Readers with exceptional memories may remember an article I did for this magazine's April 1993 issue discussing my symbiotic relationship as a reporter in West Berlin in the late '50s with "Boris"--a man who was then station chief of the KGB in East Berlin. The undercover agent had been posing as first secretary of the Soviet Embassy.
The point of the article was that reporters and sources use each other, to their real or perceived self-interest, and this is true whether the source is a State Department official or a Soviet spy. That's the way the system works.
This was admittedly not a big revelation. But as Dr. Watson might have remarked in one of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, there was a curious outcome.
Ed Fouhy, an old friend and former colleague at Group W Westinghouse Broadcasting, told me shortly after that AJR piece ran that he had read it and had something to add to the account. When I was transferred in 1964 from the Group W London bureau to WBZ TV in Boston as assistant news director, Fouhy was news director. As he recalls it, just before my family and I were scheduled to arrive, two men, identifying themselves as FBI agents, asked to see him.
He says he met with them in the public lobby of the TV station, and they told him that they had information that I had been in touch with Soviet agents or diplomats in Berlin. They thought he ought to know. The suggestion was that he might want to consider this before accepting me as his assistant, given my contacts with a Communist diplomat. Remember, this was the height of the Cold War.
Fouhy's answer was: "He's a reporter. That's what reporters do. They talk to people." The agents left. I came to Boston and didn't hear then from Fouhy or anybody else about the FBI's interest in me.
Fouhy went on to become a big-deal producer at CBS, a Washington bureau chief for CBS and ABC, and now an authentic, influential Journalistic Figure, as director of the Pew Center for the States and editor of Stateline.org.
I also, in my career, had a few more detours, as a diplomatic correspondent in Washington with Westinghouse Broadcasting, with UPI and now with Deutsche Presse-Agentur, the German Press Agency. But, after talking to Fouhy, I became curious about the FBI visit. Why would the agents have suggested to a prospective employer that an ordinary American journalist who was trying to tap sources in East Berlin should be "outed" as a possibly disloyal American? So, like hundreds of thousands of other American citizens, I got in line (no queue-jumping for journalists) and applied through the Freedom of Information Act for my FBI files.
The returns came in this spring--five years after the request. The FBI search resulted in seven pages on me, many of them heavily blacked out with accompanying cryptic notes. Two other pages were held back; I can only guess what might be in them.
Of those I received, one page was almost totally redacted. It comes from the "cryptanalysis - translation section" of the Legal Attaché in the U.S. Embassy in Bonn. The explanation for blacking it out is contained in the code, which states, "specifically authorized under criteria by an Executive order to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy." Hmmm.
What was it about a young reporter in Berlin, working first with the American Forces Network and then as a freelancer for American and British news organizations, that would warrant action under an executive order?
I'll probably never know. But a friend in Berlin who worked with the Defense Intelligence Agency in the U.S. Military Liaison Mission in Potsdam, just outside of Berlin, helped to make some sense of events. His occupation was basically spying on Soviet and East German military installations, but it also involved playing cops-and-robbers-cum-stock-car-racers with the Soviet military in East Germany.
My wife, Carlotta, and I lived in a picturesque house in West Berlin. Often we both were away on various projects, leaving an East German day-maid alone at home. My wife was also a journalist. When we returned one day, the maid reported that employees of a "movie company" had asked to look over the house for a film they were planning to make. She let them in. From that day on, in those Cold War days, I assumed the phones were tapped and that perhaps the house was bugged.
I assumed correctly, as it turned out. Our DIA friend, when he was not doing car chases, was reading the classified traffic from Berlin to the Bonn embassy. He saw the transcripts of our innocent phone conversations, some of them with him, but knew he couldn't tell us about them. So he did a clever thing. He let us know indirectly that we were being tapped. We had an answering service that required us to give a password before the operator would read back the messages. Our password was "California." When we met our friend for dinner one night, he opened the door and said, "Ah, the Californias." 'Nuff said.
I assume information about those taps is on the missing pages of the FBI notes, courtesy of the translation section in Bonn. I pity the translators listening to the mundane conversations we had. It must have been almost as bad as Winston Lord's wiretappers. When Lord was on Henry Kissinger's National Security Council, the tappers had to listen to his Chinese-born wife, Betty Bao Lord, exchange recipes with her mother.
How did the FBI know that we were being transferred from an overseas bureau of Westinghouse Broadcasting to a TV station in the United States? Another memorandum said that an "established source of the Boston Office," with the name blacked out, had tipped off the FBI. Now, who could know about my transfer and suggest that it might be of interest to the FBI? I'll never know. But I do know that an executive of the Boston station WBZ TV was a former FBI agent. He kept warm relations with the Boston office of the FBI, as I am told do many former agents, creating a kind of stringer network.
The FBI memo, with the tipster's name blacked out, concludes, "In view of the fact that both subjects reportedly born in the United States and [long blacked-out portion] coupled with the fact no subversive sympathies known to be held by them, it is felt no further investigation is warranted at this time and this case is being closed."
I suppose I should feel heartened by the conclusions in my FBI files, which were finally sent to me five years after my request and more than 30 years after my stay in West Berlin. But I don't. This is why:
• I believe it is intrusive and superfluous for the FBI to scrutinize journalists and to examine their loyalties, as they did during the Cold War. I hope this scrutiny hasn't continued.
• In one FBI document, my wife and I are cleared because we were born in the United States and had no known "subversive sympathies." What if I had been born in Britain, like my son, now an Economist correspondent, or my daughter, an online editor at The Motley Fool? Does the U.S. government attach a different standard of loyalty to citizens who were born abroad? Would the FBI come to different conclusions about our subversiveness, now that my wife has published a sympathetic biography of her anarchist (gasp!) grandfather?
• What if I or my family members had become ardent supporters of strict gun control, or the opposite? Or had become pro-abortion or radically anti-abortion? What if I had taken a job at the Washington Times, which has links to the Unification Church? Would that have put me on the list of those supporting fringe movements? Would we still get a clearance?
Additionally, the FBI files I have seen contain elemental errors. My wife's middle name is not and never was "Karina," as my file states. I was not in the U.S. Army when I worked for AFN. I was a civilian, and I received my earlier Army discharge in the United States, not in Germany. I can only wonder if the unseen files contain more serious kinds of misinformation.
Have you checked your own FBI file? Do you have any loyalties that might be defined by FBI special agents or people they interview as suspicious or subversive? You ought to think about this.