An Epidemic Of Terrorism
From Dallas to San Salvador
"Gilberto" and "The Doctor"
Allies in the Shadows
excerpted from the book
Break-ins, Death Threats
and the FBI
the covert war against the Central America movement
by Ross Gelbspan
South End Press, 1991
It is difficult to date with precision the beginning of the
extended campaign of official harassment and covert low-grade
domestic terrorism that continued to the end of the Reagan Administration
and beyond. The reporting of such incidents is not comprehensive.
Except for a few veteran activists, most Americans are not comfortable
telling others they are the subject of an FBI inquiry. Many mainstream
church members and younger activists, as well as refugees from
El Salvador and Guatemala, have been intimidated into silence.
Other targets of harassment and intimidation, unaware of the systematic
nature of such activities and believing their experiences to be
isolated events, had no reason to go public with their stories.
But in piecing together scores of confirmed reports of both
official harassments and secret, mysterious violations, there
emerges the unmistakable picture of a deliberate, coordinated
and extended campaign of political rape, in which the homes and
workplaces of political activists have been invaded, their belongings
stolen or trashed and their sense of security deeply violated.
Monitoring Subversion in Miami
In January, 1985, Edward Haase, a 32-year-old Kansas City-based
radio journalist, arrived in Miami after spending two months in
Nicaragua.. As he moved through the Miami airport, a Customs official
examined his belongings, which included personal diaries and a
number of Nicaraguan newspapers. The Customs official told Haase:
"We're checking for possible subversive material for the
FBI. They want to talk to you. " After a twenty minute wait,
Haase was approached by an FBI agent from the Miami office.
He asked the journalist how long he had been in Nicaragua
and what he had been doing. Haase explained he was a freelance
journalist who had gone down to observe the elections. When he
asked the agent what constituted subversive material, he was told:
"Anything that advocates the violent overthrow of the U.S.
government." Haase breathed a sigh of relief. "I thought,
I'm fine. I'm not carrying anything like that here., Meanwhile,
Customs officials were combing Haase's belongings-especially books,
writings and printed material. After about three hours, told the
Customs officials he was concerned about missing his connecting
flight to Kansas City. As the Customs official took him to an
upper level of the airport to check on flight times, Haase saw
the FBI agent, Jose Miranda, leaning over a Xerox machine copying
his papers. He was subsequently given his material back and allowed
to leave. On his return, Haase called the Center for Constitutional
Rights. Attorney Michael Ratner contacted the Miami FBI office
who said they copied Haase's material in order to disseminate
it to the INS and other FBI field offices. The material included
an address book that listed the names and phone numbers of Haase's
friends and contacts. They had also copied his diary. "There
was nothing special in it that disturbed me. But it feels like
a tremendous violation of my person," he said later.
Haase said that the FBI later defended its activities, citing
its mandate for foreign counter-intelligence. But, as in the case
of the 100 or so other travelers subjected to Customs seizures,
nothing illegal was discovered. "This might have been legitimate
had the FBI had some prior evidence that the travelers were working
on behalf of the Nicaraguan government. But no such evidence existed.
This was harassment pure and simple. Even then, it didn't do what
it set out to do-stop citizens from participating in work to prevent
American intervention in Nicaragua," Haase said. "There
was no evidence that any of us was acting as an agent of a foreign
power. What we were doing was carrying out our responsibility
as citizens of the United States, expressing our opinions and
doing everything within the law to make this a better country.
If we think our country is doing something wrong, it is a duty
as an American to raise our voices."
... January 7, 1987: The office of Rev. Timothy Limburg, pastor
of the Christian Reformed Church of Washington, D.C., was burgled
for the second time within a month. "In December, I went
to my office on Sunday morning to find the door had been jimmied.
The office was a mess. A bottle of ink had been thrown against
the wall. I called the police, who told me fingerprint people
would be by later. They never showed up. When I began to clean
up the office, I realized this was not simple vandalism. I found
they had rifled a box of old records in my closet. They went through
old canceled checks and old income tax returns. One thing they
found-and obviously examined-were two old passports of mine. One
was issued in 1976 when I visited my brother in Managua. He's
been active in Central America work for a long time. The second
passport used to go to Guatemala in 1981. I had no idea the passports
were still around. But they found them and looked them over. Then
on January 7, the office was broken into again. This time, they
went through all the files in the outer office. They took the
office copy of the church directory, our only updated copy with
the names of new members. That was an act of intimidation. They're
telling me, 'We can get in whenever we want.' At this point, I'm
far more angry than I am intimidated. I think it's outrageous
that this happens in this country. It can't go on."
