Caught in the whirlwind
The boxes of confidential FBI documents lie scattered about author Gerald Nicosia’s kitchen like so many unopened prizes. Twelve feet high when stacked, they are a monument, he says, to democracy gone wrong. They are also his cross to bear.
For weeks now, the documents have created havoc in the historian’s staid suburban life. Instead of shepherding the kids between school and baseball games while he works on his newest project -- a book about racism and the death penalty -- Nicosia has been pulled into the mystery surrounding the U.S. government’s spying on its citizens more than a generation ago.
Twenty thousand pages in all, detailing FBI surveillance of Vietnam War protesters in the 1970s, the files were obtained by Nicosia in 1998 following an 11-year battle with the agency over their release. Nicosia had sought the documents during the research for his 2002 book, “Home to War,” a chronicle of the antiwar movement, including the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War. But the FBI released the files too late for Nicosia’s use in his book.
So the 54-year-old historian, poet and fiction writer stored them away in his garage, largely unopened, and moved on to other projects.
Until recently that is, when Sen. John F. Kerry, a former VVAW leader whose name appears frequently in the files, emerged as the presumed Democratic nominee for president.
Nicosia suddenly realized he was sitting on a historical treasure trove that told the story of how a presidential candidate became the subject of a government monitoring campaign as a young protester. Long before he became a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, Kerry was considered a possible threat to national security by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI for his outspoken protests against the war.
Not only did Nicosia possess evidence of a time warp of sorts -- a snapshot of an early chapter in the life of an emerging politician -- but the documents also offered hints about a nation under siege both abroad and at home. They were files that Kerry himself had never seen.
While he had barely perused the papers, Nicosia recently allowed a Times reporter to review a portion of them for a story on Kerry’s past. That’s when the author’s life went haywire.
Television camera crews materialized, clogging up his quiet dead-end street. His phone rang constantly with interview requests from newspapers and TV and radio talk shows. He got crank phone calls and mysterious hang-ups.
Then came an even stranger turn: Nicosia discovered last week that three of the boxes were missing. He had returned home to find several inside doors ajar and other valuables, including a camera, left untouched. He reported the burglary to police, who say they are investigating the case as a home break-in.
Now neither Nicosia nor his family sleeps well at night. He suspects the intruders wanted more than the three file boxes but were interrupted, perhaps scared off by a neighbor’s barking dog. Nicosia is no conspiracy theorist. But he is a product of the Watergate era who understands the allure of political sabotage.
And he worries the burglars might come back.
Though he never fought in Vietnam, Nicosia has nonetheless been reliving the war for more than three decades now. Back then, the Berwyn, Ill., native considered himself a Christian pacifist prepared to flee to Canada rather than face the draft.
But he recalls that his convictions made him feel like an outcast. “I was asking myself, ‘Is there something wrong with me that I don’t want to go kill people? Am I something less than a man?’ ”
Then in April 1971, he saw a speech delivered before Congress by a young Kerry, a decorated war hero who returned to protest what he called an unjust war. For Nicosia, the speech was a validation: “I said, ‘My God, these are supposedly the good guys, the ones who went to battle, and they’re saying the war is wrong.’ ”
But the ghosts of the war he never fought continued to pursue him. While Nicosia taught a writing course at the University of Illinois in the early 1970s, a student wrote an essay about the haunting memory of killing a Viet Cong soldier at point-blank range. “It was a piece you couldn’t begin to grade -- the guy had bared his soul,” Nicosia recalled. “He later told me, ‘Mr. Nicosia, you’re the first person who’s ever been willing to listen to this story.’ ”
Nicosia met other Vietnam veterans during that period, including Ron Kovic, author of “Born on the Fourth of July,” whose war wounds left him paralyzed. One night Nicosia listened to the emotive tales of embittered men who had returned from Vietnam to launch a personal battle to end the killing. Many vets now encouraged Nicosia -- who by then had published a biography of Jack Kerouac called “Memory Babe” -- to write a book on their battles.
From its very start in 1988, the book project met resistance. Nicosia went through four publishers and a host of editors who either didn’t understand the book or were replaced in mid-draft. One told Nicosia the project was too critical of the government and ordered him to change the tone or lose the book contract. Nicosia chose the latter.
At the same time, he was fighting the FBI over the release of agency documents. After Nicosia filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the files, the FBI came back with excuse after excuse: There were too many files to copy; many were lost or not properly categorized; they didn’t have the manpower to fill his request.
But Nicosia persisted. “I’m a bulldog personality,” he said. “I knew I could write my book without the files because I had hundreds of firsthand testimonies. But I saw I was getting the runaround. And I didn’t like it. It made me angry.”
That anger led him to seek the help of not only Kerry but also the American Civil Liberties Union and other 1st Amendment rights groups.
David Addlestone, general counsel for the National Veterans Legal Services Program, said, “Gerry’s victory can be instructive. The government can sometimes lose sight of things, and this is how secrecy can get out of hand.”
Finally, in 1998, the FBI acquiesced. Agency supervisors began returning Nicosia’s calls. “My wife would pick up the phone and laugh,” he said. “She’d say, ‘Honey, it’s for you. It’s the FBI.’ ”
Over nine months, unmarked boxes began to arrive at his home. But by then, Nicosia was scrambling to make a publishing deadline -- trying to cut a 2,000-page manuscript to 700 pages.
There wasn’t time to properly examine the files. He decided to at some point donate the stacks to some historical archive where future historians could make better sense of them.
“I knew I had won the fight with the FBI but that after me the door could be closed,” he said. “These files were evidence of government run amok. But they also shed light on the inner workings of a major Vietnam protest organization. The files told both stories.”
So for more than five years the papers collected dust inside Nicosia’s Marin County home. After allowing a Los Angeles Times reporter access to a portion of the documents, Nicosia provided to Kerry copies of the same material. The candidate later said he was shocked by the scope of the FBI’s monitoring. Even though he had received a copy of his own slim personal FBI dossier, Kerry was unaware that a much larger file existed that included reports on his activities as a VVAW leader.
But Nicosia knew he had the goods. And after several TV and newspaper reports, everybody else knew it too.
This is how crazy Nicosia’s life has become: He’s driving between interviews at two cable news stations. His cellphone rings. It’s a reporter who says he’s writing the definitive story on Kerry and demands exclusive access to Nicosia’s files.
The historian tells the reporter to call him back. But he’s having problems retrieving voicemail messages on his cellphone. So the reporter’s call and countless others go unanswered.
Between looking after his children, working on his new book and trying to sell a recently finished novel that deals with abortion, Nicosia has answered 300 press calls. Kerry’s campaign also wants to see what’s in his documents.
While he’s moved the files to a safe location, the author remains troubled. “My kids were really spooked by the burglary,” he said. “And it bothers my wife when I get involved in these political melees.”
But there’s a silver lining amid all the boxes. Due to the media attention, Avalon Books will reissue “Home to War,” which had been out of print. The book sold 20,000 copies in its first printing and was named a notable book of the year by both the Los Angeles Times and Publisher’s Weekly.
The new version will include a preface by Nicosia and a forward by Anthony Swofford, author of “Jarhead,” on the similarities between issues facing veterans returning from Vietnam and Iraq.
At home, Nicosia’s telephone still does funny things. But does the suddenly in-demand author with the wiry gray hair really think that the FBI might be keeping a file on him too?
“If they’re not,” he quipped, “they’re not doing their job.”