‘Privacy’ for snitches

A clerical error appears to have allowed Mr. Withers’s identity to be divulged: In most cases in the reports, references to Mr. Withers and his informant number, ME 338-R, have been blacked out. But in several locations, the F.B.I. appears to have forgotten to hide them. The F.B.I said Monday that it was not clear what had caused the lapse in privacy and was looking into the incident.

“Civil Rights Photographer Is Unmasked as Informant for F.B.I.,” The New York Times, September 14, 2010

By Joel Thurtell

Odd definition of “privacy,” it seems to me.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation hires someone to gain trust from law-abiding people so the snitch can report on the private musings and doings of his or her victims.

But when it comes to protecting privacy, it’s the stool pigeon the government worries about, not his victims.

In the case revealed by The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tennessee on September 12, 2010, the snitch was revered civil rights photographer Ernest C. Withers, who managed in the late 1960s and early 1970s to worm his way into the confidence of important civil rights leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King. He took their pictures and sold their private lives to the feds.

Thanks to The Commercial Appeal’s Freedom of Information inquiry and the FBI’s response, we now know that Withers was a paid FBI informant who passed on to the agency, according to the Times, “photographs, biographical information, and scheduling details to two F.B.I. agents in the bureau’s Memphis doimestic surveillance program.” He often met with FBI agents to pass on purloined information.

The government doesn’t consider this a violation of those citizen-victims’ privacy.

But when it comes to revealing who the stool pigeons are, suddenly we run into a privacy wall.

It seems that the FBI neglected to black out (“redact” is the euphemism) enough references to Withers and his informant number that The Commercial Appeal was able to figure out that he was an FBI mole.

Now, the FBI is looking into that lapse, considering it a violation of Withers’ privacy.

Ain’t that neat?

Withers along with the FBI betrays the privacy of civil rights workers.

For the government, this is no problem.

But giving up the Judas IS a problem.

Well, of course. Few of these sneaks and backstabbers would be willing to snitch if government didn’t guarantee their “privacy.”

Why, some injured person might sue the stoolie for invasion of privacy. Or the victim might think of some private punishment.

That’s why the names of betrayers were kept secret some years ago when Michigan courts ordered the “dissemination” of Michigan State Police Red Squad files to those who had been spied on.

The victims were contacted and offered copies of their Red Squad files.

Good luck trying to find out the names of the lowlifes who turned them in.

One day in the early 1980s, I received a letter from the “Intelligence Division” of Michigan State Police inviting me to appear at their Paw Paw post if I wanted a copy of my Red Squad file.

It was a surprise to me that I’d been under surveillance by Ann Arbor and state police.

According to my file, I was a member of the International Socialists branch in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This was not true. I went to an IS meeting once to hear a speaker, but I never joined the group, never paid dues, never signed up. Somehow, though, the International Socialists had my name in their files as a member.

It would be interesting to know who put my name on that list.

My state police file consisted of two pieces of paper. One was an index card with my name, address and the fictitious “fact” that I was a member of the socialist group.

That I was not and never had been a member of the International Socialists is only further evidence of the danger of these undercover operations.

The index card also had the name of “Deputy Chief Harold Olsen” of the Ann Arbor Police Department.

The second piece of paper was a page from a membership list of the International Socialists. It had my name along with the names of other people with surnames from the end of the alphabet.

None of the names of the other supposed International Socialist members had been blacked out. Thus, in my files, I have a sheet of paper containing the names of a dozen or so alleged dangers to society like myself.

Presumably, at least some of those people named on that sheet picked up their Red Squad files and now possess the same list of unredacted names, including mine.

The government called it “dissemination,” but there is another word for it: publication.

By photocopying the International Socialists’ membership list and handing it out to each individual it named, without inking out the names of others, the government effectively published the victims’ names.

The government didn’t care a rip about the privacy of victims of its spying.

But they kept the informers’ names secret.

How did the Ann Arbor police and eventually the Michigan State Police get copies of the International Socialists’ membership list?

I have no concrete information about that betrayal.

I would hypothesize that police had an informant with access to the group’s records.

It would not surprise me if the snitch was getting a pay check from the cops.

As I say, I have no concrete information about how the International Socialists office was infiltrated by police.

But in 1990, I wrote an article about Red Squads for the Detroit Free Press Magazine. I interviewed Benton Truhn, a onetime detective sergeant in the Michigan State Police who ran the state’s Red Squad operation in Ann Arbor from the basement of City Hall.

According to Truhn, he had a budget that allowed him to recruit undercover informers who were paid $15,500 a year in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That was more than he earned as a state police detective.

Truhn told me he hired students, often children of conservative and wealthy Detroit area people. They entered the University of Michigan as freshmen and pretended to be politically liberal or radical. They would join whatever political organizations the police found interesting and work their way into responsible positions. That way, they’d be given, or maybe even produce, the paperwork such as membership lists from which police could generate their own lists and files.

A salary of $15,500 a year in 1970 would have been wroth $84,691 in 2009. That’s a lot of money for letting your hair grow, donning frayed jeans and hanging out in some obscure political group’s office.

Helluva lot of pizzas.

Truhn’s account renders phony the apology given in the Times article by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow, who¬†tried to poo-poo the money angle.

According to the Times, “Although Mr. Withers’ motivation is not known, Garrow said informants were rarely motivated by the financial compensation, which ‘wasn’t enough money to live on.’ ”

The Times partly rebutted Garrow by quoting Marc Perrusquia, author of The Commerical Appeal article, who wrote that “Mr. Withers had eight children and might have struggled to support them.”

Well, a salary of $15,500 — worth nearly $85,000 today — would have made that “struggle” a lot easier.

Now, we don’t know how much Withers got from the FBI. But I suspect it was significant.

Like the names of stool pigeons, the government also stays silent about how much it pays them.

It  might be easier for the government to make its case for undercover informants if the targets were truly a danger to society and the state.

But the vast majority of people being watched at the time Withers did his spying were innocent.

Innocent at least of crimes.

Sometimes, those who unwittingly become targets of government surveillance attain that recognition because they hold political views that government officials find suspect. Any political movement or organization on the left during the civil rights and Vietnam war era could count on being suspect in the view of government.

Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

How much clandestine spying on citizens with legitimate political views is government doing today?

Eventually, the Red Squads and the FBI’s program to sabotage and discredit institutions and organizations it didn’t like were discredited and deemed illegal. Yet a key component of those activities — the identities of paid informants — was considered too sacred to be revealed.

I believe that the government has a duty to divulge the names of people who helped it wrong fellow citizens.

In the case of Withers, the federal government has earmarked hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for a museum in honor of a photographer whose commitment to the civil rights movement we now know was a sham covering his real motives — to snitch on civil rights leaders and others for pay.

Had that information been public all along, I doubt anyone would have supported a Withers museum.

If for no other reason, the history of the United States will never complete until the identifies of these secret snitches are revealed.

And yes, if some of them are subjected to lawsuits and court judgments that cost them money, well, they will have gotten what they deserved.

Snitches are not heroes and don’t deserve to be protected.

Drop me a line at joelthurtell@gmail.com

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