From Dallas to San Salvador
From its beginnings, the history of El Salvador has been a
history of unrelenting power struggles, of periodic uprisings
followed by periods of brutal repression by a series of military
and civilian rulers. By the end of the 19th Century, a group of
wealthy land-owning families had virtually abolished El Salvador's
traditional export crops of balsam and indigo to establish large,
lucrative coffee plantations. They were helped by President Rafael
Zaldivar's order in 1880 to expropriate communal lands inhabited
by the native population for the coffee growers, a decision that
was backed by the creation of an armed rural police force.
The succeeding years of peasant revolts, economic depressions
and the proliferation of security and police forces led, in 1931,
to the election of a socialist president, Arturo Araujo, who was
promptly overthrown by the Minister of War General Maximiliano
Hemandez Martinez. The following year, the Salvadoran Communist
Party, led by Agustin Farabundo Marti, led an attempted overthrow
of the military government. That revolt resulted in "la matanza,"
a massacre of between 10,000 and 30,000 Salvadoran peasants, leftists
and trade unionists at the hands of Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez
who, almost 50 years later, would be honored when a newly-formed
Salvadoran death squad was named after him.
By 1970, according to United Nations data, the top 10 percent
of the country's landowners owned about 80 percent of El Salvador's
agriculturally productive land. At the same time, crushing poverty
contributed to the deaths by age 5 of 38 out of every 100 children.
By 1976, a U.N. report cited El Salvador's unemployment rate as
the highest in the Western Hemisphere. Nearly 50 percent of adult
Salvadorans were unemployed or underemployed. Around this period,
elements of the Salvadoran leftist community split over whether
to pursue reforms through armed struggle or electoral strategies.
While some radicalized students and workers formed guerrilla bands
under the umbrella of the People's Revolutionary Army, a coalition
of Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and Communist Party supporters
mounted a slate headed by presidential candidate Jose Napoleon
Duarte and his vice-presidential running mate, Guillermo Ungo.
Their apparent electoral victory in 1972, however, fell apart
when Col. Arturo Molina, the candidate of the Salvadoran military,
seized power. His troops occupied the National University and
arrested 800 student protestors. At the same time, Duarte was
captured and put on trial for subversion.(The military judge who
rendered the guilty verdict that resulted in Duarte's exile was
the director of the Salvadoran Military Academy, Agustin Martinez
Varela, father of Frank Varelli.) In 1977, President Molina was
succeeded by his Defense Minister, Gen. Carlos Romero. Shortly
after his installation, Romero's security forces killed more than
100 demonstrators opposing what they claimed was his fraudulent
While the United States had generally turned a blind eye to
the repression perpetrated by El Salvador's military dictators,
State Department and CIA officials traditionally used U.S. aid
to leverage favorable treatment of U.S. economic interests in
El Salvador. Behind-the-scenes manipulations usually succeeded
in maintaining pro-U.S. Ieadership in San Salvador. While the
Carter Administration slightly modified that pattern, it did nothing
to fundamentally alter it. Reacting to the continuing human rights
abuses and escalating polarization, officials in the Carter Administration
pressured the Romero government to curtail abuses and ensure electoral
reforms. The succession of Salvadoran military leaders was interrupted
by a coup in October, 1979, led by a Carter-supported junta which
included members of the country's left wing as well as of reform-minded
military officers. In the spring of 1980, following the resignations
of several members of the junta, Jose Napoleon Duarte was appointed
to the ruling body. Nine months later, he assumed the presidency
with Washington's blessings.
U.S. officials described Duarte as moderate-able to communicate
with both sides, to help the country attain political security
and economic justice, in short, a grand mediator who might help
El Salvador find a middle road to democracy and stability. The
choice could hardly have been worse. Rather than emerging as a
force for stability and reconciliation, Duarte became a lightning
rod for all sides of the conflict-each of whom saw him as a representative
of the other side's agenda.
To the anti-communist elements in El Salvador's business and
military leadership, Duarte seemed the front man running interference
for a long-term Soviet-Cuban plan for the communist take-over
of El Salvador and, ultimately, all of Central America. They saw
Duarte as a mere puppet of Jimmy Carter, U.S. Ambassador Robert
White, and the Carter State Department in their deceitful sell-out
of El Salvador. And they saw their salvation in the incoming administration
of President-elect Ronald Reagan.
But if Duarte personified the political nightmare of the Salvadoran
right wing, his failure to implement meaningful land reform and
to bring the security forces and death squads under control left
him with virtually no support among the FMLN rebels in El Salvador
or the left-wing and liberal activists to the North.
At the same time that Reagan's transition chief, and soon-to-be
Director of Central Intelligence, William Casey, was advising
the new President to make a dramatic show of U.S. political and
military resolve in Central America, thousands of U.S. citizens
found themselves sickened by the increasing brutality in El Salvador.
The previous March, Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo
Romero preached a sermon at the Metropolitan Cathedral in San
Salvador in which he called for an end to the violence. Addressing
the members of the military, the National Guard and the National
Police, Msgr. Romero told them: "Each one of you is one of
us. The peasants you kill are your brothers and sisters...In the
name of God, I beg you: stop the repression." The next day,
March 24, 1980! as he was celebrating mass in a hospital chapel,
Archbishop Romero was assassinated by a sniper. The death of the
compassionate Archbishop, who had become increasingly known for
his advocacy on behalf of the poor and oppressed in El Salvador,
propelled him into international martyrdom.
The revulsion of U.S. citizens was heightened in November
of 1980, following the kidnapping of 20 leaders of the leftist
FDR party. The mutilated bodies of six of the leaders were discovered
outside San Salvador the next day.
The brutality hit North Americans hardest on December 4, 1980,
when the bodies of four recently murdered U.S. churchwomen, Maura
Clarke, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel, were discovered
in an unmarked grave near the airport.
Near-daily reports in the news media of the institutionalized
terrorism of the Salvadoran security forces and the increasing
atrocities perpetrated by the country's death squads-which, in
turn, provoked sabotage, assassinations and bombings by the leftist
FMLN-led U.S. citizens to form a number of new organizations,
as well as to reinvigorate existing groups, around the issue of
U.S. policies in El Salvador and Guatemala.
To liberal and leftist activists, Duarte appeared as the handmaiden
of the Reagan State Department, holding power by the grace of
U.S. military force. To them, Duarte appeared as the Reagan Administration's
adopted surrogate, sanctioning the increasing U.S. military presence
in the country while turning a blind eye to the rampant abuses
of the Salvadoran security forces and death squads which propelled
the flight of an endless stream of exploited, impoverished and
In fact, their assessment of Duarte was not entirely wrong.
Duarte was listed in the ClA's files as an asset, a source of
intelligence from whom the Agency benefited, even if it did not
control his activities.
It was this perception of El Salvador, Duarte and the Reagan
agenda that gave rise to the Committee in Solidarity with the
People of El Salvador (CISPES}a small group, born in 1980, that
would grow in the next few years to over 300 chapters in virtually
every major city in the United States. Formed initially as a vehicle
to protest U.S. policies in El Salvador, CISPES' membership grew
to include people concerned about conditions in Guatemala and
Honduras as well. And when the Reagan Administration turned all
its guns on the tiny country of Nicaragua-mining that country's
harbors, blockading its ports and fielding a small CIA-created
army of Nicaraguan contras-the U.S. Iiberal community gave birth
to a profusion of CISPES-type groups which rallied citizens around
the Nicaraguan cause and against U.S. military intervention in
CISPES remained the first and largest of the Central America-oriented
political groups of the 1980s. And depending on one's point of
view, the group either arose spontaneously to protest what its
members saw as offensive and unjust U.S. policies or covertly
as a diabolically clever creation of Moscow and Havana which insinuated
itself into the mainstream of U.S. political life in order to
undermine the forces of democracy and render the U.S. vulnerable
to an onslaught of international communist terrorism.
"Gilberto" and "The Doctor"
If Frank Varelli had never been born, he would have existed
a~ figment of Bill Casey's imagination. The short, spectacled,
mustachioed Varelli grew up in a crucible of political violence
which hardened in him a ruthless and obsessive hatred of communism.
From mentors in the Salvadoran military he learned the street
ways and strategies of the FMLN guerrillas and how they fit into
the right-wing version of a larger terror network driven by Moscow,
Havana and the PLO. But Varelli's study of human nature was no
less rigorous than his study of history. An evangelist by training,
he developed a deep understanding of what motivates people-an
understanding that served him well as one of the FBI's most effective
As "Gilberto Mendoza" he appeared to his fellow
CISPES members as humble, deferential, ingratiating and a valuable
source of information about developments in El Salvador. In tape
recordings of his phone calls to CISPES members, Mendoza's Colombo-like
manner is disarming and, when one understands his real purpose,
(Call No. 1)
Mendoza: Hello, is this the number of CISPES?
Woman: Yes, it is.
M: Well, I'm trying to get this material that came out in the
Mother Jones magazine. And I wanted to know how I will go about
W: OK. What materials were you interested in?
M: Well, I got it here. This one is "El Salvador on the Threshold
of a Democratic Revolutionary Victory." The other one is
called "E1 Salvador: A Brief Overview." One is four
dollars and the other is seventy five cents.
W: Listen, I need to look through my materials. I think I have
the brief overview. If I can have your address, Ill send you what
I do have that might be interesting.
M: Well, I think that would be fine.
W: Another thing is, I'll write on the material the date of our
next meeting in Dallas. You might like to come to that.
M: I'm very interested in finding out more.
W: Well, we're having a dinner a week from tonight-a fundraiser-for
us to keep working on the issue. And there'll be a speaker there.
I'll send you all this material plus the dates of the dinner and
of our next meeting. Could I have your name and address?
M: Let me get it because I just moved here. Just a second please.
OK. Let me give you this one. My name is Gilberto Antonio Ayala
Mendoza. Do you speak Spanish?
W: Just a little bit. Can you spell it?
M: (Spells it) And my address is PO Box 57294. And at the bottom
you put 1505 Slocum, Dallas, Texas 75207.
W: Listen, would you mind if you gave me your phone number so
if something comes up I could call you?
M: OK. Just a second please...I'm calling here from a friend's
house. I'm at 624-1939.
W: Thanks very much.
In fact, the phone number Varelli gave to activists was a
direct line to the terrorism unit in the Dallas FBI office.
Allies in the Shadows: The FBI's Private Network
While Frank Varelli was the first FBI employee to infiltrate
and report on developments within CISPES, a network of private,
right-wing organizations was also at work spying on emerging liberal
and left-wing Central America groups, disrupting their activities
and providing material for the FBI's files. Many of the same groups
that gathered intelligence on religious and political groups,
including CISPES-and disseminated a blitz of distorted, scurrilous
material tying them to purported international communist-inspired
terror networks-would later be shown to have formed the propaganda
and funding core of the Reagan Administration's private contra-support
In the context of domestic intelligence gathering, their affiliation
with the FBI had been authorized by a little-noticed provision
of a presidential order signed by Ronald Reagan in 1981 which
permitted the FBI to "contract with...private companies or
institutions...and need not reveal the sponsorship of such contracts
or arrangements for authorized intelligence purposes."
A number of the domestic conservative groups who aided the
Administration's secret campaign to support the contras and to
neutralize opponents of its Central America policies worked with
other foreign governments and organizations under the umbrella
of an international organization known as the World Anti-Communist
League. The League's membership includes some of the most ultra-conservative
and reactionary elements in the non-communist world. Founded in
1967, WACL has included in its membership a number of former Nazis
and Nazi collaborators and counts among its various regional affiliates
Guatemalan and Salvadoran death squad leaders, including Mario
Sandoval Alarcon, a former vice president of Guatemala known as
the "Godfather of the Death Squads." League members
were invited to Taiwan's Political Warfare Academy for training
in counter-insurgency and police techniques, as well as to Argentina,
where they were trained in brutal interrogation techniques by
members of the Argentine military.
During the 1980s, WACL's chief spokesman in the United States
was Retired Major General John K. Singlaub, a former Army chief
who resigned his commission after openly criticizing President
Jimmy Carter's proposal to reduce US troop strength in South Korea.
In 1980, Singlaub founded a US branch of WACL and, four years
later, became chairman of the League. In that capacity, he helped
facilitate covert military support from League members to anti-communist
resistance movements in a number of countries, including Mozambique,
Angola, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Nicaragua,
whose former dictator Anastasio Debayle Somoza, was an influential
member of the League before his ouster by the Sandinistas in 1979.
As League chairman, Singlaub told a WACL conference in 1984:
"Our struggle with Communism is not a spectator sport. .
.We have opted for a course of action which calls for the provision
of support and assistance to those who are actively resisting
the Soviet-supported intrusion into Africa, Asia and North America."
At the time, Singlaub was assuming the role of the leading
publicly visible figure involved in securing weapons and money
for the Nicaraguan contras under a private-sector initiative apparently
conceived by the late CIA director William Casey and coordinated
by Lt. Col. Oliver North from the National Security Council.
