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Bill Berkowitz: Black-bag jobs in the Heartland

Black-bag jobs in the Heartland

The apartment of Randy Gould, an anti-Vietnam War activist indicted in 1971, was broken into several times while he awaited trial. Was 'Deep Throat' behind the break-ins?
Bill Berkowitz

The revelation that W. Mark Felt, the 91-year-old former FBI deputy director, was "Deep Throat" ended a mystery that had lasted for more than thirty years. Felt's admission, in a recent issue of Vanity Fair magazine, brought out the Nixon remnants, a coterie of former ex-convicts, bagmen, and apologists for the disgraced president. Within hours of the revelations, former Nixon Administration operatives, Charles Colson, G. Gordon Liddy, and Pat Buchanan took to the cable news airwaves.

The three amigos helped kick off a media-driven debate over the ethics of Felt's actions. It was more than a bit surreal to hear these Watergate figures vigorously commenting on Felt's morality and ethics. The fact that both Colson and Liddy were Watergate criminals and served time in prison did not slow down their rush to judgment.

Colson, the Counsel to President Nixon who was intimately involved with the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP), told both MSNBC and CNN that he was "shocked" by the revelation. G. Gordon Liddy, who currently hosts a popular radio talk show and is regularly called upon by the cable news networks for commentary, told CNN's Paul Zahn that he saw Felt "as someone who violated the ethics of the law enforcement profession."

Pat Buchanan, a former speechwriter for President Nixon, characterized Felt as a "snake." Buchanan, who has run for the presidency several times, has been a controversial right wing commentator in his own right, with his particular brand of white nationalist and anti-immigrant politics.

Was Felt a hero for helping guide Washington Post Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the right direction during their investigation of Watergate -- an investigation that ultimately forced Nixon to resign from the presidency in 1974? Was he an insider who broke laws and dishonored his office?

Some commentators argued that Felt had been solely motivated by his animus for the Nixon Administration. Other pundits suggested that his actions were based on his anger over having not been selected to head the FBI after J. Edgar Hoover's death.

Ronald Kessler, who interviewed Felt for his book, 'The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI," told the Boston Globe's Michael Kranish that he thought Felt had hoped that "Nixon would be kicked out and he would be FBI director, but I think his main motive was altruistic." Leaking to Woodward 'was a guarantee that the investigation was not suppressed."

While the media was refreshing the public's collective memory about the Watergate Affair, details about Felt's 1980 conviction for authorizing unconstitutional break-ins at the homes of anti-Vietnam War activists also emerged.

David Gergen, a Nixon speechwriter during the Watergate era, told the Globe's Kranish in a telephone interview that Felt 'was no innocent. Until we understand his motivations we ought to be a little cautious." Gergen pointed to Felt's November 1980 conviction (along with fellow FBI "intelligence" chief Edward S. Miller) of authorizing break-ins at the homes of anti-Vietnam War activists, including suspected members of the Weather Underground, a radical antiwar group suspected of bombings. These illegal "black-bag jobs" also referred to as "surreptitious entries" during the trial, were warrant less and unconstitutional searches of at least five private homes in New York and New Jersey, which the FBI suspected of harboring members of the Weather Underground.

According to Ward Churchill and Jim Vanderwall's book, "The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI's Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States" (South End Press, 2002), Felt and Miller were the "only FBI personnel ever tried and convicted of COINTELPRO-related offenses."

Ironically, according to an account of Felt's trial published by the New York Times, "One of the witnesses on Felt's behalf was none other than [Richard] Nixon, who testified that presidents for decades had authorized the FBI to allow break-ins to investigate matters such as counterespionage." Former Attorneys General John Mitchell and Richard Kleindienst also testified in Felt and Miller's behalf.

In 1981, Felt was pardoned by President Ronald Reagan, who either did not know or did not care that Felt was suspected of being "Deep Throat."

Randy Gould, an anti-Vietnam war activist at the University of Kansas during the 1970s, believes that he may have been a victim of Mark Felt's "black-bag jobs." On June 6, at his Oread Daily web log, Gould wrote that while he and three other anti-war activists from the Lawrence, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri area were on trial for "conspiracy," on more than one occasion he would return to his Kansas City apartment and find his place had been ransacked.

At the time, Gould writes, the government "alleged lots of things that weren't true and lots of things that were irrelevant," including charges that he and the others "were connected to the Weather Underground Organization."

Although averse to dwelling on the past "because I'm not all that interested in what Bruce Springsteen refers to as 'boring stories of glory days,'" Gould responded to a series of e-mailed questions, hoping that "talking about his experiences might help fill out the picture about Felt and the FBI's abusive activities during those times."

Gould's Oread Daily is a daily online newsletter covering news from a progressive point of view. The OD, which takes its name from a mimeographed daily newsletter published in Lawrence, Kansas during the late sixties and early seventies, is available by subscription or online.

(Disclosure: In the 1970s, I was a member of Gould's Defense Committee.)

Bill Berkowitz: In 1971, you were indicted by a federal grand jury in Kansas City, Missouri. What were the circumstances surrounding that indictment?

