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.”