Sunday, August 2, 1998
Why FBI keeps so many files closed
By Joseph Spear
It appears there is something Bill Clinton didn't tell
us three years ago when he ordered the automatic
declassification of government secrets that were more
than 25 years old.
He exempted the FBI.
This is a little like promulgating new zoo rules and
exempting the elephants. According to the Commission on
Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, there are 1.5
billion pages of certified secrets that are at least 25
years old. An estimated 200 million-plus of these lie
a-moldering in the FBI's vaults, second only to the
Pentagon, which has 998 million pages.
When Clinton determined to crack down on secrecy in
government, the bureau asserted that its files were too
massive to finish the job by the year 2000; that the
release of FBI files would violate privacy laws; and that
the wholesale release of documents would imperil national
The administration bought the arguments and consented to
let the bureau proceed at its own pace.
The existence of the agreement was itself a secret until
it surfaced in a recent legal case, and the Washington
Post filed a Freedom of Information request for it.
As it happens, I have some expertise in the matter of
secret FBI files. While working for muckraking columnist
Jack Anderson in the early 1970s, I came into the
possession of, oh, perhaps a thousand pages of them.
What I discovered was that the bureau spent an inordinate
amount of time probing the private lives of political
figures, movie stars, athletes and assorted luminaries.
I obtained files on -- to name but a few -- actors Jane
Fonda, Harry Belafonte, Tony Randall and Rock Hudson;
singer Eartha Kitt; civil-rights leaders Coretta Scott
King, Ralph David Abernathy and Floyd McKissick; football
players Joe Namath and Lance Rentzel; baby doctor Benjamin
Spock; boxer Muhammad Ali; investigative reporter I.F.
Stone; and writer James Baldwin.
At the time, Jane Fonda was a rambunctious anti-war activist,
and the FBI regarded her as "subversive" and an "anarchist."
They followed her to college campuses and military bases and
wrote down every word she said.
When she appeared on a nationally televised talk show, FBI
agents faithfully taped and transcribed her remarks and then
stamped their transcript: "Top Secret. No Foreign
Dissemination. No Dissemination Abroad. Controlled
Dissemination. For Background Use Only."
When Fonda was detained in 1970 on suspicion of bringing
"drugs" into the country from Canada, the authorities
itemized everything in her possession and copied a notebook
which contained the addresses and telephone numbers of such
well-known revolutionaries as Kirk Douglas, Paul Newman and
Tony Curtis. The notebook showed up in the FBI files. The
drugs, incidentally, turned out to be vitamins and
The late writer James Baldwin's file notes that on July 13,
1969, he "arrived at Istanbul, Turkey, from Athens, Greece,
via Air France."
There followed the complete transcript of an interview that
Baldwin granted to a Turkish newspaper called "Milliyet."
It was marked "Secret -- No Foreign Dissemination."
Eartha Kitt was of interest because she participated in
civil-rights rallies, including Martin Luther King Jr.'s
1963 March on Washington.
How did the bureau know this? Because "movie actor Charlton
Heston ... furnished a list of movie personalities who planned
to participate in the march.' "
Rock Hudson's file contained this national-security secret:
"During 1965 ... a confidential informant reported that
several years ago while he was in New York he had an 'affair'
with movie star Rock Hudson. The informant stated that from
personal knowledge he knew that Rock Hudson was a homosexual.
... On another occasion, information was received ... that it
was common knowledge in the motion-picture industry that Rock
Hudson was suspected of having homosexual tendencies."
I think you can deduce from all this yet another reason the
FBI is so intent on keeping many of its files secret. And it
has less to do with national security than it does political
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