FBI Shadowed Kerry During Activist Era

Times Staff Writer

As a high-profile activist who crossed the country criticizing the Nixon administration’s role in the Vietnam War, John F. Kerry was closely monitored by FBI agents for more than a year, according to intelligence documents reviewed by The Times.

In 1971, in the months after the Navy veteran and decorated war hero argued before Congress against continued U.S. involvement in the conflict, the FBI stepped up its infiltration of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the protest group Kerry helped direct, the files show.

The FBI documents indicate that wherever Kerry went, agents and informants were following -- including appearances at VVAW-sponsored antiwar events in Washington; Kansas City, Mo.; Oklahoma City; and Urbana, Ill. The FBI recorded the content of his speeches and took photographs of him and fellow activists, and the dispatches were filed to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and President Nixon.

The files contain no information or suggestion that Kerry broke any laws. And a 1972 memorandum on the FBI’s decision to end its surveillance of him said the agency had discovered “nothing whatsoever to link the subject with any violent activity.”

Kerry, now the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, has long known he was a target of FBI surveillance, but only last week learned the extent of the scrutiny, he told The Times. The information was provided by Gerald Nicosia, a Bay Area author who obtained thousands of pages of FBI intelligence files and who gave copies of some documents to The Times.


The FBI files shed new light on an early chapter in Kerry’s public life and are another example of the extent to which the U.S. intelligence apparatus monitored and investigated groups opposed to government policies during the Vietnam era, especially the Hoover-run FBI.

FBI harassment of some activists and leaders in the antiwar and civil rights movements -- including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- was exposed after Hoover’s death in 1972, and reforms were mandated in the bureau to prevent such abuses and restore public confidence.

The files reviewed by The Times on Kerry do not show that the FBI engaged in any illegal actions in its surveillance of him. But the documents also show the lengths the government went to investigate not only Kerry, but the VVAW and other antiwar groups.

Intelligence officials referred to the VVAW in their reports as the “New Left.” “Due to abundant indications of subversive influence, we are actively investigating VVAW,” read one FBI report from 1971.

The documents could become an important resource for historians because they show the extent of U.S. government surveillance directed against an individual who, three decades later, may become president.

They also suggest that Kerry’s memories of some of his antiwar activities, including the date he left his position on the VVAW national steering committee, were inaccurate. Kerry has stated that he left the group in the summer of 1971, but the files show that he did not quit until the late fall of that year.

Kerry said he was troubled by the scope of the monitoring documented in the papers.

“I’m surprised by [the] extent of it,” he said in an interview. “I’m offended by the intrusiveness of it. And I’m disturbed that it was all conducted absent of some showing of any legitimate probable cause. It’s an offense to the Constitution. It’s out of order.”

Kerry told The Times that knowing the scope of the government surveillance against him had made him more conscious of selecting the right people to run intelligence agencies. If elected president, he said, he would appoint an attorney general “who knows how to enforce laws in a way that balances law enforcement with our tradition of civil liberties.”

“Today’s FBI isn’t the FBI of J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI of today is on the front lines of the war on terror, and it’s critical that they be effective,” he said. “But the experience of having been spied on for the act of engaging in peaceful patriotic protest makes you respect the civil liberties and the Constitution even more.”

Kerry said that in 1987, two years after assuming office as a senator from Massachusetts, he requested and received an FBI dossier on himself. He later told aides it was “boring,” and mostly included news clippings. The senator was apparently unaware that a much larger file existed that included reports on his activities as a VVAW leader.

Kerry said he was disturbed by “this extensive component of spying” on him that wasn’t in his file. “If I was the subject of individual surveillance and individual tape recordings, I’d have thought it would have been released to me,” he said.

Fourteen boxes of FBI files standing 12 feet high have been sitting for five years at Nicosia’s home in Corte Madera.

Many of the files include mention of Kerry, who became the VVAW’s most widely recognized figure after he sought to make the case against the Vietnam War in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971. His appearance was widely reported because of his stature as a veteran who had been awarded a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts. As a lieutenant, Kerry had commanded swift boats patrolling the sniper-filled rivers across the Mekong Delta.

“The Nixon people viewed antiwar protesters as anti-American subversives,” said Douglas Brinkley, author of “Tour of Duty,” a book that details Kerry’s Vietnam-era exploits. “Because of his record as a war hero, they feared Kerry’s influence with the public.”

Many FBI reports on Kerry relied on informants who had infiltrated the VVAW. One report, filed after a gathering in Oklahoma City on Nov. 8, 1971, described how 22 veterans gathered to talk about “alleged war atrocities in which they participated in Vietnam.”

The file added: “From four p.m. to five p.m., John Kerry, featured convention speaker and national spokesman for VVAW, spoke to one hundred to two hundred people, followed by brief question and answer period. Kerry spoke against the war and encouraged young people to vote for candidates who will end the war. He said VVAW members will continue to be active in activities to end the war, but indicated that VVAW members are against any type of violence.”

Other former VVAW members recalled their suspicion that their telephones were being tapped and their concern that informants had infiltrated their ranks.

“Once, our national office in Washington called the phone company to say they couldn’t pay the bill,” said Bill Crandell, a writer who lives in Silver Spring, Md. “They were told, ‘Don’t worry, it’s being paid.’ ”

Crandell said he and others assumed that intelligence agents made sure that the phone lines remained active, though the FBI files reviewed by The Times contain no mention of wiretapping.

