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What It Was Like To Be Spied On Before The Internet

According to author Seth Rosenfeld, the most innovative part of the 20th century FBI was not its technology but its bureaucracy.

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These days, we tend to focus on the technology of spying — the facial recognition, the data dives, the situation rooms with 1,000 screens. But even today, the human network is key to the way the FBI operates. And as investigative journalist Seth Rosenfeld writes in his new book Subversives:The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power, the FBI has long been an innovator not in surveillance technology, but in something far, far less sexy: bureaucracy.

Rosenfeld focuses on the FBI's infiltration of U.C. Berkeley student activism in the 1960s; for research, he plowed through over 300,000 documents, many of them never before seen by civilians. And what he found was chilling.

"Say you went to a meeting of the [Berkeley] Young Socialist Alliance. They had informants in every chapter who reported the names of everyone who showed up. They would have checked their files, see if they had other info, and entered your name in the index," Rosenfeld said in a phone interview. "If you came to a second meeting it would be noted. If you started being active, they would have found out where you lived, worked, who your parents were. They would have gone to the registrar's office, as they did every day in those days. They would get your utility record. They might talk to your landlord."

He added: "The more active you became, the more attention you would get. If you became an officer in one of these groups, you would be investigated even more. They had informants with anti-war groups, free-speech groups. They opened files on everyone who got arrested at a sit-in."

Thousands of students and teachers were spied on in this way: a backbreakingly dull undertaking for the agents, who resorted to pranks to get through their shifts. In the book, Rosenfeld breaks news — about Ronald Reagan's long relationship as an informant for FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover when he was elected governor of California, and about the role of Richard Aoki, a member of the Black Panther party and much-respected radical, as an agency mole.

But beyond the headlines, Rosenfeld paints a picture of an unimaginably banal — and ruthlessly efficient — system. "It's all about the procedures, the very specific procedures, of keeping people under surveillance," he explained. The starting point for spying was something called the General Index — the pre-internet code-numbered index card filing system that held the country's secrets.

These thin slips of cardboard, which comprised the General Index, were the essence of the bureau's power, for they were the key to the files containing agents' reports on the subject's speechs, writings, meetings, finances, family lives, medical conditions, and sometimes their sexual activity. These files, in turn, filled banks of dull metal cabinets. Their contents were gleaned not only from openly conducted FBI interviews, but from surreptitious break-ins of homes and offices, illegal electronic surveillance, pretext phone calls to unsuspecting family members and carefully cultivated informers.


Along with its even more secret sister, the Security Index — the names and files of people who were to be rounded up and detained in case of a national emergency, including people like Norman Mailer — the General Index was the computer of its era. Its upkeep was key to the bureau's power — by requiring agents to always have at least two informants, to update their reports on a quarterly basis, and to carry a certain number of people on the security index. The sheer banality of the reports ran in stark contrast to their importance. "The whole thing was very procedural," he said, "If you went to a meeting of a radical group, you were stepping into this web."

And once the files were created, they didn't sit dormant. "Hoover went beyond just gatheting info. He would hurt people and groups, leak stuff to newspaper reporters, try to discredit them." If you applied for a government job, that file would come out. In one case, one of the famed Mitford sisters, Jessica Mitford, held a clerical job at the San Francisco Chronicle at the same time as she went to a socialist meeting. "Hoover sent a couple of agents to interview her boss about her and she was let go," Rosenfeld said, noting that was not an uncommon situation. (The author also noted that in one report, an agent details how he and his partner crawled under Mitford's house to spy on her — and then fell asleep.)

The movement leaders, of course, were Hoover's priority, but the rank-and-file spying — which would include "black bag" illegal break-ins along with phone taps — consumed an incredible share of agency time and resources.

"One of the most chilling things to me was how these thin slips of paper, these manila file folders, held tremendous power in that concentration of information. Hoover was the ultimate bureaucrat and he derived power from bureaucratic machinery," Rosenfeld said.

When I asked Rosenfeld whether he could see the technology of spying changing as he went through three decades of records, he thought for a minute and then said no. It all went back to the system, not the methodology. "The file is the unit of investigation. They open a file, get a piece of info, they put it in the file and produce a report. The file grows. A summary is sent to headquarters. The years go back and your file is still there," he said. Rosenfeld's book covers events into the '80s but with each periodic FBI scandal — NSA domestic wiretaps, revelations about FBI spying on the Occupy movement, increasing concern over warrantless telecommunications requests — it's not hard to see the pattern repeating itself.

As the FBI pursues computer crimes with increasing diligence, it's still the informants and face-to-face interviews that fuel arrests; think of the hacker Sabu, a "model informant" who spent months working for the agency. "What happened in the 50s-60s-70s is essentially a template for today's updated surveillance machinery," said Rosenfeld. As Sean Henry, a former leader of the FBI's cybersecurity team noted in an exit interview, they have found success by "using some of the same investigative techniques we use in the physical world—undercover operations, cooperating witnesses, and authorized surveillance techniques." Those techniques, he went on to say, are "time-tested." Hundreds of campus radicals, FBI informants, Berkeley professors and J. Edgar Hoover would agree.

Contact Reyhan Harmanci at

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