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

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