Ann Barnes, who worked with the VVAW and who now lives in Milwaukee, said the protesters took the surveillance seriously. “Wherever you went, there’d be people taking your picture, writing down your license plate, doing what they did,” she said. “At demonstrations, we’d spot the guys tailing us and say, ‘Hey, there’s our guys over there.’ But we weren’t really laughing.”

Kerry also recalls the shadow of surveillance. “I wasn’t doing anything that I was worried about,” he said. “That was the nature of the FBI and the dialogue of the times.... People used to joke about it more than anything, but it was frustrating.”

He added: “I remember coming out of a meeting and seeing one of their unmarked cruisers sitting there. Somebody had left a firearm on the seat, as a form of intimidation. In Washington, when I walked the streets ... I knew there were surveillance cars. But never to the depth I know about now.”

When Nicosia began researching his book “Home to War,” a history of the Vietnam veterans movement, he sent a Freedom of Information request in 1988 to the FBI seeking its VVAW surveillance files.

Eleven years later, in 1999, he received 14 boxes of largely redacted files. But the release came too late for any significant inclusion in his look at the VVAW, which was founded in 1967 and drew 10,000 members nationwide.

He had not read the files before allowing The Times to view a portion of them last week. After a call from Nicosia, Kerry aides came to his home to collect the same 50 pages of documents copied by The Times.

The files show that Kerry and his activities within VVAW were a subject of FBI surveillance throughout the summer of 1971, during a time he had said he had already left the organization.

The documents include evidence that Kerry did not resign from the VVAW’s national steering committee until November 1971, during four days of meetings in Kansas City. Several Vietnam-era histories -- and Kerry himself -- had said his resignation occurred at a VVAW gathering in St. Louis in July.

Previously, Kerry had denied being at the Kansas City gathering. But the FBI files, along with interviews with former VVAW members, indicate that he attended at least some portion of the meetings, using the occasion to resign his post as one of the group’s national coordinators.

“I still have no memory of a Kansas City meeting.

“I have this stark memory of the humidity that day [I resigned from VVAW].... I just remember forever a dark storm brewing, with these huge thunderhead clouds.”

But his recollection was that he resigned at the St. Louis meeting. “And every reminder we have since then has put it there, including Nicosia’s book,” he said.

But the files include a “priority” memorandum dated Nov. 16, 1971 -- the day after the VVAW’s Kansas City meeting ended -- from Hoover to Nixon and other high-ranking administration officials. Quoting a “confidential source,” the report said Kerry was there and had resigned from the VVAW for personal reasons.

“It’s just weird,” Kerry said, when asked about the discrepancy. He attributed his previous assertions to a faulty memory.

For example, he said, “there was a day in where I gave two speeches in Norman, Okla. I remember the first speech. I don’t remember the second. It’s just the nature of memory.”

Several VVAW members also distinctly remember Kerry’s presence in Kansas City.

“I remember the Kansas City meeting like it was last week,” said Barnes. She said Kerry read an emotional resignation letter while scores of VVAW members sat around long tables in a church classroom.

“He said he was going into public service, that he was going to run for office,” said Barnes. “It was a short speech, but it was emotional. Everybody cheered.”

Afterward, Barnes recalled, Kerry and others stepped outside the church for a break, only to see FBI agents taking pictures of them from across the street. Barnes recalled saying to Kerry: “You’ve been thinking about this a long time.”

And Barnes recalled Kerry saying: “Yeah, since high school.”

The files document other Kerry appearances in 1971.

One report from Oklahoma said, “The entire conference lacked coordination and appeared to be a platform for John Kerry, national leader of VVAW rather than for VVAW.”

Another concluded that a speech he gave at George Washington University was “a clear indication that Kerry is an opportunist with personal political aspirations.”

But the reports were not always accurate. In one, an informant reported that Kerry planned to accompany VVAW co-director Al Hubbard to Paris to meet with North Vietnamese representatives to negotiate a POW prisoner of war release.

But another FBI file and other historical accounts report that Kerry was critical of Hubbard for making the trip and for exaggerating aspects of his military record. “John Kerry again attempted to have Al Hubbard voted off the executive committee as Kerry stated he did not think Hubbard ever served in Vietnam or was ever in service,” reported one Kansas City informant on the tension that existed between Kerry and Hubbard.

Kerry recalled his opposition to VVAW leaders meeting with North Vietnamese officials. “I thought that would be disastrous to the credibility of the organization,” he said, “to the people we were trying to convince about the war.”

Kerry soon left VVAW, which he thought had lost its focus.

“The group achieved a lot of good, but it eventually splintered and diversified into these various things,” he said. “It started to broaden into this diverse tug of war.”

On Friday, the Kerry campaign released pages from the senator’s personal FBI file, including a May, 24, 1972, memorandum in which the agency decided to end its information- gathering on Kerry’s activities.

“It should be noted that a review of the subject’s file reveals nothing whatsoever to link subject with any violent type activity,” the report said. “Thus, considering the subject’s apparently legitimate involvement in politics, it is recommended that no further investigation be conducted regarding subject until such time as it is warranted.”