Back in the winter of 1980, following Ronald Reagan's election
Singlaub traveled to Central America, along with another WACL
official former Defense Intelligence Agency chief Daniel O. Graham,
to tell officials in El Salvador and Guatemala that the emphasis
of the Carter administration on human rights was being downgraded
and that counter-terrorism and hemispheric security would be the
dominant policies of the new Administration. One Guatemalan official
quoted Singlaub and Graham as telling military leaders in that
country that "Mr. Reagan recognizes that a good deal of dirty
work has to be done." Within weeks of the Singlaub-Graham
visit, the level of death squad activities in Guatemala increased
From the Moon Files
One of the more prominent United States-based offshoots of
a member group of the World Anti-Communist League was the Rev.
Sun Myung Moon's organization. While most publicity about the
Moon organization has centered on stories of the psychological
"captivity" and "deprogramming" of young members
of the cult, as well as the federal tax evasion conviction of
the Rev. Moon in the late 1970s, the organization, with its large
accumulation of capital, has been a major player in international
right-wing circles for 20 years.
The international spread of the Moon organization has been
paralleled by the proliferation of Moon-funded organizations within
the US to promote the profoundly anti-communist and anti-democratic
ideology of the Moon church, which itself has been alleged by
a number of researchers in and out of Congress to be directed
by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency.
One of the more active Moon groups in the early 1980s was
a campus organization created under the acronym CARP, the Collegiate
Association for the Research of Principles. In early 1981, CARP
strategists determined that Central America was becoming a critical
arena in the fight against the advance of Marxism-Leninism. As
a result, they mounted a campaign on more than 100 campuses around
the country to counteract the activities of groups like CISPES
by presenting support for the Salvadoran junta and its emerging
leader, Jose Napoleon Duarte.
CARP members began to make their intentions known to the FBI
as early as April 1981, when Moon activists wrote a barrage of
letters to the FBI informing the Bureau of their activities. In
short order, the entries in the FBI files, some of which are headed
"Miscellaneous - Non-Subversive," grew into a more active
partnership between the Bureau and CARP. And by the spring of
1981, CARP members were infiltrating CISPES l meetings and sending
reports into various FBI offices.
The 48 pages released by the FBI, which constitute only a
small portion of the Bureau's files on CARP, includes submissions
from Moon groups on campuses as diverse as Columbia University,
Boston University, the University of Wisconsin, and the University
of Chicago. While the FBI released CISPES-related references to
CARP, it declined to release any of the entries in the Bureau's
main file on the Moon organization.
The activities of CARP allegedly went beyond intelligence
gathering into more active forms of political harassment and disruption.
A number of FBI documents note the outbreak of fights and rock
throwing incidents at CISPES demonstrations that involved members
of CARP. To a casual reader, the FBI notations seem to be neutral
accounts by observing agents. In fact, CARP's relationship to
the FBI-at least in Texas-was much more active. At the SMU campus
in Dallas, for instance, where CARP had a contingent of about
75 members, Special Agent Dan Flanagan would go the campus once
a month to pay the Moonies for their support services to the FBI.
In addition to supplying intelligence to the Bureau, the Moonies
started fights among the audience whenever CISPES held a rally
or demonstration on campus. After a series of such incidents,
CISPES moved off the SMU campus to the Martin Luther King Center,
much to the relief of authorities at the university who were concerned
about the violence that seemed to follow CISPES campus events.
... A second private group which flourished during the Reagan
era was the Washington-based Council for Inter-American Security.
The group disseminated reams of material during the 1980s purporting
to prove linkages between a Soviet-inspired global terror network
and liberal and left-wing American groups opposed to US foreign
policies. CIS also expended considerable effort to improve the
public image of the reputed Salvadoran death squad leader Roberto
D'Aubuisson. When the FBI's CISPES files were pried open in 1988
by a lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights,
they were found to contain several reports written by J. Michael
Waller, a researcher whose work has been sponsored by the nongovernmental
Council for Inter-American Security. But Waller's work to connect
American political dissenters to an international communist-terrorist
plot was part of a public-private partnership. According to several
contracts on record, Waller's research- which helped swell the
FBI's files on Central America groups-was also financed by no
less a source than the Reagan Administration's Department of State.
Western Goals: The Strange Case of John Rees
Of all the emerging private conservative organizations working
to support the policies of the new Administration, none was more
effective than Western Goals. Housed in a townhouse in Alexandria,
Virginia, this foundation turned out a series of publications
designed to expose the "communist-terrorist" menace
inside the country.
One of the purposes of the foundation was described in a statement
of purpose by founder Larry McDonald: "In the field of Marxists,
terrorism and subversion, Western Goals has the most experienced
advisors and staff in the United States...The Foundation has begun
the computerization of thousands of documents relating to the
internal security of our country and the protection of government
and institutions from Communist-controlled penetration and subversion."
A long-time colleague of McDonald and a key figure in the
work of the new foundation was John Rees-the same right-wing journalist
whose article was used by the FBI to launch the first CISPES investigation
and whose writings were cited by the Denton Committee to brand
nuclear peace groups as Soviet "active measures" front
In assembling a board of directors, McDonald wasted no time
in soliciting a man who was already prominent in international
right-wing circles-John Singlaub.
Beginning in 1982, the foundation-under the guiding hand of
Rees, himself a long-time confidant of Singlaub-began publishing
a series of books targeting liberal and progressive activists
involved in a range of causes and organizations. ~e War Called
Peace dealt with the array of US peace groups supporting nuclear
arms reduction and the nuclear freeze movement. Broken Seals attacked
the National Lawyers Guild, the Center for National Security Studies,
the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups which had,
in the previous decade, been in the forefront of the effort to
demand stronger Congressional oversight over the CIA and the FBI.
Ally Betrayed...Nicaragua catalogued the role of the Carter Administration
in "selling out" the Somoza regime in that country and
permitting the establishment of the Sandinista regime in its place.
Soviet Active Measures Against The United States laid out an elaborate
theory of contacts and linkages which purported to explain how
domestic political and religious groups, such as the Washington
Office on Latin America and the National Council of Churches,
were being used by the KGB as fronts for Moscow's political operations.
In defense of his activities, Rees has pointed out that he
has never been successfully sued for libel, a fact he attributed
to his knowledge of libel law, his meticulous research and his
dependence on open source information for most of the material
he has compiled on left and liberal activists. But another reason
Rees may have avoided such litigation lies in the limited nature
of the circulation of Western Goals materials. At least in the
early days of the foundation's operations, very few of the group's
publications made their way into left-liberal circles. According
to former employees of the foundation, the publications were circulated,
almost exclusively, to John Birch Society chapters, other groups
on the far right, local police departments, the Bureau of Alcohol,
Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), the Central Intelligence Agency and
In a suit against the Bureau and the Washington, D.C. police
department, the Institute for Policy Studies introduced a deposition
by Rees in which he testified that he had supplied information
about the group to the FBI both by phoning FBI agents and providing
the Bureau with copies of his publications. In the deposition,
Rees listed a number of law enforcement agencies as recipients
of his newsletter, including the Internal Revenue Service, BATF,
the Secret Service, Customs, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the
FBI, and the Maryland, New York and Michigan State Police.
People familiar with Rees' operations over the last twenty
years- he began his own newsletter, Information Digest, in 1967,
around the same time he began working as an informant for the
Newark Police Department-are amazed at his resilient ability to
stay in business despite a series of discrediting events.
Rees, who was born in Great Britain and came to the United
States in 1963, worked for a spell for the London Daily Mirror.
His career as a mainstream journalist was aborted, however, when
superiors at the paper discovered he had been trading on his professional
standing by receiving free meals and hotel reservations. When
officials at the paper discovered Rees' unethical activities,
they fired him from the paper and paid off his bills.
He first came to the attention of the FBI when he began dating
a woman who was secretary to the FBI's Legal Attaché at
the U.S. Embassy in London. The woman was reportedly prepared
to marry Rees when she learned he was already married, according
to an FBI document.
Rees gained a measure of notoriety in 1964, shortly after
his arrival in the United States, when he moved to Boston and
gained the confidence of Grace Metalious, the author of Peyton
Place, who was terminally ill. Hours before Metalious died, Rees
brought a new will to her room at Beth Israel Hospital. He persuaded
her to sign the document, which left her entire estate, then valued
at nearly $150,000, to Rees, cutting off her husband and three
children. Metalious' lawyer at the time said that the author fully
understood her actions in leaving her estate to Rees. The attorney
quoted her as saying, "I have complete trust in Mr. Rees
with regard to my children." It was only later, when Rees
learned that the liabilities and outstanding claims against Metalious'
estate were greater than her assets, that he renounced his claim
to her legacy.
Rees subsequently married a black woman and moved to Newark
where, in 1967, he launched "New Careers," a program
designed to provide jobs for poor black residents of that city.
At the same time, capitalizing on his wife's contacts in Newark's
black community, he began secretly reporting to the Newark police
on activities of black activist groups in the city. But his Newark
career was cut short when the U.S. Labor Department, which partially
funded his "New Careers" program, determined that Rees
overcharged the city some $7,500. The department also blocked
payment of another $12,000 to a job training firm for which Rees
was a consultant.
The following year, Rees moved to Chicago where he began to
work as an undercover informant for the Chicago Police Department
infiltrating groups opposing the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam
War. Rees offered to testify on his findings before the House
Un-American Activities Committee and to share his material with
the FBI as well. But, at that time at least, officials at FBI
headquarters determined that Rees was next to useless as a source
of reliable information.
In a 1968 internal memo, Special Agent Alex Rosen wrote to
several top deputies of J. Edgar Hoover about Rees' offer, noting
that, during his stay in Newark, "he attempted to sell himself
and his services to the FBI. The interviewing agents believed
his interests were self-serving and that he came to the FBI thinking
this would enhance his credentials in contacting other clients."
The memo added that Rees "talked in generalities regarding
persons and events connected with racial and criminal problems
in Newark and furnished no information of value."
The FBI memo concluded that: "Rees is an unscrupulous,
unethical individual and an opportunist who operates with a self-serving
interest. Information he has provided has been exaggerated and
in generalities. Information from him cannot be considered reliable.
We should not initiate any interview with this unscrupulous, unethical
individual concerning his knowledge of the disturbance in Chicago
as to do so would be a waste of time."
Despite his rebuff by the FBI, however, Rees stepped up his
political spying activities, drawing on local police contacts
he had cultivated in Newark, Chicago, New York and elsewhere.
During the early 1970s, Rees gathered extensive material on political
activists from various police officials, informants and private
political spies with whom he exchanged information. That material
was recycled in his Information Digest, which, in turn, went to
a number of law enforcement agencies who, in turn, used it to
compile files on political activists.
The bizarre and damaging secret flow of unsubstantiated and
scurrilous reports surfaced in 1976 when an investigative arm
of the New York State Assembly conducted an investigation into
the compilation of hundreds of thousands of files by the New York
State Police on political groups and activists. They discovered
that information reported in Information Digest "was casually
used to create dossiers on a wide spectrum of Americans whose
only crime was to dissent on what the Digest authors considered
the left of the political spectrum. This information was, in turn,
kept in state police files throughout the nation and widely disseminated.
For police officials to have participated in this procedure is
a shocking commentary on the decline of democratic safeguards."
"It is important to note," the investigators added,
"that this was a national police procedure. Information Digest
was the string that held together a network of hidden informants
whose information was recorded by police departments throughout
the nation without the individual involved knowing of the process
and without independent checking by the police as to validity
and source of this derogatory information."
Noting that material was compiled by both John and Sheila
Louise Rees, his third wife, who, at the time worked as a Congressional
staffer for Rep. Larry McDonald, the investigators asked McDonald
to elaborate on his relationship with Rees and his wife. McDonald,
however, declined to comply. Even without McDonald's testimony
the investigators unraveled a longstanding covert, deeply concealed
network of information-sharing on liberal activists which assumed
greater proportions the further the investigators dug into it.
To avoid having to identify Rees and his newsletter as the
source of many of their political files, officials in the New
York State Police classified Information Digest as a "confidential
informant" thereby investing it with the same aura of authority
as an undercover asset who had actually infiltrated groups which
were the subject of its reports.
The material's authoritativeness was further enhanced when
it was forwarded from the files of the New York State Police to
other law enforcement agencies around the country in response
to inquiries about political activists. When other agencies received
the Rees-generated information, they assumed it was reliable since
it bore the imprimatur of the New York State Police. "Few
liberal organizations escaped being targets of derogatory reports
or of infiltration by the agents of Information Digest who hid
behind a maze of false names and Post Office boxes taken out under
mysterious circumstances," the report added. "Opponents
of the Vietnam war, including journalists, union leaders, campus
dissenters, state and national politicians and liberal organizations
were frequent targets. At times, personal remarks about the lifestyles
of targets were included."
Elaborating on Rees' mode of operations, the report quotes
"a highly-placed source" as explaining that Rees would
go to one police department with information. While collecting
payment as an informant, Rees would gather new material and pass
it along to other police departments, either in exchange for pay
or for yet new material.
