FBI's Cold War files question Mink's loyalty
|||PDF file: See selected documents from the FBI file on Patsy Mink|
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Capitol Bureau
By Derrick DePledge
In November 1964, three days after Patsy Mink became the first Asian-American woman elected to the U.S. Congress, an internal memo was sent to Cartha DeLoach, a powerful deputy to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in Washington.
The memo disclosed a confidential informant had once told the bureau that Mink, when she was a 20-year-old University of Hawai'i student, had been "flatly accused" of being un-American by a State Department official who was apparently unnerved by her questions about Palestine during a 1948 foreign policy conference. Another confidential informant who said he knew Mink well at the time of the conference described her as among a group that "sat around a campfire and sang Russian folk and revolutionary songs as well as Japanese and Chinese communistic songs."
In the informant's opinion, Mink was a "communist sympathizer."
The memo, contained in Mink's FBI file, shows the depth of the bureau's surveillance during the Cold War and its preoccupation with gathering potentially embarrassing information about politicians and other public figures. The FBI kept records on thousands of people, from civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., to rock star John Lennon, as a tool in an extensive counterintelligence campaign.
A U.S. Senate select committee in the 1970s that investigated the secret operations concluded they were "used to disrupt the lawful political activities of individual Americans and groups and to discredit them, using dangerous and degrading tactics which are abhorrent in a free and decent society."
Mink's file, obtained by The Advertiser through the Freedom of Information Act, makes clear she was never investigated by the FBI and there was no evidence the Hawai'i Democrat was a communist or active in communist fronts. But it provides a look into the kind of information that was routinely collected by the bureau and shows Mink was alarmed the FBI was keeping track of her activities.
Mink asked the FBI and the CIA for her files in the 1970s after revelations that members of Congress had been monitored. The congresswoman was briefed by FBI agents on some of the details of her bureau file and the CIA provided a letter that outlined some information the agency had kept on her. But Mink, who died in September 2002, apparently never saw all of her files and was never told confidential informants had once doubted her patriotism.
"Oh, my goodness, she had no idea. I know she had no idea," said Wendy Mink, Mink's daughter and a professor of government and women's studies at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. "I think she'd be both upset and curious.
"I think she would be upset at the whole idea of this quoteunquote 'confidential informant' thing, not simply in relation to her but what that means about what kind of climate that was being cultivated."
The FBI has tried to leave that era in the past, a vestige of Hoover's reign as director, but the bureau has heard new criticism of its surveillance tactics since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. The USA Patriot Act, approved by Congress shortly after the attacks, gave the government expanded authority to conduct surveillance against suspected terrorists and their collaborators.
But some lawmakers and civil-liberties activists, including Mink, who voted against the Patriot Act, warned it could lead to surveillance against people engaged in legitimate political activity.
On Friday, the New York Times reported that President Bush had also signed a presidential order in the months after the Sept. 11th attacks allowing the National Security Agency to conduct domestic surveillance of American citizens and foreign nationals in the United States without first obtaining warrants from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado learned through the Freedom of Information Act that an FBI counterterrorism task force had recorded license-plate numbers and vehicle descriptions on protesters at a timber industry convention in Colorado Springs in 2002. The FBI also had monitored protesters who were planning civil disobedience at an anti-war rally in Colorado Springs in 2003.
Last July, the U.S. Department of Justice disclosed in connection with an ACLU lawsuit that the FBI had collected thousands of pages of documents on the ACLU and Greenpeace.
"In a lot of ways, there is kind of an amnesia," said Tony Poveda, a sociology and criminal justice professor at Plattsburgh State University of New York who has written about FBI history. "We've forgotten some of the history of why we've had some of these rules and guidelines."
In the Cold War era, when the United States was wrestling with the Soviet Union for international dominance, the FBI was aggressive about documenting the domestic threat of communism. The bureau also was investigating the spread of organized crime and extremists linked to the civil rights and anti-war movements.
