Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Surveillance at Indiana University

When secret surveillance files turned up at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) a few years ago, I thought, hey, Indiana University (IU) probably did the same thing. The two universities had much in common, big public institutions in conservative states with legislators fretting about ‘unpatriotic’ student protest against the Vietnam War. For me, the main difference was that Brother Jeff Sharlet was in the thick of antiwar protest at IU in Bloomington from 1964-67.

What could I learn from the Texas story? The Texas trove came to light when the UT campus police chief of the Vietnam era died not long ago. Upon retirement many years earlier, he had simply taken the files home and kept them from public view. They revealed close collaboration and fairly ambitious surveillance ops between the university administration, campus security, and the City of Austin police in keeping clandestine tabs on student activists as well as local hippies.

I assumed the IU campus cops had been similarly hard at work keeping an unobserved eye on their student protestors, especially those like Jeff and his housemate, Bob Johnson*, organizing demonstrations against pro-war campus speakers such as former Vice President Richard Nixon, General Maxwell Taylor, and General Lewis Hershey, the director of Selective Service. The university was headed by Elvis Stahr, President Kennedy’s former Secretary of the Army, who had become increasingly critical of the campus New Left. I expected IU’s surveillance files, once we got our hands on them, would provide the university’s bird’s-eye view of the activist minority at the school.

Bob Johnson under arrest, IU campus demo

I turned first to the Indiana University Archives, but after an extensive search nothing showed up. They had files from the offices of the president and the deans, but other than an odd document or two, nothing from the campus police on the most turbulent period in the institution’s history turned up. Next move was to have Karen contact the current campus police chief as to whereabouts of the files. His answer: there were no files on activists from that period. That might well have been the reply at Texas, I thought, if the old retired chief had not died. I suspected cover-up. Karen and I set out to find the top campus cops of the era, relying for names on the captions below grainy fotos of demonstrations from the IU student paper as well as the fading memories of Jeff’s old friends. Came up with the relevant names, but most were deceased while a few couldn’t be found 40 years later. Turned out they’d been mostly retired senior officers of the Indiana State Police, middle-aged men when hired by IU.

Capt. Dillon, IU security, and Jeff Sharlet

Despair was setting in when a couple of former SDS activists came up with another name, Larry B, a young man they referred to as IU’s one-man 'Red Squad' in the late ‘60s. That sounded promising. He’d probably created the files and surely would know where they were. But first we had to find Larry. We found his candidate profile on the Internet from 1990 when as a deputy sheriff he had run unsuccessfully for sheriff in Monroe County, home of IU. By then, Larry had an extensive law enforcement career behind him as a State Police Academy graduate, head of campus security at two colleges, and a former detective-captain of the IU police. Fortunately for us, he ran again for sheriff in ’06, again with no luck, but this time we located him. Larry B, now deceased, lived in Bloomington, his wife was principal of a local school, and we had a phone number.
Karen rang him in early ’07. He was quite forthcoming. Yes, he’d been the IU 'Red Squad' after finishing his BA degree at the university in ’67. In that capacity, he’d briefed the President Stahr weekly on student activism and served as the university’s liaison with the FBI in nearby Indianapolis (Indy). The catch: the briefings were verbal, hence no paper trail, no surveillance files. Larry didn’t work alone by choice; the campus police wanted to cast a wider net, but didn’t have sufficient personnel or budget to keep track of all the student activist groups. For a time, IU enlisted the State Police in the effort, but the complex task of surveilling a campus of about 30,000 students proved too much for them.

However, Larry was undaunted by his task. He sat in at open meetings of the student left, was easily spotted. He looked younger than he was, could pass for a student, but was familiar to the activists as the personification of the campus 'Red Squad'. He told us he shared an undercover informant, a recent law school grad working for the Dean of Students, who’d infiltrated Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at the university.

During Jeff’s term as rotating president of SDS, he and Jim Wallihan were virtually certain the guy in question was an administration plant and relegated him to stapling newsletters to keep him out of the inner information loop. As Jim said, no doubt the informant rushed copies of the SDS newsletters hot off the press over to the dean’s office. No great coup since it was not ‘classified’ information, but when Karen asked the informer’s name, Larry would only tell us the man had died young. Jim didn’t remember his name, so his reports may well never be known.

