Back in the early 1970s, I worked for Pacific News Service (PNS), a small antiwar media outfit that operated out of the Bay Area Institute (BAI), a progressive think tank in San Francisco. The first story I ever wrote for PNS came about because an upset U.S. Air Force medic wanted someone to know about the American war wounded then pouring in from the invasion of Laos. So he snuck me onto Travis Air Force Base in northern California and into a military hospital to interview wigged-out guys with stumps for limbs who thought the war was a disaster. In some cases, they also thought we should have bombed the Vietnamese "back to the stone age."
I was a good boy from the 1950s and sneaking onto that base made me nervous indeed. It was also the most illegal act I encountered at either PNS or the institute in those years. We did, of course, regularly have active duty antiwar soldiers and members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War pass through our office, and we had an antiwar GI in Vietnam writing for us under a pseudonym. (At some point, we found out that the Pentagon had actually tracked down and interviewed every soldier in Vietnam with that pseudonymous name in its attempt to uncover our journalist.)
In any case, we doggedly researched, reported, wrote, and edited our stories on U.S. war policy, which we syndicated, with modest success, to mainstream newspapers as well as what, in those days, was romantically called "the underground press." The only hints of "violence" you might have stumbled across in our office would have been discussions of the violence of U.S. war policy.
So imagine my surprise -- okay, I shouldn't have been, but I was anyway -- when years later one of my co-workers got his FBI files thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request, and it became clear, on reading through those heavily redacted, semi-blacked-out pages, that there had been an informer in our office, spying on us and feeding information to the Bureau. If that was true in a modest place like PNS/BAI, where wouldn't there have been such spies in the world of the antiwar movement? In fact, U.S. government informers and sometimes agents provocateurs were, it seems, a widespread phenomenon of those years. It's a story that has never fully been told, in part obviously because the information to tell it just isn't fully there. By far the best account I've read on the subject, particularly when it comes to agents provocateurs -- government agents sent in to provoke violence -- was a section of Todd Gitlin's 1980 book The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left.
Recently, as Edward Snowden's National Security Agency revelations about the high-tech gathering of global (and domestic) communications of every imaginable sort began unspooling, Gitlin's work came to mind again. I had certainly been aware of how many post-9/11 "terror" cases against American Muslims rested on the acts and testimony of government informers, who sometimes even provided (fake) weaponry to hapless plotters and the spark to begin plotting in the first place. I began to wonder, however, what we didn't know about the low-tech side of America's massive intelligence overreach. So, as the director of TomDispatch.com, I picked up the phone and called Gitlin. The answer, as his piece "The Wonderful American World of Informers and Agents Provocateurs" indicates, is one hell of a horrifying lot. Among the few outfits to pay significant attention to spies and informers in the ranks of groups opposed to some aspect of Washington's policies, the ACLU stands out. In fact, in a map that organization created, "Spying on First Amendment Activity -- State by State," you can take a Mr. Toad's wild ride through what's known of the universe of the twenty-first century American informer. TomDispatch is pleased to follow up with a Mr. Todd's wild ride through the thickets of American intelligence clearly on the march domestically.