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Take Three / Three views of the Southland | PATT MORRISON

Exhuming the Ex-Files

April 03, 1998|PATT MORRISON

To: State Senate Subcommittee on Un-American Activities

From: Undercover operator GPU

CONFIDENTIAL . . . Update on surveillance of subjects

Subject #67: Young male. Illegitimate. Known to lie flagrantly and repeatedly.

Subject #104: Daughter of important public figure. Juvenile delinquent (runaway). Now cohabiting with seven men, none of whom she is married to.

Subject #18: Purported children's role model is adult male who still wears short pants, red in color. (Poss. sexual deviant? And why "Young Pioneer" attire?)

Subject #145: Cleaning woman trying to infiltrate the ranks of her betters (poss. Red agitator?). May use non-Christian methods (i.e., witchcraft) to gain access.

* True names: Subject #67--Pinocchio. Subject #104--Snow White. Subject #18--Mickey Mouse. Subject #145 -- Cinderella.

*

See how easily it's done?

A wink, a hint, a slightly canted word, and it's there, in black and white, for years, for decades and now perhaps for all to see.

Sealed off like toxic waste in the state's archives, in 80 crates of files so hot they should have self-combusted, are six decades of innuendo and gossip on the personal conduct or misconduct of 20,000 Californians, all of it the handiwork of a tag-along little California Senate committee that wanted to play the big boys' game as it was being played in Washington by the likes of Joseph McCarthy. The name of the game was Commie-hunting.

By all accounts, they got plenty of nothing, and cast a wide net to get it, practically counting liquor bottles and scanning hotel registers for those twin pillars of hard-line Stalinism, drunkenness and adultery. They vacuumed up "dirt" not only on politicians but also on athletes and singers and actors and student activists. (No doubt there were some real villains out there to be unmasked, but these elected Clouseaus were hardly the ones to do it.)

Even the political content often couldn't pass a London tabloid's smell test: "Subject accused by [name] as being Democratic liberal and among the first to raise the alarm against Sam Yorty running for mayor of Los Angeles."

The raw data stayed secret, but even what was published by the subcommittee, in annual reports with red covers, left reporters flummoxed: How could they possibly print any of this?

Jerry Gillam covered the Capitol for more than 30 years for The Times, and now writes for the Kiplinger California Letter. "What could we write and not be sued for libel or slander? . . . When you got [the report], you looked for something innocuous, like, 'The report said the Cold War and Communism were linked together.' Everyone knew you just couldn't be sure of this stuff."

This went on until 1971, when the moribund committee was disbanded after the new Senate leader found himself on file for such deplorable conduct as attending a conference of the longshoremen's union, right in his own district, and getting an unsolicited subscription to a Communist Party newspaper.

The senator, James Mills, had sequestered the crates, thinking they'd be made available in the future to those "who had good reason for looking at them"--like a scholar writing a biography of John Steinbeck, who by any reckoning is surely in those files.

Now that the crates may be opened under a 50-year-release policy governing records, the baldfaced scurrility of it all--well, "that could be a problem." Mills says. "All that personal libel . . . the state could be liable by releasing it. This kind of file is not what was contemplated with that 50-year rule, this junk on people's private lives."

Extra, extra, read all about it--30 years of peephole politics.

*

Now comes the guessing game of who might be in there: the muckraker Jessica Mitford, whose expose was a 9.0 upheaval of the American funeral industry. Helen Gahagan Douglas, the congresswoman Richard Nixon slyly suggested was "pink right down to her underwear." Mario Savio, Berkeley's free speech firebrand. Political dynast Jerry Brown, who protested the execution of "Red-Light Bandit" Caryl Chessman even as his father the governor reluctantly signed the warrant.

Los Angeles had a taste of this, more recent than the "Red Squad" of the 1930s. The LAPD's Public Disorder Intelligence Division closed up shop in 1983 after a lawsuit revealed that the definition of "disorder" had extended to 131 organizations and individuals, among them the First Unitarian Church.

It's hard to credit nowadays, when we're so fed up with politics and so overfed on mindless amusements that there's precious little political activity worth reporting on . . . but the surveillance and infiltration of suspect groups was so pervasive into the 1970s that a political cartoon showed the supreme moment: An undercover agent revealed himself to arrest his "comrades"--and found that they were all undercover agents, too.

Patt Morrison's e-mail address is patt.morrison@latimes.com

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