How the FBI Spied on Edward Said: A CounterPunch Exclusive Investigation

From the archive (legacy material)

David Price | Counterpunch | 13 January 2006

The FBI has a long, ignoble tradition of monitoring and harassing America’s top intellectuals. While people ranging from Albert Einstein, William Carlos Williams to Martin Luther King have been subjected to FBI surveillance, there remains an under-accounting of the ways in which this monitoring at times hampered the reception of their work.
In response to my request under the Freedom of Information Act, filed on behalf of CounterPunch, the FBI recently released 147 of Said’s 238-page FBI file. There are some unusual gaps in the released records, and it is possible that the FBI still holds far more files on Professor Said than they acknowledge. Some of these gaps may exist because new Patriot Act and National Security exemptions allow the FBI to deny the existence of records; however, the released file provides enough information to examine the FBI’s interest in Edward Said who mixed artistic appreciations, social theory, and political activism in powerful and unique ways.
Most of Said’s file documents FBI surveillance campaigns of his legal, public work with American-based Palestinian political or pro-Arab organizations, while other portions of the file document the FBI’s ongoing investigations of Said as it monitored his contacts with other Palestinian-Americans. That the FBI should monitor the legal political activities and intellectual forays of such a man elucidates not only the FBI’s role in suppressing democratic solutions to the Israeli and Palestinian problems, it also demonstrates a continuity with the FBI’s historical efforts to monitor and harass American peace activists.
Edward Said’s wife, Mariam, says she is not surprised to learn of the FBI’s surveillance of her husband, saying, “We always knew that any political activity concerning the Palestinian issue is monitored and when talking on the phone we would say ‘let the tappers hear this’. We believed that our phones were tapped for a long time, but it never bothered us because we knew we were hiding nothing.”
The FBI’s first record of Edward Said appears in a February 1971 domestic security investigation of another unidentified individual. The FBI collected photographs of Said from the State Department’s passport division and various news agencies. Said’s “International Security” FBI file was established when an informant gave the FBI a program from the October 1971 Boston Convention of the Arab-American University Graduates, where Said chaired a panel on “Culture and the Critical Spirit”. Most of Said’s FBI records were classified under the administrative heading of “Foreign Counterintelligence,” category 105, and most records are designated as relating to “IS ­ Middle East,” the Bureau’s designation for Israel.
Post-Patriot Act alterations of the Freedom of Information Act facilitate the FBI’s efforts to keep significant portions of Said’s FBI file classified ­ as if concerns with resolving Palestinian sovereignty from twenty or thirty years ago are indelibly linked to Bush’s “war on terror”. Large sections of Said’s file remain redacted, with stamps indicating they remain Classified Secret until 2030, 25 years after their initial FOIA processing. One 1973 “Secret” report is now “exempt from General Declassification Schedule of Executive Order 11652, Exemption Category 2,” and is “automatically declassified on indefinite”. Such administrative stonewalling diminishes our ability to understand the past and further complicates our ability to document the FBI’s role in undermining domestic democratic movements.
In February 1972, New York FBI agents produced a report listing Said’s employment at Columbia University, his home address and phone number, including a notation that his home telephone service was provided by New York Telephone Company ­ information that was later used to request listings of all toll calls charged to Said’s home phone number. A July 1972 FBI report indicates Said received a phone call from someone who was the subject of intensive FBI surveillance. The NYC agent wrote that “reasons for phone call, activities of the professor, and his sympathies in relation to [blank in the document] matters have not been ascertained”.
In the months after the attacks at the 1972 Munich Olympics there was a flurry of FBI interest in Said and other Palestinian Americans. In early October 1972, the NY FBI office investigated Said’s background and citizenship information as well as voting, banking and credit records. Employees at Princeton and Columbia Universities gave FBI agents biographical and education information on Said, and the Harvard University Alumni Office provided the FBI with detailed information. As Middle East scholar Steve Niva observes, “looking back, this post-Munich period may have marked an historic turning point when statements in support of the Palestinian cause became routinely equated with sympathies for terrorism.”
The FBI spoke with their “Middle East informants” in Boston, Newark and New York to gather information on Said. One report indicated that “several confidential sources who are familiar with Middle East [blank in the document]in the United States were contacted during 1972 and 1973, but were unable to furnish any information pertaining to Edward William Said.” During this investigation, FBI agents located and read a 1970 Boston Globe article headlined “Columbia Professor Blames Racist Attitude for Arab-Israeli Conflict”.
