06/13/2013 12:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Recalling Dad's Encounter With Intensive Government Monitoring

At age 55 and dull, part of me buys the case that it's better to lose a little bit of privacy for a whole lot of security.

So the government wants to monitor me? Okay. I have nothing to hide and you, poor investigator, run the risk of dying of boredom.

But that's today when I have nothing to hide and little to fear.

In the tumultuous 1950s and 1960s, the story might have been different, something my dad reminded me of as he lay dying of cancer in the summer of 1993.

"'Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious' kept me out of prison," dad said, seemingly apropos of nothing.

My brother Dave and I just looked at each other. Dad, paralyzed and sometimes groggy from morphine in the weeks before he died, had a tendency to time-shift. At some moments, he was still editor of the Oakland Tribune, running news meetings. At others, he was fully aware of being in the present and in the hospital.

He knew that we had our doubts about this particular moment, so he clearly and succinctly recalled the day he took me to see Mary Poppins, after stopping en route to visit friends who had a gift for me.


I remember the day. I loved presents and was very excited about seeing Mary Poppins. We reached the theater late because we stopped for the gift. We sat through the next showing to catch up on what we had missed.

At that point, Dad rose to leave. I stayed rooted to my seat. I would not be moved. He ended up seeing so much of Mary Poppins that he could probably say "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" backwards. That is what dad told the grand jury.

This was 1964. The country was in turmoil, and apparently the friends we visited were accused of being part of a radical group suspected of being on the verge of carrying out an act of domestic terrorism. Dad's presence with them that day made him suspect. My refusal to leave Mary Poppins gave him an alibi.

Obviously, spying then was not as high tech, but for some people, it was just as intrusive. Almost 10 years after dad died, a former colleague, then running the York (Pa.) Daily Record, where dad launched his journalism career, called to tell me that the paper was requesting dad's FBI file.

As I recall, the contents were pretty innocuous. But the fact is that he had a file. That visit, coupled with the fact that he worked for what the FBI deemed an "anti-FBI" newspaper, was enough to keep him under the FBI's watchful eye for 10 months, according to the story in York Daily Record. He was not the only one.

With the Counterintelligence Program, otherwise known as COINTELPRO, in full swing, the FBI was spying on U.S. citizens and infiltrating groups nationwide.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a target. The NAACP was a target. The American Indian Movement was a target. Students for a Democratic Society was a target. Women Strike for Peace was a target. All were probed in the name of national security.

The results were not always as benign as in the case of my dad.

As Peter Christian Hall wrote in The Huffington Post in January 2010, a 1975 Senate committee investigating COINTELPRO found that the FBI

"...broke into homes and mailboxes; created bogus documents to frame targets as government informers; tried to break up marriages with anonymous letters, and jobs with secret tips to employers; sent letters encouraging violence between street gangs and the Black Panther Party; sought to stir up tax audits; and dispatched agents provocateurs to discredit antiwar groups with unpopular and unsuitable activities."

And it was done to keep us safe.

So, no, I don't want to see another 9/11 or Boston Marathon bombing. But I also don't want to see another COINTELPRO. It's true that saying where that line lies is difficult. It's also true that saying where it lies if done in complete secrecy will be impossible.

As a nation, we must have this debate, one about our future that very much needs to be informed by our past.