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Of Dangerous Dossiers and Endangered Depositories

April 10, 1988|JACK MILES | Times Book Editor

DANGEROUS DOSSIERS Exposing the Secret War Against America's Greatest Authors by Herbert Mitgang (Donald I. Fine: $18.95; 330 pp.) LESS ACCESS TO LESS INFORMATION BY AND ABOUT THE U.S. GOVERNMENT A 1981-1987 Chronology (American Library Assn., 50 Huron St., Chicago, Ill. 60611: $7; 104 pp. )

The federal government is gathering information at your expense, but your chances of getting that information are shrinking. This is the message of two current, very different but finally complementary books: Herbert Mitgang's "Dangerous Dossiers: Exposing the Secret War Against America's Greatest Authors" and the American Library Assn.'s "Less Access to Less Information by and about the U.S. Government: A 1981-1987 Chronology."

The first of these books looks at information that should never have been gathered in the first place, though it continues to be jealously guarded at taxpayer expense. The second book looks at useful information once routinely disseminated but now in danger of being "privatized"; that is, handed over to for-profit agencies that will sell it back to the citizens who paid for it in the first place.

"Dangerous Dossiers" is the story of CIA-FBI espionage against American writers, a story put together by Herbert Mitgang from the government dossiers on dozens of writers, material released to him--albeit in piecemeal, highly censored form--under the Freedom of Information Act. The extent of the surveillance is staggering: 800 pages on John Steinbeck alone. The cost of the surveillance is equally staggering. John Kenneth Galbraith's file includes the report of a "Full Field Investigation" of him in 1950 that involved agents in Washington, New York, Boston, Chicago, Newark, Detroit, Albany and St. Louis, not to speak of England and Canada. Galbraith, an economist, told Mitgang that his file, counting overhead, must have cost the American taxpayer hundreds of thousands of dollars. " 'By a wide margin,' he said, 'it was the most expensively researched enterprise with which I have ever been associated.' "

By law, Mitgang, a New York Times correspondent and past president of the Authors Guild, could obtain information only on himself and on deceased authors. However, after he published some of his findings in The New Yorker last fall, several writers or artists (including cartoonist Bill Mauldin) who had requested their own surveillance files shared them with him.

There are moments of low comedy in these files. One learned informant characterized Galbraith to an FBI agent as "doctrinaire," but that word was evidently not in the agent's vocabulary. Instead, the file refers to "Doctorware," whom the agent took to be one of Galbraith's radical mentors; "Doctorware," later "Dr. Ware," had a long career in the Galbraith file.

But there is nothing funny about the deeper ignorance of those who thought to protect the country by creating loyalty files on people like Galbraith. The depth of the domestic spies' ignorance appears with painful clarity in a secret memo sent in 1942 by Archibald MacLeish, then a member of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Cabinet, to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. MacLeish wrote:

"As reports on employees in the Office of Facts and Figures come to me through the Division of Investigation at OEM (Office for Emergency Management), I notice the recurrence of the phrase that the applicant is said to be 'associated with various liberal and Communistic groups.' This suggests that investigators have been told to consider liberalism as suspicious. Knowing your feeling on this matter, I am sure that no such instructions ever came from you.

"For the sake of our reputation in the history books, don't you think it would be a good thing if all investigators could be made to understand that liberalism is not only not a crime but actually the attitude of the President of the United States and the greater part of his Administration?"

Hoover replied that the quoted comments did not "reflect any opinions or the policy of the FBI"; but even as he wrote, he was maintaining a file hundreds of pages long on MacLeish himself. MacLeish was then or soon would be librarian of Congress, three-time Pulitzer-Prize winner, assistant director of the Office of War Information, assistant secretary of state, etc., etc.--the very picture of the scholar-statesman and poet-patriot. But as for him, so also for E. B. White, Sinclair Lewis, Pearl S. Buck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Carl Sandburg, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Thomas Wolfe, Dorothy Parker, John O'Hara, and about two dozen others whose files Mitgang obtained. Once it came about that liberalism--nay, the mere suspicion of liberalism--brought with it a presumption of disloyalty, there were few writers left who seemed entirely loyal. There may be files on hundreds of writers other than those Mitgang had time to inquire about.

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