrong person with the same name is on there. And we know that there’s been all sorts of mischief – Sen. Ted Kennedy’s name was on the No-Fly List for god’s sakes.”

The FBI even alerted the Secret Service about Zinn. In 2006 Zinn said that the government spying on its citizens can have a chilling effect on free expression.

"Now, what in the world is the government doing recording what citizens do in the normal course of their lives, when they’re exercising their right of free speech or free press. If what you write and what you speak, you begin to feel is being recorded by the government for who knows what reason. Then it has what they call in Constitutional law, chilling effect on your ability to be able to speak freely or write freely. You think that ‘well, I’d better be very careful what I say.’ Well, we shouldn’t have to be very careful of what we say in a democracy where we have a First Amendment, and where freedom of speech is supposedly one of our cherished principles.”

The FBI continued to track Howard Zinn through the Vietnam War, including when Zinn went to North Vietnam to facilitate the release of American war prisoners. The most recent file is from 1974.

Listen to the full 2-part series

Listen to just part 1 of this story

The FBI files on Howard Zinn

The Progressive magazine

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