Civil libertarians are up in arms over various measures to be included in Patriot Act II. I do not often share their misgivings, but I must admit that my own personal experience with the FBI suggests that it might be just as well if someone does keep a critical eye on what the Bureau is up to.
I was teaching at Columbia University when someone named Bogdan Walewski called. Though he was a Polish citizen, he explained that he worked for the United Nations. He asked if he could drop by to discuss trends in American culture. We had a good chat at the end of which he invited my wife and I to dinner at an expensive French restaurant in New York.
I accepted the invitation without hesitation, as I had never even been near one of those. However, bringing along my wife was a bit of a problem. At the time, I had been divorced for more than a year. Instead,I brought with me to the restaurant a woman who was living with me. We had a lavish dinner and pleasant chit chat. But everything changed when Mr. Walewski called on January 13, 1965. This time he was all business. He told me that he was well aware that I was Jewish and a refugee from Nazi Germany. He had read about my adamant opposition to granting West Germany a finger on the nuclear trigger, as I had stated in a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine.
Walewski explained that the USSR was very concerned about this matter and that I could, singlehandedly, help stop the Germans dead in their tracks if I would get him a report that my colleague Richard Neustadt had prepared on the subject for President Johnson. I knew nothing about the report other than that I had read somewhere that it was "for the president's eyes only," which is more highly classified than top secret. It took me a long minute to realize that I was being asked to spy, which is not exactly part of the daily routine of a university professor or, I guess, of anyone else.
I told Walewski to leave my office and that I was going to report this conversation to the FBI before he even hit the door. He warned me that "I will let it be known that you are not married to the woman you live with." I told him to get going and immediately called the local FBI. I expected some high-ranking agents to rush over and interview me, maybe even ask me to set a trap for the guy. Instead, I got someone at some switchboard who, to my utter amazement, was uninterested in my story. I decided to put it all in a memo which I sent to the FBI in New York City. In response, I received a form letter, appreciating my communication. Heck, I concluded, if nobody cared about Soviet spies hiding in the middle of New York City, on the payroll of the United Nations, I had other fish to fry.
Almost exactly 25 years later, in July 1990, I received a letter from Walewski; he wanted to apologize. He had been serving as an American agent and was ordered to check on my loyalty. (He was later caught while spying for the United States in Warsaw, and was released in 1985 in a spy exchange between the United States and the communist block.)
Walewski's letter was less of a surprise than you might expect. By 1990, I'd had other indications that during the Johnson and Nixon administrations I, like many other peace activists and those working for civil rights, had been under FBI surveillance. I still resented that my criticism of American foreign policy led to my loyalty to the United States being cast in doubt. I believed, and still do, that those of us who were opposed to the war in Vietnam and sought to diminish the danger of nuclear war were truer to America than those who escalated the war in Vietnam and rested on the safety of the nation on a growing pile of H-bombs.
The Walewski letter provided me with an occasion for reflection. I've never had any doubt about the essential role of individual rights in our lives. It does not take a Ph.D. in anything to realize that a free society will not remain free for long if critics of free speech can be muzzled, if those who criticize the government are treated like traitors. Although I realize that as of 9/11, we do need new measures to ensure our safety, nothing teaches better than experience. My being treated as a suspect, as someone whose loyalty the FBI had to test for the nation's safety because of a few speeches I made, articles I had written, and demonstrations I marched in was so infuriating that it stayed with me for many years to come. I hope for instance, for Iraqis living in the USA against hope that as the new safety dragnets are drawn tighter, that none of them will be tricked and tested the way I was.