But the FBI's files also have shown that the bureau under Hoover was almost obsessed with gathering intelligence on politicians and celebrities, including intimate personal details. The information on members of Congress could be quietly used as leverage to quell criticism of the FBI or the White House, help the bureau with its requests for federal money or leaked to the news media to weaken political enemies.
DeLoach, who received the 1964 background memo on Mink, was a Hoover confidant and the bureau's liaison to the White House.
"During the Hoover era, it was in the FBI's interest to keep this kind of information under wraps as a potential threat, and that's how he built his power base, through these tidbits of information that he would learn, sometimes just incidental to other investigations," Poveda said.
Athan Theoharis, a history professor at Marquette University in Wisconsin who has written extensively about Hoover and the FBI, called such surveillance insidious.
"If you use obtrusive investigative techniques, which allows you to obtain very sensitive personal information, it has the potential for being abused," he said.
Mink, who was born on Maui to parents of Japanese descent, was a feisty and fearless liberal who fought gender and racial stereotypes for much of her life. She probably is best remembered nationally for her role in a 1972 federal law that bars gender discrimination in college academics and sports. The law, known as Title IX, is credited with the explosion of women in athletics.
Mink was an early opponent of the Vietnam War, appeared at several peace rallies, and was briefly a candidate for president in 1972 on an anti-war platform. She also traveled to Paris with U.S. Rep. Bella Abzug, D-N.Y., to speak with a North Vietnamese delegation during peace talks. Abzug was under CIA surveillance but Mink said in news reports that agency officials assured her she was not being actively watched, although she said her Paris trip was noted in their file on her.
Mink formally requested to see her FBI and CIA files and asked the FBI for a list of any private citizens in Hawai'i, in her family or on her congressional staff who were under surveillance. The CIA sent Mink a letter describing parts of its file while the FBI dispatched agents to brief her on portions of its file.
According to an internal memo from the FBI's legal counsel in 1975, Mink was not to be told about the old information from confidential informants about her alleged communist sympathies because the bureau considered it part of its investigatory files and exempt from disclosure.
In a follow-up memo describing the briefing with Mink, the FBI's legal counsel said she was informed there were undoubtedly references in her file to her participation at peace rallies. Mink told the agents she was concerned people might interpret the references unfavorably and it would not reflect the balance of her speaking engagements as a member of Congress.
Back in Hawai'i, some of Mink's detractors had already labeled her "Patsy Pink" and a "traitor" for her anti-war views.
Mink worried, hypothetically, that her file might influence whether she could ever get a White House appointment. The congresswoman later said she felt her Japanese ancestry might have been a reason she was monitored, since both her FBI and CIA files included news clippings about her from New York Nichibei, an English-language newspaper for the Japanese-American community.
"At this point in time, I do not know what to think of my government that would 'folder' an elected member of Congress solely on account of ethnic origin," Mink said in a House floor statement in 1975, according to a Gannett News Service report.
Two years after the controversy over her files, in early 1977, the FBI was asked to do a thorough background check on Mink after she was appointed by the Carter administration as assistant secretary for oceans and international, environmental and scientific affairs at the State Department.
Federal agents combed through Mink's education and employment records and interviewed more than 40 people. Agents were told she was "a loyal American whose character, reputation, and associates are above reproach," her file shows. "She was described as intelligent, capable, honest, and forthright, and as a tireless worker.
"They highly recommend her for a position of trust and responsibility."
No mention at all was made of any confidential informants who questioned her loyalty when she was a college student. But one congressman, who requested confidentiality, told agents he had a "gut feeling" Mink might favor the smaller nations of Asia over the interests of the United States because of her ethnic background. The congressman emphasized he had nothing to substantiate his belief, that it was merely his opinion, but said he would prefer Mink not represent U.S. interests in the Pacific.
When the FBI completed its final report, agents chose to detail the comments of six of the people interviewed about Mink. The critical words from the anonymous congressman were at the top of their list.
Reach Derrick DePledge at email@example.com.