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FBI Shadowed Kerry During Activist Era

Records show agents and informants found no evidence of illegal activity. The extent of monitoring in the 1970s troubles the candidate.

March 22, 2004|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

As a high-profile activist who crossed the country criticizing the Nixon administration's role in the Vietnam War, John F. Kerry was closely monitored by FBI agents for more than a year, according to intelligence documents reviewed by The Times.

In 1971, in the months after the Navy veteran and decorated war hero argued before Congress against continued U.S. involvement in the conflict, the FBI stepped up its infiltration of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the protest group Kerry helped direct, the files show.

The FBI documents indicate that wherever Kerry went, agents and informants were following -- including appearances at VVAW-sponsored antiwar events in Washington; Kansas City, Mo.; Oklahoma City; and Urbana, Ill. The FBI recorded the content of his speeches and took photographs of him and fellow activists, and the dispatches were filed to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and President Nixon.

The files contain no information or suggestion that Kerry broke any laws. And a 1972 memorandum on the FBI's decision to end its surveillance of him said the agency had discovered "nothing whatsoever to link the subject with any violent activity."

Kerry, now the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, has long known he was a target of FBI surveillance, but only last week learned the extent of the scrutiny, he told The Times. The information was provided by Gerald Nicosia, a Bay Area author who obtained thousands of pages of FBI intelligence files and who gave copies of some documents to The Times.

The FBI files shed new light on an early chapter in Kerry's public life and are another example of the extent to which the U.S. intelligence apparatus monitored and investigated groups opposed to government policies during the Vietnam era, especially the Hoover-run FBI.

FBI harassment of some activists and leaders in the antiwar and civil rights movements -- including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- was exposed after Hoover's death in 1972, and reforms were mandated in the bureau to prevent such abuses and restore public confidence.

The files reviewed by The Times on Kerry do not show that the FBI engaged in any illegal actions in its surveillance of him. But the documents also show the lengths the government went to investigate not only Kerry, but the VVAW and other antiwar groups.

Intelligence officials referred to the VVAW in their reports as the "New Left." "Due to abundant indications of subversive influence, we are actively investigating VVAW," read one FBI report from 1971.

The documents could become an important resource for historians because they show the extent of U.S. government surveillance directed against an individual who, three decades later, may become president.

They also suggest that Kerry's memories of some of his antiwar activities, including the date he left his position on the VVAW national steering committee, were inaccurate. Kerry has stated that he left the group in the summer of 1971, but the files show that he did not quit until the late fall of that year.

Kerry said he was troubled by the scope of the monitoring documented in the papers.

"I'm surprised by [the] extent of it," he said in an interview. "I'm offended by the intrusiveness of it. And I'm disturbed that it was all conducted absent of some showing of any legitimate probable cause. It's an offense to the Constitution. It's out of order."

Kerry told The Times that knowing the scope of the government surveillance against him had made him more conscious of selecting the right people to run intelligence agencies. If elected president, he said, he would appoint an attorney general "who knows how to enforce laws in a way that balances law enforcement with our tradition of civil liberties."

"Today's FBI isn't the FBI of J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI of today is on the front lines of the war on terror, and it's critical that they be effective," he said. "But the experience of having been spied on for the act of engaging in peaceful patriotic protest makes you respect the civil liberties and the Constitution even more."

Kerry said that in 1987, two years after assuming office as a senator from Massachusetts, he requested and received an FBI dossier on himself. He later told aides it was "boring," and mostly included news clippings. The senator was apparently unaware that a much larger file existed that included reports on his activities as a VVAW leader.

Kerry said he was disturbed by "this extensive component of spying" on him that wasn't in his file. "If I was the subject of individual surveillance and individual tape recordings, I'd have thought it would have been released to me," he said.

Fourteen boxes of FBI files standing 12 feet high have been sitting for five years at Nicosia's home in Corte Madera.

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