Compromised Campus: The Collaboration of Universities with the Intelligence Community, 1945-1955.
As the use of the Freedom of Information Act by such researchers as Columbia University sociologist Sigmund Diamond has revealed, the F.B.I. did more than just collect files. It disseminated them as well. During the 1940s and 1950s, leaks of incriminating information to politicians, journalists and private employers fueled the anticommunist furor and shored up the blacklist that gave McCarthyism its bite. Nowhere was that blacklist as effective as on the nation's campuses' where nervous administrators collaborated with the bureau in the hopes of warding off potential embarrassment.
Diamond was a victim of that collaboration; he lost a job at Harvard in 1954 when he would not give names to the F.B.I. His present study, an exploration of the hypocrisy and self-delusion that characterized the academy's relationship with the bureau and other branches of the federal government, may well be his revenge. But his is not a personal vendetta. The corruption he exposes is systemic, part of the process through which the American university transformed itself into an arm of the state.
Because of the obstacles that confront anyone who tries to unearth the most tightly held secrets of powerful public and private institutions, Diamond's evidence is less complete than he would like and the scope of his survey accordingly less broad. His inquiry covers only the universities' relations with the F.B.I. and the collaboration of people in Russian studies programs with the State Department and the military. He does not, for example, even begin to look at how the growth of big science affected the relationship between the academy and the federal government.
Still, what he has found is damning. At least in the areas of government-academic collaboration that he explores, deception and secrecy seem to be endemic. Kremlinologists, for example, had enlisted so enthusiastically in the cold war that they readily compromised their intellectual independence. The head of the Russian Research Center at Harvard encouraged his graduate students to write dissertations on topics suggested by the State Department. At Columbia, a study of urban areas by the Bureau of Applied Social Research helped the Air Force develop "more dependable methods of the selection of air targets." In what, for Diamond, was perhaps the most egregious moral lapse of all, several academics, the eminent sociologist Talcott Parsons among them, tried to smuggle a suspected Nazi war criminal into the United States [see Jon Wiener, "Talcott Parsons' Role: Bringing Nazi Sympathizers to the U.S.," March 6, 1989].
The academy's relationship with the F.B.I. was just as corrupt--violating people's rights and bolstering political repression. It may also have been illegal. After all, the bureau was not authorized to operate a political blacklist, and its files were supposed to be inviolate. As Diamond and other scholars have discovered, Hoover devoted at least as much energy to covering up his organization's illicit activities as he did to investigating crime. In order to maintain the bureau's reputation for professionalism and nonpartisanship, Hoover and his aides invariably denied they were leaking information. Whistleblowers who called attention to the F.B.I.'s illegalities were themselves targeted and rendered impotent by redbaiting and official repression. More important, the recipients of the leaks, who usually knew quite well what the bureau was up to, collaborated in the cover-up in order to remain in Hoover's good graces and keep the pipeline open.
At neither Harvard nor Yale, the two universities that he studied, did Diamond find any reluctance to work with the F.B.I. The bureau collected and disseminated information at both schools and it did so on a grand scale. As of 1954, the F.B.I. had at least forty-two separate case files on Harvard alone--and those dealt only with organizations, not individuals.
There may have been almost as many informers. The bureau still guards their identities, but Diamond has discovered a few of them. Some, like William F. Buckley Jr., may have collaborated out of patriotism. Others, like the director of the Harvard Observatory, who had problems with his own security clearance, may have been acting in self-defense. But F.B.I. files do not reveal what motivated Henry Kissinger to intercept his students' mail and forward selected tidbits to the bureau.
Actually, most of the information the F.B.I. received from the academic community came through official channels. The arrangements seem to have been made at the highest levels and reflected the universities' institutional interest in working with the government. Harvard may well have had a full-time liaison on campus; Yale, which unlike Harvard gave Diamond access to its archives, certainly did.
He was H.B. Fisher, a former Methodist minister who had been policing the university since the 1920s. Originally hired to handle students' problems with women and booze, Fisher took on more political duties during and after World War 11. By the early 1950s he was coordinating Yale's contacts with the loyalty-security apparat, clearing prospective employees as well as giving out information about past and present Yale men. Fisher had long been close to Hoover and at times his operations became so enmeshed with those of the F.B.I. that Diamond could not tell whether he was working for the bureau or for Yale.
Fisher was not unique. The University of California also had such an employee, a former intelligence agent who dealt with the state's Un-American Activities Committee as well as the F.B.I.; and Diamond has found evidence of similar arrangements at other schools. In Seattle, where a state legislative committee spent most of 1948 investigating the University of Washington, a local F.B.I. agent met with the university's president at least once a week.
