WASHINGTON — The first entry in the FBI file is dated Oct. 8, 1965: A bureau informant has picked up word that Cesar Chavez, the charismatic migrant worker who was seeking to organize California farm laborers, "possibly has a subversive background."
The informant "was quite vague" about the information, the FBI report says, but another confidential source "has a file on Chavez allegedly showing a communist background." Moreover, this second tipster said others in Chavez's organization, then called the National Farm Workers Assn., "allegedly have subversive backgrounds," although "he had no specific indication . . . on any of the individuals he named."
Thus began the surveillance and infiltration of the farm workers movement by the FBI. Prompted by rumor and hearsay, the shadowing of Chavez under the administrations of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon would continue for more than seven years, involving hundreds of agents nationwide at extensive public cost.
This resulted in a 1,434-page FBI file--a copy of which was obtained by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act--but little else. The reports say more about the practices of the FBI under its longtime director, J. Edgar Hoover, than they do about Chavez and his union. Despite keeping tabs on marches, picketing and meetings from Delano, Calif., the site of a prolonged strike and the union's headquarters, to New York City, no evidence of Communist or subversive influence was ever developed.
"It was a witch hunt and an exercise in guilt by association," said Jerry Cohen, who was general counsel to the farm workers union and has reviewed the FBI documents. "I was just amazed at how dumb and what a waste it was--and to what extent the abuse went on."
Given Hoover's well-documented excesses in pursuing suspected Communist influences, it is hardly surprising that the FBI kept an eye on one of the country's best-known labor leaders and most prominent Mexican Americans. But as the Clinton Administration and Congress consider strengthening domestic surveillance programs to combat terrorism in the wake of the April 19 Oklahoma City bombing, the voluminous Chavez file stands as a cautionary reminder of an era when spying on outspoken Americans for dubious reasons was routine.
The FBI declined to comment on the Chavez file but noted that it was "collected during an earlier era in our history when different concerns drove the government, the news media and public sentiment." A bureau spokesman added: "Under today's laws and guidelines, this kind of investigation would not be initiated by the FBI."
Ramsey Clark, who served as attorney general during the Johnson Administration, said he was unaware that the farm workers were being spied upon.
"It was something that I would have opposed," Clark said in a recent interview. "It's absolutely incredible that they would be subject to surreptitious surveillance and investigation that would probably be in violation of the Constitution of the United States."
To many, Chavez was a hero, an apostle of nonviolent protest who spearheaded the first successful farm workers union and a national boycott of grapes. His accomplishments included the passage of a 1975 California law that guaranteed farm workers union elections with secret ballots. The dynamic labor leader, who died in 1993, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year, when President Clinton hailed him as "a Moses figure" for his people.
But to the 1960s-era FBI, Chavez was a potential threat. The memoranda and Teletypes in the file show the bureau alerting the military, local law enforcement agencies and the Secret Service about upcoming farm worker activities. Hoover himself was kept apprised of even mundane developments. At times, the extent of the FBI preoccupation took on almost comic aspects.
In March of 1972, for example, the Nixon Administration got wind of plans by the farm workers to stage a protest at an appearance by then-Vice President Spiro T. Agnew in New York City. The report indicated that about 50 people were expected to participate.
After Hoover alerted Nixon and Agnew, a force of no fewer than 72 FBI agents descended on the Americana Hotel to watch and gather information. They saw about 50 orderly demonstrators picket and chant for about an hour before dispersing. Among the items deemed noteworthy was a banner that declared: "The Republican Party Hates the United Farm Workers."
This episode was not uncommon, according to the bureau reports. On numerous occasions, FBI agents closely watched peaceful marches, pickets and demonstrations by farm workers demanding the right to organize for better wages and working conditions. Arrests were rare. Often, Chavez or other farm worker activists were depicted associating with such figures as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Jesse Jackson, then-Rep. Edward I. Koch or entertainer Steve Allen rather than Communist agitators.