One FBI report detailed events at the fifth annual convention of the Association of Arab-American University Graduates (AAAUG) held in November 1972 in Berkeley. Said was living in Lebanon at the time and did not attend the conference, but because he was a member of the AAAUG Board of Directors, the FBI included their convention report in his FBI file. There was a significant FBI presence at the conference, and the FBI’s released records include the conference program indicating presentations from a selection of Arab-American scholars such as anthropologists Laura Nader and Barbara Aswad.
The extent of the FBI’s surveillance of the conference is seen in the FBI’s list (provided by a “reliable” FBI informer) of all AAAUG convention’s attendees staying at the Claremont Hotel. Why the FBI collected information on conference attendees’ accommodations is not clear. Was it to break into participants’ rooms to plant listening devices, search for documents, or to monitor attendees? The redacted report does not say, but the FBI’s well-documented reliance on such “black bag jobs” during this period raises this as a likely possibility. The Bureau’s policy for these illegal operations was to maintain separate filing systems for them. The FBI’s report contains summaries of several talks, including a detailed account of Andreas Papandreou’s keynote address criticizing “the imperialistic forces of the United Stats against the peoples of the Middle East, Greek and Arab peoples alike.”In January 1973, the FBI undertook further criminal and biographical background checks on Said, and the New York Special Agent in Charge recommended in February that the case be closed. But an FBI investigation the next month of a “subject [who had] traveled in the United States in 1971” began a new investigation of Said as one of several individuals whose phone numbers had come to the attention of the FBI and were believed to have possible “connections with Arab terrorist activities.” Such alleged connections remain unspecified as do Said’s connections to such activities, but such vague associations are frequently used to keep investigations active.
FBI memos from this period discuss the creation of a LHM (Letterhead Memorandum, meaning a memo identified as coming from the FBI) that “should be suitable for dissemination to foreign intelligence agencies”. The agency or country to receive this LHM report is not identified, but Israel’s Mossad was a likely candidate.
During the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War the FBI collected several of Said’s newspaper columns and interviews, and his file includes a New York Times column arguing that Arabs and Jews in the Middle East had historically been pitted against each other rather than against “imperialist powers”. In 1974, the FBI received word that Said would speak at the Canadian Arab Federation Conference in Windsor, Ontario, and the Bureau again tracked Said’s movements, though an FBI informer indicated that “he did not consider Said to be the type of individual who would be involved in any terrorist activity”.
The FBI made no entry in Edward Said’s file in 1978, the year of the publication of his groundbreaking book, Orientalism.
A July 1979 FBI report summarized information on thirty-six individuals (names blacked out in the released documents) preparing to attend the August 1979 Palestine American Congress (PAC) at the Shoreham-Americana Hotel in Washington, D.C. The FBI noted that Said was an ex-officio member of the council. Snippets of paragraphs on other unidentified attendees mention past academic and political conferences attended, and one FBI informant is identified as being linked to the “pro-Iraqi Ba’ath Party”. FBI offices receiving this report were advised to check their files for pertinent information on any of the mentioned individuals.
The extent of the FBI’s conference surveillance is shown in a partially declassified Secret Report Index indicating that attendee records had been consulted from FBI field offices in twenty-five listed cities alphabetically listed from Albany to Washington. This report contains sentence summaries on participants. Said’s summary, for example, says, “EDWARD SAID ­ Previously identified as being from Columbia University, New York City, New York, and as being deeply affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.” Other released passages find the FBI preoccupied with tracing various attendees’ PFLP sympathies.
The PAC was perhaps the most open and democratic deliberative effort by displaced American Palestinians to address the goals of the Palestinian struggle. With great concern the FBI documented how the PAC “created a Preparatory Committee that empowered it to prepare a working paper on a proposed constitution for some mechanism for collaborative action”.
The FBI noted some internal arguments about the legitimacy of some delegates coming from Arab communities with low Palestinian populations. The FBI reported that one delegate at the Congress “reminded all in attendance that the FBI has no legitimate interest in the activities taking place during the three day convention. There was no reason to be afraid of one’s presence at all functions of the PAC.” Without irony the FBI then noted with concern that some present used false names to register their hotel rooms.
Following opening remarks by Jawad George, another speaker described in the FBI report as a revolutionary black male named Smith, “ensured the PAC that the black Americans would render assistance to Arab revolution.” Other speakers discussed in the FBI report included a member of the Organization of Arab Students and Ramallah Mayor Krim Khlif speaking on efforts to establish a Palestinian State on the West Bank.
