William T. Vollmann, Unabomber suspect, opens his FBI file

Award-winning author William T. Vollmann was suspected by the FBI of being the Unabomber.
(Robert Durell / For The Times)

Literary fans know William T. Vollmann as a National Book Award-winning author; the FBI knew him as Unabomber suspect S-2047.

In the September issue of Harper’s, Vollmann explores his FBI file in a brilliant, chilling essay about America and privacy, keyed to the strange experience of discovering he was suspected of being the Unabomber.

“I read his manifesto when it was published,” Vollmann writes. “Angry, pitiless, certain of its righteousness, intelligent but fatally incapable of proportionality and discrimination, it made a repellent impression.”


Repellent to him, maybe, but an unidentified informant connected it to Vollmann. He was one of seven writers so accused; his work was described as “anti-progress, anti-industrialist,” a characterization so vague as to apply to almost any writer -- such as, for example, Mark Twain.

To get his FBI file -- access to his NSA file is still pending -- it took Vollmann a Freedom of Information Act request, an appeal and a lawsuit. Officials reviewed 785 pages, then released just 294 pages to him; the rest are still secret.

When it comes to Vollmann, the writing is always as compelling as the facts, and these facts are tremendously compelling. It turns out that being a Unabomber suspect was both the start of his problems and the least of them. Although the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, has been in custody since 1996, the surveillance of Vollmann continued. The FBI parked outside of his house. It tracked his movements. Twice border guards have detained him for no reason, in 2002 and again in 2005.

The suspicion of Vollmann as a terrorist was unfounded from the first and now, with Kaczynski in prison, is clearly irrelevant. And yet the surveillance continued, and may still be ongoing. In Harper’s, he notes, “A draft of this article arrived with the envelope cut open and taped shut.”


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