Unabomber Probe Targets Fringe Groups, Activists : Crime: FBI seeks subscription list of sociology journal. Some critics say the federal government is overreaching.
Over the July Fourth weekend, while travelers out of Los Angeles International Airport worried that the Unabomber might make good on his threat to blow up an airplane, a goateed FBI agent showed up at the University of Oregon sociology department with a grand jury subpoena.
The agent was seeking an old subscription list for an obscure, left-leaning academic journal called Critical Sociology.
Founded as the Insurgent Sociologist by anti-Establishment professors and students during the ferment of the Vietnam War, the publication has fewer than 1,000 subscribers today.
Federal authorities apparently had little interest in recent articles such as “Dahmer Discourse and Gay Identity: The Paradox of Queer Politics,” replete with footnotes and arcane discourse.
They were hunting for the Unabomber.
With the serial bomber now revealing himself in missives as an anti-technology anarchist, investigators have turned part of their attention to like-minded groups and individuals--environmental activists, anarchists and others--who are infuriated to be linked in any way to the Unabomber’s terrorist tactics and alarmed by the FBI inquiries.
The sociology professors who contribute to Critical Sociology are insistent that there is no connection between the bomber and the scholars who produce the magazine.
“It’s, of course, conceivable that some oddballs who subscribe to the journal might be that kind of type,” said University of Toronto professor Michal Bodemann, who edits book reviews for the publication. “You can’t be responsible for your subscribers.”
The Unabomber’s use of sociological jargon may have been what sent an investigator to the academic journal for possible clues. But the editor of Critical Sociology is not alone in finding himself in an unwanted spotlight. A former editor of the Berkeley Barb and the operator of a pirate radio station in the Berkeley hills both say that in recent weeks they have been questioned by the FBI.
Word of these and other encounters has been crisscrossing activist networks from coast to coast. Suddenly, groups that have been publishing journals or exchanging ideas quietly for years wonder whether they could become targets of an FBI investigation. Other, more visible groups fear that the Unabomber has given federal authorities an excuse to investigate activists with unpopular views.
However, federal officials say they are simply following every significant lead that might result in the capture of a serial killer who has killed three and injured 23 with handcrafted package bombs since 1978.
“It’s true we’ve been conducting lots of interviews throughout the Bay Area and many interviews throughout the rest of the country,” said George Grotz, an FBI spokesman in San Francisco, where the Unabom task force is headquartered. “We like to think we’re being very, very thorough.”
Grotz would not discuss details of the investigation.
However, sources confirm that one line of inquiry led investigators to the Eugene campus of the University of Oregon. Just why the grand jury wanted a list of readers of the Insurgent Sociologist is not immediately apparent.
However, several experts in the sociology field point out that published accounts of the Unabomber’s manifesto, titled “Industrial Society and Its Future,” are full of words and phrases that would typify a sociology student.
“He’s very good at using the sociological terms--he uses them with a great deal of precision,” said Jack Levin, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University. “Two in particular: anomie, which is Emile Durkheim’s term for normlessness or the breakdown of rules. More impressive was his use of the term oversocialized. I’ve heard so many lay people use the term ‘socialization’ incorrectly. . . . It means a very conformist person. Very few people outside of sociology know its exact meaning.”
In the document, the Unabomber describes wanting to overthrow today’s “industrial-technological society"--the source of alienation and demoralization of the individual.
“He probably has a master’s degree in sociology,” Levin said. “Or he came close to getting his degree and failed, so he harbors a deep resentment that has broadened over time.”
And a serious student of sociology with an anti-Establishment bent might very well have read a journal such as the Insurgent Sociologist, which is described by its editors and contributors as Marxist or left-leaning.
The journal’s editor, University of Oregon professor Val Burris, refused to discuss the subpoena.
“If I have received such a subpoena, I’m not at liberty to talk about it,” Burris said.
However, the sociology department secretary, Jim Craig, described the arrival of the FBI agent who delivered the subpoena: “He said, ‘I’m looking for someone I can serve a subpoena.’ That’s when the hairs on the back of my head stood up.”
Craig directed the agent to Burris, who called Keith Kutler, an assistant Oregon attorney general who sometimes represents the university on legal matters.
The subpoena asked for old subscription lists of the journal, Kutler said in an interview. He and Burris discussed whether the journal could refuse to turn over such lists to investigators based on the argument that compliance could have a “chilling effect” on scholarly discussion. Burris was “unsure whether the journal had retained the information,” Kutler said. “It was my hope they would look and find out he didn’t have it.”
He said he was unsure whether Burris had complied with the subpoena.
Burris said Monday that the publication has about 800 subscribers, two-thirds of them libraries. About half of the copies are mailed overseas, he said.
Editors of other leftist or anarchist journals worry that turning over subscription lists could hurt free discussion of controversial ideas. Yet they point out that the lists for many publications are sold commercially--primarily to publishers of other journals looking to build readership.
The FBI’s Grotz notes that the federal Unabom hot line has generated hundreds of leads each day on top of those generated by the clues that the killer has provided.
The task force is pursuing as many of those tips as it can, Grotz said. But he would not confirm whether agents had recently knocked on the doors of two Bay Area activists. “We don’t comment on individuals we interview,” he said.
Late in June, two FBI agents appeared at the home of Gar Smith, once an associate editor of the Berkeley Barb, a voice of the Bay Area’s protest movements during the 1960s and ‘70s.
“They said, ‘We’re the FBI. We’ve got a tip you might be the Unabomber,’ ” Smith said in a recent interview.
Smith, who now edits an environmental publication, said that if the agents had reviewed his old FBI file, they would have ruled him out as a potential suspect.
“It looked like they hadn’t done their homework,” he said. When he was a Barb editor, FBI agents interviewed Smith’s landlords, professors and even a past Scout leader, and all had given him “glowing references,” Smith said.
During the June interview, Smith said, the two investigators wanted to know if he had ever lived or worked in Illinois or Utah, the sites of early bombings. He had not. They also wanted to know if he was good with plumbing or woodwork and asked to see his workshop. Smith has no workshop.
Similarly, Stephen Dunifer, who oversees a 15-watt pirate radio station called Free Radio Berkeley, said an agent showed up at his door late one afternoon in May, not long after the bombing that killed Gilbert Murray, president of the California Forestry Assn.
“He said that someone had given them a tip that I was the Unabomber,” Dunifer recalled. The accusation, Dunifer said, made no sense, because the bomber has made it clear that he is anti-technology. In contrast, Dunifer said, “I’m a rather high-tech person.”
The agent asked Dunifer if he had ever worked for an airline or university. He had not. Many of the Unabomber’s targets have university ties. One bomb mailed in 1980 injured an airline executive; another was mailed to Boeing.
Dunifer has gotten some public attention because of a lengthy legal battle with the FCC, which has fined him $20,000 for his role in operating an unlicensed radio station. He has become a clearinghouse for information on how to equip low-watt stations in defiance of federal authorities. Free Radio Berkeley sells low-cost transmitter and amplifier kits that can be used by unlicensed broadcasters.
And Dunifer is trying to persuade regulators to register low-watt, community-based stations for a nominal fee as long as they do not interfere with licensed broadcasters.
He worries that federal investigators have gone too far afield in their hunt for the Unabomber. “I think the FBI is using this as a great opportunity to update files on activists in the Bay Area in general,” he said.
Dunifer and Smith say they have heard of other area activists who were approached by investigators, but won’t name them.
“I’d be happy to see it ended,” Smith said. “I think he should be caught. He has a moral penalty to pay.”
Times staff writers Jenifer Warren in Sacramento and Ronald J. Ostrow in Washington contributed to this story.