The FBI report discussed problems arising at the conference’s conclusion when there was “much discussion on just the preamble to the constitution. Strong disagreement on the wording of a sentence concerning return to its national homeland, to national self-determination, and to its national independence and sovereignty in all of Palestine, by the Arab peoples.” Fights over the wording of the constitution’s preamble continued, and several disputes “almost broke out into fist fights” between rival factions. Said’s FBI file contains a copy of the “Proposed Constitution of the Palestine American Congress” that had been distributed to PAC attendees, which the FBI marked as classified “SECRET.” This information provided by an FBI informant from this period has now been reclassified under thePatriot Act measures making the document classified “Secret” until the year 2029.
In May 1982, the New York FBI Special Agent in Charge sent a Secret report to FBI Director William Webster saying that Said’s name had “come to the attention of the N.Y. [FBI Office] in the context of a terrorist matter.” FBI headquarters was then requested “to contact liaison with State Department’s Middle East section with regard to their knowledge of Said”. A week later, Said’s file gained a photograph of him addressing the December 1980 Palestine Human Rights Campaign National Conference. One 1982 newspaper clipping added to the file attempted to connect his wife Mariam Said and the PLO to the funding of a full-page anti-Israel advertisement in the New York Times.
During the summer of 1982 an unidentified individual was arrested and deported from the United States, and the “INS obtained photocopies of all documents in his possession”. Among this deported individual’s papers was Edward Said’s name and home phone number. Documents relating to Said and this deportation are still being withheld and are being vetted under National Security Classification review processes.
On September 3, 1982, FBI Director Webster instructed FBI librarians at Quantico to use their computerized New York Times index to locate all past references to Said. This generated a thirteen-page report containing abstracts of forty-nine NYT articles featuring Edward Said. These articles range from political columns by Said, features about him, to literary book reviews by Said. The New York Times Information Service was long used by the pre-Google FBI to compile dossiers on persons or organizations of interest. Thus did the FBI collected a filtered analysis of Said’s writings and public statements formed by the reports and prejudices of Times reporters and editors.
Said’s FBI file, in the form in which it reached me, concludes with a few redacted reports (now reclassified until the year 2030) from 1983 and a highly censored Classified Secret memo from August 1991 that ends with the suggestions that the FBI “may desire to contact your Middle East Section for additional information concerning Said”.
Curiously, Said’s FBI file, as released to me, contains no information on the remaining dozen years of his life. Either the FBI stopped monitoring him, or they couldn’tlocate these files, or they won’t release this information or even the fact that the information exists in the files. The latter two possibilities seem far more likely than the first .
It did not matter how frequently or clearly Edward Said declared that he “totally repudiated terrorism in all its forms”. The FBI continued to focus its national security surveillance campaign on him. Had the FBI read the Palestine American Congress’s proposed constitution placed in Said’s file in 1979, they would have seen the group’s commitment to upholding the “basic fundamental human and national rights of all people and affirms its opposition to racism in all of its manifestations including Zionism and anti-Semitism”. Instead, they kept searching for connections to terrorism.
The FBI’s surveillance of Edward Said was similar to their surveillance of other Palestinian-American intellectuals. For example, Ibrahim Abu Lughod’s FBI file records similar monitoring ­ though Abu Lughod’s file finds the FBI attempting to capitalize on JDL death threats as a means of interviewing Lughod to collect information for his file.
Having read hundreds of FBI reports summarizing “subversive” threads in the work of other academics, I am surprised to find that Said’s FBI file contains no FBI analysis of his book Orientalism. This is especially surprising given the claims by scholars, like Hoover Institute anthropologist Stanley Kurtz in his 2003 testimony before the House Subcommittee on Select Education, that Said’s post-colonial critique had left American Middle East Studies scholars impotent to contribute to Bush’s “war on terror”. Given what is known of the FBI’s monitoring of radical academic developments it seems unlikely that such a work escaped their scrutiny, and it is reasonable to speculate that an FBI analysis of Orientalism remains in unreleased FBI documents.
But some known things are obviously missing from the released file. Chief among these are records of death threats against Said and records of the undercover police protection he received at some public events. But there are no reasons to withhold such records, and their absence gives further cause to not believe the FBI’s claim this is his entire releasable file.
The reasons for the temporal and thematic gaps in Said’s file remain unknown. One explanation for such gaps is suggested in Kafka’s The Trial, where reference is made to cases of suspects never cleared of vague accusations but who are instead given an “ostensible acquittal” under which the accused’s dossier circulates for years, “backwards and forwards with greater or smaller oscillations” on “peregrinations that are incalculable”. Perhaps such Kafkaesque forces move within the FBI, empowered by post-9/11 legislation and desires to shield the public’s eye from acknowledgments of past persecutions of Edward Said.
David Price is author of Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists (Duke, 2004). He can be reached at: