One of the more unusual voices to emerge in the clamor over the character attacks in the presidential race belongs to William C. Ibershof, a former federal prosecutor who now lives near San Francisco.
In 1973, Ibershof tried to put William Ayers, a founding member of the Weather Underground, in prison for an alleged conspiracy to bomb political targets. Ayers, now an education professor in Chicago, has become a fixture in John McCain’s attempt to raise doubts about Barack Obama.
Obama met Ayers when the former radical hosted an event to introduce Obama at the start of his political career. The two have served together on boards, but are not close.
“It seemed manifestly unfair to tar him with this association,” Ibershof said in a telephone interview this weekend from his home in Mill Valley. “Sen. Obama had known Ayers during a period he was named Citizen of the Year in Chicago, not when he was committing those terrorist acts.”
So Ibershof wrote a letter to the New York Times, saying he was “amazed and outraged” that Obama was being linked to the former radical’s terrorist activities, which occurred when “Mr. Obama, was, as he has noted, just a child.”
Ibershof, a registered Democrat, has donated about $200 to Obama’s presidential campaign, but the 73-year-old former prosecutor said nobody put him up to his protest.
“I came to this gradually but surely watching the campaign,” Ibershof said. “It just didn’t make any sense to me.”
In the letter, Ibershof also defends his reputation, taking issue with the characterization that the case against Ayers was dismissed for “prosecutorial misconduct.” The government dropped the case after the Nixon administration’s “illegal activities, including wiretaps, break-ins and mail interceptions,” were exposed, he said.
Ibershof was a young prosecutor in Detroit in 1972 when he took over the prosecution of the radical Weathermen. Ayers, the group’s “education minister” who was then in hiding, and 14 other Weather Underground leaders had been accused of plotting at a 1969 meeting in Flint, Mich., to launch a terror campaign.
Ibershof said the bombings were thought to include a 1970 pipe bomb attack on a San Francisco police station, which killed an officer. The crime has never been solved.
But before the trial even began, some of the defense lawyers asserted their offices had been broken into and searched, Ibershof said.
He also discovered the government had illegally bugged some of the defendants. “I had a sizable room full of files with wiretaps that were not obtained by court order,” he said.
The illegal tactics were ordered by Atty. Gen. John N. Mitchell and FBI assistant director W. Mark Felt, who was later unmasked as the Watergate scandal’s “Deep Throat,” Ibershof said. They were part of a plan, exposed during the Watergate hearings, to use “espionage techniques” to gather intelligence on domestic foes.
Even after the revelations, Ibershof believed that he could have prevailed. But after a federal judge ordered a sweeping hearing on the burglary and surveillance charges, the government decided in 1973 to drop the case in the interests of national security, he said.
McCain supporters have denounced Ayers as an “unrepentant terrorist.” Ibershof said he believes people deserve a chance to redeem themselves, “a human reaction anyone would have.”
After leaving the prosecutor’s office, Ibershof moved to San Francisco in 1975 and opened a business litigation practice. He retired about 10 years ago. He said he was unaware of the blizzard of blog postings, pro and con, about his letter. But he has heard from some friends.
“They thought it was a good letter,” he said.