By the end of the 1940s, liberal politicians and academics were eager for F.B.I. assistance. The academics wanted the bureau to help them vet current faculty members and screen future ones. Having a certifiably Communist-free campus would, they hoped, protect them from the kinds of investigations that had caused so much trouble in the state of Washington. In 195 1, at the request of Illinois's Adlai Stevenson and a group of other governors, the bureau inaugurated the Responsibility Program, which authorized F.B.I. agents to provide governors and other high-level officials with oral reports on the subversives in their employ. Confidentiality was required and the recipients of the information were not allowed to disclose its source.
Although successful in eliminating political undesirables from public schools and universities, the Responsibility Program did not fulfill the hopes of those who had requested it. True, some 875 people had been fingered by the spring of 1954. But, because of the F.B.I.'s obsession with secrecy, the program offered little protection to beleaguered politicians like Stevenson and California Governor Earl Warren, who could not reveal that the bureau was screening state employees. They found themselves forced to fire people and unable to explain why.
Not all Diamond's revelations are new. William Keller, Kenneth O'Reilly and Athan Theoharis, among others, have also exposed the collaboration between liberals and the F.B.I. Thanks to their efforts and those of Diamond we now have a pretty good picture of that relationship and of its contribution to many of the worst features of the national security state. At the same time, we have also become aware of the limitations of bureau records and the way in which they may be subtly distorting our understanding of the nature of political repression in cold war America.
Because F.B.I. files are so hard to get, people who use them understandably tend to inflate their value. But the materials are flawed and incomplete. Not only does the bureau withhold many documents usually on the grounds of security, privacy or the protection of a confidential informant), but those it does release are often so heavily censored as to be virtually useless. The important data, we can only assume, have been excised.
These problems have increased since the Reagan Administration all but gutted the Freedom of Information Act in the early 1980s. Information that previously would have been released is now withheld. Moreover, under the present regulations, the government no longer has to say whether or not a file actually exists. As a result, we don't even know what we don't know. Cost is another problem. At 10 cents a page, a major FOIA request can easily run into thousands of dollars. Although the government is supposed to grant fee waivers to people whose research is in the public interest, it rarely does so without a fight.
And then there are the delays. It now takes a minimum of a year to get action on any classified documents, and four-to-five-year waits are not unknown. Diamond's experiences are instructive. Between his first FOIA request in October 1977 and the time his book went to press in April 1991, he and the E B. 1. exchanged 1,718 pieces of correspondence. He had the services of three attorneys, but he still has not received all the material he asked for. Moreover, the documents he did get were often so fragmentary that, as he admits, it was sometimes impossible to tell whether a particular individual was "a suspect, a possible informant, or both."
For Diamond, as for other users of the FOIA, simply obtaining an interesting or intelligible page or paragraph, instead of the more usual sheets with most of the text blacked out, is a major achievement. But that material gives at best a partial story. Moreover, relying so heavily upon it can play into the F.B.I.'s hands. Does it not, after all, contribute to the bureau's inflated reputation to reproduce large chunks of F.B.I. files as if the mere fact that the bureau collected the data is explanation enough?
But the F.B.I. was neither as omniscient nor as powerful as Hoover wanted the world to believe. Bureau records do not always reveal the impact of its actions. And it was not necessarily the case, for example, that the opening of a file on someone actually affected him or her. Natalie Robins's recent compilation of the F.B.I. files on American writers (A lien Ink.- The FBI's War on Freedom of Expression, Morrow, $27.50) reveals that some of the folks the bureau watched did not feel threatened at all.
As so many of the people who use the FOIA have learned, the F.B.I.'s files are full of errors and omissions. For all their alleged professionalism, the G-men blew some of their biggest cases. They never caught the Communist leaders Gil Green and Henry Winston, who went into hiding in 1951 after the Supreme Court affirmed their conviction under the Smith Act (they later turned themselves in). Nor, despite Hoover's well-known penchant for collecting gossip about the politically prominent, did the bureau find out (neither did Diamond) that one of the ex-Communists it was hounding was the former brother-in-law of Adlai Stevenson.
All too often, users of F.B.I. records overlook the rest of the anticommunist network. The bureau, for all its influence, did not act in a vacuum, nor did it have a monopoly on the elimination of subversives. During the McCarthy period, other branches of the government as well as private groups and individuals collected and disseminated the same kind of information. There seems to have been some competition over turf, and the F.B.I. did not always win. Private blacklisters, for example, seem to have dominated the action in Hollywood. And, as Diamond has convincingly argued, the collaboration of institutions like the academy was crucial to the bureau's success.
By focusing so heavily on the F.B.I., its chroniclers may well be distorting its influence. Still, even if it wasn't the only agent of political repression in the 1940s and 1950s, the bureau was by far the most powerful. After all, even though it never knew that Adlai Stevenson's former brother-in-law had been in the Communist Party, it was still able to make Stevenson fire him.
Ellen Schrecker wrote No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (Oxford). She teaches history at Yeshiva University.