The FBI was probably tapping Edward Said’s phone right up to the day he died in September 2003. A year earlier, when he was already a very sick man, Said was scheduled to speak at an event at the Kopkind Colony’s summer session near Guilford, Vermont. The morning of Friday, August 2, the day Said was due to arrive, the colony’s John Scagliotti picked up the phone at the colony’s old farmhouse and found it was dead. He went to a neighbor to report the fault.
“Within half an hour,” Scagliotti remembers, “there was a knock at the front door, and there was a man who said, ‘I hear you have phone problems.’ Now, I am a gay man. I know what a phone service repairman is meant to look like. The phone man is a gay icon. Tool belt, jeans, work shirt, work boots. This man has a madras shirt, Dockers, brown loafers. He goes to an outside junction box, and a few minutes later the phone is working. Off he goes.”
A month later, in the course of a complaint to the phone company about an unusually high bill, Scagliotti suggests that the trouble may have stemmed from something the repairman did. After further checking, the phone company tells him they never sent a repairman that day.
As it happened, shortly thereafter Said’s assistant called in to say he was too sick to make the five-hour drive from New York. But had he done so, we can opine with near certainty that the FBI would have been ready to monitor whatever calls he may have placed from rural Vermont. The reason for the near certainty is that we now know that the bureau began spying on Said more than thirty years earlier.
David Price is a professor of anthropology at St. Martin’s University in Washington State. As anyone glancing through his excellent book Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists will know, Price is expert at getting secret government documents through the Freedom of Information Act. Last year, on behalf of the newsletter CounterPunch (which I co-edit), Price requested the FBI’s file on Said.
The FBI released to Price 147 pages of Said’s 238-page FBI file. Large sections of the file remain blacked out, with stamps indicating they remain Classified Secret until 2030, twenty-five years after their initial FOIA processing. Most of the file, Price tells us, documents FBI surveillance of Said’s 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 his contacts with other Palestinian-Americans.
The FBI’s first record of Edward Said appears in a February 1971 domestic security investigation of another (unidentified) person. 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.”
In the months after the Black September attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics, there was a flurry of FBI interest in Said and other Palestinian-Americans. In early October 1972, the New York FBI office investigated Said’s background and citizenship information as well as voting, banking and credit records. Employees at Princeton and Columbia universities secretly–and shamefully–gave FBI agents biographical and educational information on Said, and the Harvard University alumni office provided the FBI with detailed information.
Some will say that since he was a politically active Palestinian, and also a member (before he broke with Arafat) of the Palestinian National Council, Said was a legitimate object of concern for the FBI, and the bureau would have been remiss not to have kept an eye on him. But labeling Said as a friend of Arafat misses the point that the FBI’s surveillance of this US citizen found absolutely no evidence that he broke any laws–not even jaywalking or taping songs from the radio. As Price says, “FBI action needs to be based on demonstrable wrongdoing, not thought crimes or having unpopular friends. The American right perhaps understands this better than the left, and given the anti-Bush flutter I’m hearing on talk radio, they seem to understand the threat to democracy represented in unfettered surveillance expeditions.”
Another way of viewing the FBI’s surveillance of Said is in the context of its surveillance and harassment of other prominent activists, people like Martin Luther King Jr., who advocated lawful democratic solutions to problems of social justice. Price: “Had the federal government chosen to support rather than harass and monitor activists willing to work within extant systems, like Said and King, they could have precluded the coming of more radical and violent efforts. In effect, the FBI’s surveillance and harassment of Said creates the conditions for the development of more violent efforts to resolve the Palestinian problem. If you spy on and block those advocating reason, you are aiding and abetting those who will follow with violence.”
Because the FBI has yet to release the whole Said file, says Price, “we don’t know what they are withholding, but I wonder if it doesn’t show the sort of illegal wiretapping and surveillance we now know President Bush has illegally charged the NSA to conduct on an unknown number of Americans. The FBI’s unusual step in reclassifying these files for another quarter-century raises the very real possibility that they did this to hide just what steps they were taking to spy on Said. I’ll challenge this in an in-house review and my lawyer is gearing up for a suit in federal court to get a judge to look and see if the FBI was illegally spying on an American who was breaking no laws.”
Price’s full assessment of the FBI’s secret file can be read in CounterPunch (for a copy, call 800-840-3683) and will shortly be available at www.counterpunch.org/pricesaid.html.