However, local, state, and federal law enforcement authorities were not passive at IU. In 1965 a new grad student who’d been involved in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of ‘64 learned his West Coast police file had already been sent to the Bloomington police. In summer of 1966, IU activists who drove to Indianapolis to protest President Johnson’s speech were intercepted by the Indy police and Secret Service and arrested. Karen was one of the group. The local cops had provided their license plate numbers. That fall, officers of the IU Dubois Club, an ‘Old Left’ group, defied a university ban by showing up at the Student Activities Fair, were arrested, and brought before the county court. A year later when a Dow Chemical interviewer was blocked by a sit-in at the IU Business School, Bloomington cops, county sheriffs, and the State Police responded in full riot gear. There was blood.

Dwight Worker being dragged, IU, Dow demo '67

Last but hardly least, the Indianapolis FBI was active on campus, even going as far as writing warning letters to parents of student activists. One of Jeff’s SDS co-leaders, whose house was used for meetings was regularly visited by an FBI agent. She never let him in, figuring it was an intimidation tactic. Decades later, when another young IU woman who’d been a leader of the Young Socialist Alliance filed a FOIA request for her FBI file, she received a packet the size of a small city phone book. Although names on the FBI field office’s documents were blacked out, it was evident from context that agents had the cooperation of 10 sources at the university. Although once considered a serious threat to US national security, the woman went on to a stellar career as New York State Assistant Attorney General.

Finally, the FBI employed a favorite disinformation mechanism at IU – they covertly distributed an underground paper to compete with the campus alternative press, The Spectator. The FBI called theirs Armageddon News, but it fooled no one, was even criticized as clumsy by J. Edgar Hoover himself, and ceased publication after a few issues.

*We’ve searched for Bob Johnson for several years without luck and hence listed him on the Web site for Jeff’s missing friends at

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

'60's Surveillance Culture

Searching for brother Jeff Sharlet hasn’t always turned up friendly sources. Occasionally, I’ve stumbled across hidden adversaries of the Vietnam antiwar movement, in effect, spies working for the FBI, for university authorities, state police, and occasionally even for the odd sheriff here or there. That the civilian arm of the antiwar movement, not to mention the manifestations of GI protest, troubled the government should surprise no one. Not just the federal government writ large, but its parts such as the Department of the Army; municipal governments which spawned their own undercover outfits; and a number of public universities, especially in conservative states where legislators took a dim view of the New Left, were also in the surveillance game.

The FBI operated through its field offices in every major and large provincial city, the Army through its counter intelligence units. Certain city police departments, such as Chicago’s, created a ‘Red Squad’. Surveillance methods varied from university to university – at the University of Texas, campus security collaborated with the City of Austin police, whereas Indiana University made do with a one-man Red Squad which liaised with the FBI in the state capital.

Methods varied. The FBI was fond of surreptitiously sowing disinformation so as to create mutual distrust within and between student groups. Army intelligence was not terribly creative, just basically hunting down soldier-editors of underground papers on bases, and harassing GI coffee houses located off-base in nearby towns. City cops detailed for Red Squad work usually busied themselves with maintaining clipping files on ‘known agitators’ in their communities, while university police favored planting secret informants at student left meetings, not awfully difficult to pull off since most campus meetings were open by design.

The breakthrough in public awareness of the ‘60s surveillance culture came in 1971 when anonymous activists styling themselves the ‘Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI’ broke into a small town FBI office in eastern Pennsylvania and carried away over 1,000 documents revealing past and current FBI activities to suppress dissent, including the New Left and antiwar movement. Soon after, the activists who made the break-in began anonymously mailing packages of FBI documents to major media outlets which in turn made them public. Among the documents for example were several describing an operation against Swarthmore College activists for which the FBI recruited the services of a local police chief, the mailman, and a college switchboard operator.

Discovered in the trove of stolen papers was the acronym for the FBI’s secret umbrella program for countering dissent in America – COINTELPRO or ‘Counter Intelligence Program’. Later in the ‘70s, it also came to light that the CIA was secretly and illegally conducting anti-dissident operations against American citizens within the United States under a far-reaching program called CHAOS. At the local level, the campus newspaper at Chicago’s Roosevelt University exposed many of the city’s Red Squad’s capers.

Based on the FBI's COINTELPRO documents from the '71 break-in

In recent years, a liberal periodical, the ‘Texas Observer’, got hold of and published the long secret surveillance files of the Austin police and the campus cops at University of Texas. Finally, a few years ago, a former Vietnam-era Army lieutenant published a memoir, ‘Vietnam Awakening’, about his time as an intelligence officer at Fort Hood in Texas. One of his assignments, which he quietly botched, was to set up and compromise the antiwar GI coffee house in nearby Killeen, the ‘Oleo Strut’, so it could be declared off-limits to military personnel, no doubt a template for similar military intelligence ops at other training bases throughout the country.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Searches – Spectacular Shortfalls: Suzy Creamcheese

"Suzy Creamcheese." I naively thought what a strange name until Karen enlightened me. It was the name of a fictional character in a Frank Zappa song, a moniker obviously given my brother’s Chicago girlfriend. Inquiring among the Chicago Vietnam GI crowd, we came upon her real name, Susan Rosenberg, by all accounts a free spirit combining a lifestyle of counterculture irreverence and New Left seriousness. Everyone remembered her vividly, but she’d been neither seen nor heard from in years.

Several of the group thought she was still in Chicago, her hometown. Susie came from a well-to-do family; at the time she was neither a college girl nor did she hold a job. At one point we thought we’d spotted her in a photo from a recent reunion of SDS in Ann Arbor MI, the organization from ‘60s Students for a Democratic Society, but it proved a false lead. Another time we got the notion she might be a psychotherapist specializing in drug counseling with an address on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive. Bill O’Brien, a great friend to the project, left no stone unturned checking that one out, even drove by the presumed address, all to no avail.

Chicago Skyline and Gold Coast Beaches along The Drive

Then one day a notice crossed my desk, Susan Rosenberg, former Weatherman, ex-Federal prisoner, would be speaking at Hamilton College not far from where I live. She’d become a writer in prison and would speak in a program dedicated to edgy topics. I figured this was it, we’d finally found Susie Creamcheese. Made sense she could’ve drifted into Weatherman, the radical faction that split from SDS in ‘69, and it wasn’t surprising she would’ve served time, a number of them did. Susan herself had been a fugitive into the ‘80s until caught unloading weapons and dynamite from a car.

I contacted the Comparative Lit prof running the speaker’s program, told her the story of Jeff and Susie, said I planned to attend the talk, asked if I could have a chance for a personal word. Coincidentally, the professor was related to a well-known radical defense lawyer who, with his partner Leonard Boudin, took on challenging cases of left activists. Under furious siege from Hamilton alumni and all over the national press for inviting a Weatherman formerly committed to violence, the professor welcomed my collegial interest, even invited me to the private dinner for the speaker.

I was going to meet the elusive Susan face to face. Actually I’d spoken with her by phone decades earlier though I didn’t know it at the time. It was mid- ’69 as Brother Jeff lay dying in the Miami Veteran’s Administration (VA) hospital, though I didn’t know that at the time either. The date was June 15th, I had plane tickets for two days hence to visit Jeff and confer again with his doctors. That afternoon I got a phone call from the hospital, the voice of a young woman, extremely upset. Told me to come down right away, “They’re killing Jeff.” She didn’t give a name. Tried to calm her, said I’d look right into it.

Her call stunned, puzzled me, my parents had assured me Jeff’s condition was stable since I last saw him in March. Corresponding with him gave me no reason to think otherwise. I immediately called my father. Yes, he was aware of the young woman’s agitation, told me she was high strung, everything was alright, I should come as planned. Reassured, I went back to tying up loose ends so I’d have no distractions in Miami. The next day, June 16, 1969, the phone rang again, my father in a choked voice, “Bob, Jeff’s gone.” Darkest moment of my life.

As I learned only several years ago, the young woman sounding the alarm had been Susie ‘Creamcheese’ Rosenberg. Jeff’s Chicago friends had made the long trip down to see him, Susie the only woman in the group. Would it have made a difference if I had heeded her call? Not likely, Jeff’s end was at hand, but I might have been at his bedside. Goddamn.

All this I intended to say to Susie out in Clinton NY. Meanwhile, with the unfriendly media attention focused on little Hamilton College, a contemporary picture of Susan Rosenberg surfaced, a nice-looking, dark-haired woman no worse the wear for 16 years in prison. With success near at hand, I shared the photo with Bill O’Brien who’d known Susie well. By return email back came the news -- that wasn’t Jeff’s Susie, a blonde and much shorter.

Alas, sheepishly, I wrote my Hamilton colleague cancelling my trip, mistaken identity. In the end it didn’t matter, Susan Rosenberg the writer spared Hamilton further grief by gracefully withdrawing from the gig. Meanwhile, Karen and I still search for Susie ‘Creamcheese’ Rosenberg, she’s listed on our mini-website below for missing friends. Where are you, old friend of Jeff’s?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Searches – Spectacular Shortfalls: The Case of Zeke

A tale to nowhere. As editor of Vietnam GI (VGI), Jeff Sharlet formed a Vietnam Veterans Advisory Committee. They were listed on the masthead by name, rank, and branch of service – GIs, a Marine, and an airman. Several served as associate or contributing editors for one issue or another. A couple of them were already well known public figures in GI protests then emerging against the war. One later became a notorious outlaw, former Marine Lance Cpl. William Harris, better known as a co-founder of the notorious Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).

I had hoped to talk with all, but found only a few. By the time I arrived on the scene as Jeff’s memoirist, two of the GIs had long before committed suicide, and one had died just before we learned his whereabouts. The two we did locate have been of great importance to the project, while two others, still ‘missing in action’, sat with Jeff for long interviews on their combat experiences.

Jan Barry Crumb (later just Jan Barry), a founder of Vietnam Veterans against the War in ’67, lent his name to the Advisory Committee and also served as sub-editor for early issues. Joseph Carey, Jeff’s fellow Indiana University (IU) graduate, had been a combat photographer with the 25th Infantry at Cu Chi and brought home a trove of photos Jeff used in VGI, shots much too edgy for the divisional monthly, but that’s a separate story.

Pfc. Jan Barry Crumb, Vietnam, ‘63 and Sp4 Joseph Carey, Cu Chi, RVN, ‘66

Karen turned up another committee member, let’s call him Zeke to protect his privacy, and I followed up. A local Chicago boy, Zeke returned home after Nam, co-founded a coffee house where he and Jeff crossed paths while Jeff was at University of Chicago grad school during Fall term ’67. When Jeff dropped out and used his Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to launch VGI as the first GI-led paper addressed to GIs, Zeke agreed to join the committee and even served briefly as an associate editor. 

Zeke was not easy for Karen to find, he had migrated to the West Coast and there were many men with his surname out there. A friend of his, Jim Wallihan, a very close comrade in arms of Jeff’s at IU and in Chicago, had mentioned the name of Zeke’s wife. Though Zeke couldn’t be found, his wife turned up on the Internet, she’d listed their phone number.

Normally, I tried to approach people by email, introducing myself as Jeff’s older brother and describing what I’m up to – a softer approach since I’m a complete stranger to them seeking memories from the distant ‘60s. We had no email for Zeke, so no choice, called him cold turkey. Up to that point my inquiries had been received in a friendly way, but not this time. Through the phone I felt Zeke’s fury, how did I get this unlisted number? Told him of his wife’s posting which just increased his anger.

Apologized for disturbing him, quickly delivered my pitch, “What can you tell me about Jeff and VGI?” Zeke calmed a bit, said, “Very little,” he’d merely lent his name, wasn’t actually involved. Asked how I could be reached should anything occur to him, I said thanks and was about to sign off when Zeke tossed out, “Look for Suzy Creamcheese, Jeff’s girlfriend.” My three minutes of his time up, Zeke rang off abruptly.

I sat for a moment, bewildered by the violence of his reaction. Knew he was holding out – I’d been told he and Jeff hung out, he’d even helped get an issue to press. Because his father owned a bar popular with the cops, someone even suggested Zeke may have been an informer for the Chicago Red Squad inside the VGI. Was that it, what the hell was going on? Later, someone told me Zeke had become a cop, apparently got caught burgling and did time. He’d left Chicago and his past behind, clearly didn’t want it revisited in a book. Understood, I wouldn’t either if I were him. Hence my phone call to nowhere – well, not quite, as the reader shall see next in the final spectacular shortfall.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Searches - Spectacular Shortfalls: The ASA Ditty Bopper

While successful searches became the norm, from time to time we suffered dramatic setbacks. We were following faint, even cold dead-end trails, but occasionally tracks led us to a cliff’s edge and nearly into the abyss. Fortunately we survived several spectacular shortfalls.

Early on, Karen came across a web site brimming with information and even photos of the Army Security Agency (ASA) in Vietnam. Run by ex-Vietnam GIs, it was a place to post stories and pictures of ASA stations throughout the war zone. Most postings were lighthearted, some serious, all very circumspect about what they were actually doing as ditty boppers (Morse code operators), lingy’s (linguists), and crypts (cryptographers). It was an online reunion awash in nostalgia, a site where middle-aged men revisited their past, for many the most exciting chapter of their lives. Though the Vietnam War ended in failure for our side, the ex-GIs on the site remained mostly at peace with the mission.

Karen inquired if anyone stationed at ASA’s Detachment J in Phu Bai, knew Jeff Sharlet? A career ASA trooper, a Midwesterner, responded and offered to help. A former ditty bopper at Phu Bai, he didn’t know Jeff personally, but promised to ask around. Arriving a few months after Jeff left and remaining through the major escalation of spring '65, he gave us a sense of the changing security situation at the base. During Jeff’s tour enemy activity was rare, but after he finished his tour, there were occasional Vietcong probes which by early ’65 became more frequent – so much so that a year after Jeff rotated, in May ’65, a battalion of combat Marines arrived to guard the "spooks" – as Marine Cpl. Dave Reinhardt called them.

Accommodations, Phu Bai, ‘63-‘64

Our ASA source, a friendly but suspicious guy, wanted to know what we were up to. Karen patiently fielded his queries, describing Jeff, herself, my background; along the way he filled us in on life at the tiny outpost – trips outside the wire for training on crew-fired weapons (light machine guns, bazookas), and off-duty excursions to Hue, the ancient capital 15 klics (kilometers) away where they toured the old Citadel and dropped by the French bistro, Le Cercle Sportif, for buffalo steaks, pommes frites (fries), cokes and probably something stronger. Still, his probing queries about the memoir project continued, laced with warnings: no direct quotes, no attribution. A nervous guy.

Then in the course of their correspondence, Karen mentioned Jeff’s later work with 'Vietnam GI', his antiwar paper – we had no secrets. The Morse operator abruptly cut the wire, no more communications period. We were shocked, the war was history for us, but then we reflected. A professional soldier for more than a quarter of a century into the ‘90s, the man had served throughout the Far East and elsewhere in the global US intelligence community – doubtless with dedication. Proud of his career service, on retirement he no doubt got the same debrief I did on leaving ASA-Europe in the ‘50s: divulge no classified information or suffer prison and a heavy fine. What I’d been doing in Germany and Jeff in Vietnam had long been the stuff of history, but our man in the Midwest was still the bearer of more recent sensitive information.

What did Karen and I learn from the encounter? Many years and several wars later, we couldn’t assume that ex-GIs we found, even the ASA elite, shared our antiwar perspective. On the contrary, for many, regardless of history’s verdict, their part in the Vietnam War represented a closely guarded chapter of their personal biography. We were learning.