Randy Gould: I, along with three other men, were indicted on July 9, 1971 by a federal grand jury in Kansas City, Missouri conducted by the infamous Guy Goodwin, who ran similar grand jury operations against activists all across the country at that time. The Grand Jury charged us with participating in a series of bombings that had taken place in Kansas City, Missouri and Lawrence, Kansas, in 1970. I believe the actual charge was conspiracy to make, possess, and transport explosives devices across state lines without paying the required federal tax. I was also charged with three felony counts by the state of Kansas in Douglas County (Lawrence) for the bombing alleged in the federal indictment which took place there, and by Johnson County (suburban Kansas City) with four felony counts relating to two bombings there which were also alleged in the federal indictment.

BB: How long did the trial last?

RG: Actually, there were three trials: The first was a state trial that took place in Johnson County, Kansas, and lasted three or four days. That trial ended with a mistrial declared by the judge for prosecutorial misconduct, and those charges were later dismissed.

The second trial took place in Douglas County, Kansas and lasted only a few days. It ended in a finding of not guilty on all three counts.

For the federal trial, the third and final trial, the government brought in a special prosecutor, Bob Schneider, from the Justice Department's Internal Security Division to handle the case. This trial took place in Kansas City, Missouri and lasted for about a month. I, and two others, was found guilty.

BB: How much time did you serve in prison?

RG: Although indicted in 1971, the federal trial did not occur until the spring of 1973. Sentencing, which followed appeals, occurred in 1975. By the time we were sentenced, a lot had been reported about Watergate and government misconduct in numerous cases similar to ours. I think that is probably why I served less then a year in federal prison. I started my sentence in November of 1975 and was out in July of 1976. I served time in El Reno, Oklahoma and at Leavenworth, Kansas. I was given an additional four years of probation; so overall, the whole ordeal took about a decade.

BB: At your Oread Daily blog, you mentioned that your apartment was broken into.

RG: Actually there were several break ins. I was waiting for the trials to begin at the time and living with a woman in an apartment in Kansas City, Missouri. Several times, we came home to find the apartment in total disarray. Our personal items were thrown everywhere; our bed was taken apart; the dresser drawers were emptied, the works.

We reported this to the police, but nothing came of it. One time, we arrived home earlier then expected. We tried to open the door to the apartment, but the chain lock was attached and we could not get in. We heard people in the apartment. I left Candace, my friend, at the front door with our dog Joe Hill, and raced down the stairs to go around back where I figured they would be exiting. In retrospect, I am not sure what I intended to do if I met them there. Anyway, they were gone. When we got in, we found our phone disassembled and once again, all sorts of items were strewn about. In all of these break-ins, the only items ever missing were legal files, political writings, and phone lists.

There were other related incidents. One night we spotted a car with two men out front. I went downstairs again to confront them, but they sped away. We did get a partial license number that turned out to belong to the federal government.

BB: Were you or your lawyer able to do anything about the break-ins?

RG: These break-ins occurred in 1971 and 1972. At the time, my lawyer didn't do anything really, but after our conviction and after the actions of government burglars had been made public by some congressional committees, he filed a motion for the jury verdict to be set aside based on illegal government activity including violation of lawyer client privilege. (We also discovered that a government informant was working within our defense committee.) As part of the motion, we requested information from any number of government agencies and police departments. We received, and I still have, lots and lots of files and affidavits declaring no wrongdoing on the government's part. The judge seemed to accept their declaration of innocence and never pursued the matter. Nothing really ever came of it.

Interestingly enough, Clarence Kelly, the Chief of Police of Kansas City, was appointed head of the FBI after L. Patrick Gray. At hearings in Washington, he testified under oath that the Kansas City Police Department did not partake in surveillance of political activists unless it was part of a specific criminal investigation.

However, because of discovery in our case, I had numerous Kansas City, Missouri police logs that clearly showed surveillance of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) members, which directly contradicted Kelly's testimony. Although I wrote the committee about this, I never heard from them nor did I follow it up.

BB: As has been recently revealed, W. Mark Felt was "Deep Throat," and played an important role in Woodward and Bernstein's ability to find that the road from Watergate led directly to the White House. A few years later Felt was convicted of having arranged a series of "black-bag jobs" involving break-ins at the homes of anti-war activists, thereby violating their constitutional rights. How do you see Felt's role both during the Watergate investigation and later on against anti-war protesters?

RG: I am certainly glad that Felt helped bring the Watergate story out into the open. It is, of course, important to keep in mind that he was not completely alone. The person who really blew the cover-up apart was Alexander Porter Butterfield, who was brought on board at the recommendation of H.R. Haldeman, to act as a Deputy Assistant to the President, supervising internal security at the White House. Butterfield helped set up the secret taping system and his disclosure of that system is probably what eventually brought Nixon down.

Felt was a key part of COINTELPRO, which to me was more significant then the actual Watergate burglary. Although the existence of COINTELPRO was not as shocking to activists at the time, it was surprising when it was brought out into the open. Since that time, however, everything possible has been done to bury that part of American history. Consequently, the big news about Felt is in regards to Watergate. The "black-bag jobs" piece of the story has been relegated to a sidebar.

So it isn't surprising that a few decades later, the government feels safe enough to bring forth the Patriot Act which legalizes much of what an aroused public demanded be stopped after Watergate and the subsequent disclosures about the "Plumbers."

Clearly, government activities have not been squeaky clean in the intervening years since Watergate. However, in the post 9/11 world, the Bush Administration appears to have no qualms about making back door chicanery legal again


For more please see the Bill Berkowitz archive.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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