The report detailed Rees' work with the Washington, D.C. police
between 1971 and 1973. The relationship began prior to a major
and-war demonstration in May 1971, which resulted in the jailing
of more than 12,000 protestors. Before the rally, Rees suggested
to D.C. police officials that they rent an office for him and
install listening devices to monitor leftists he would invite
to the office. Using the alias John Seeley, Rees opened the Red
House Book Store, which was conveniently located one floor below
the headquarters of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The
store, which provided an easy listening post for Rees, was rented
and paid for by the intelligence division of the Washington D.C.
Investigators for the New York State Assembly concluded that:
"Information Digest's raw, unevaluated, editorialized and
frequently derogatory information was used to develop dossiers
on thousands of patriotic and decent Americans who had committed
no crime and were not suspected of committing a crime...It should
be noted that the extraordinary cost of maintaining a million-card
file on innocent civilians could be put to use to curtail real
The New York investigation succeeded in eliminating one subscriber-the
New York State Police-from Rees' list of clients. But the resourceful
Rees, aided perhaps by his association with McDonald, lost little
time in cultivating a new client, the FBI-which had, just ten
years earlier, determined him to be "unscrupulous, unethical
It was also during the late 1970s as well that Rees worked
with a partner in the private spy business who had personal connections
to two men who would become among the most powerful people in
the country: Ronald Reagan and his Attorney General, Edwin Meese.
For several years, Rees worked with Patricia Atthowe, a security
consultant who compiled files on political activists, especially
those opposed to nuclear power, which she used in her security
work with large West Coast utilities such as Pacific Gas &
Electric. According to the notes of two Los Angeles detectives
who interviewed Richard Miller, then a vice-president of PG&E:
"Atthowe and [her organization] provided good information.
Ronald Reagan could verify Atthowe's reliability. Atthowe's husband
was a deputy with the Alameda County Sheriff's Department and
Edwin Meese was a District Attorney in Alameda County at about
the same time."
It is unclear how, and at what date, Rees managed to establish
a new relationship with the FBI, but the climate in 1980 was clearly
conducive to the Bureau's cultivation of private-sector resources
like Rees. The first document on file which speaks to a formal
relationship between Rees and the FBI surfaced in December 1981,
when an assistant United States Attorney in New York testified,
in a case involving the National Lawyers Guild, that: "Some
federal agencies received information about the National Lawyers
Guild from John Rees or S. Louise Rees or both, sometimes in the
form of Information Digest, and from time to time they were compensated
by the FBI for furnishing information."
During the 1980s, Rees attained greater public visibility
when he began to write a column for the Moon-owned Washington
Times. But toward the end of the Reagan Administration, he again
managed to become an embarrassment to the FBI.
In 1987, Jonathan Dann produced for KRON-TV in San Francisco
a three-part series on private political spies. Dann reported
in the final segment of the series that in 1982 the State Department
published a list of groups which it declared were "Communist
fronts" controlled by the KGB and the Kremlin. One group
on the list was the Women's International League for Peace and
Freedom, a long-standing peace organization. When members of the
group learned they had been branded as agents of Moscow by the
State Department, they filed a Freedom of Information request
to ascertain the origin of the charge. They learned that the State
Department's report quoted, word for word, from a Western Goals
publication, The War Called Peace, written by John Rees. Initially,
Rees denied writing the passages quoted by the State Department
but, when confronted by Dann with a draft of his own booklet,
stating that WILPF "supports revolutionary national liberation
movements utilizing terrorism and armed struggle" and that
WILPF "is thoroughly penetrated by the Moscow-line Communist
party," he conceded it was his work.
Angered by the FBI's red-baiting of the group, and especially
troubled by the government's use of scurrilous, unverified information
from a private right-wing activist, Congressman Don Edwards demanded
an explanation of the FBI's conduct from William Webster, then
director of the Bureau. The responses from the FBI's Office of
Congressional Affairs were characteristically unenlightening.
They are worth nothing less for the information they contain than
for the glimpse they provide of the impotence of Congress in effectively
overseeing the Bureau.
Edwards had asked the FBI how Rees' book came to be retained
in the FBI's files and how the portion dealing with WILPF was
retrieved and disseminated to the State Department. The Bureau's
response was: "A search of our indices does indicate a copy
of the Rees booklet was retained in FBI files. It does show that
two copies were provided to the U.S. Department of State. The
FBI may acquire pertinent public information material and appropriately
disseminate that material to other agencies if that information
is of possible interest or use to them."
Edwards further asked the FBI whether it had advised the State
Department that the document in question was "an unverified
report from an outside source whom the Bureau had previously discredited."
In characteristic FBI jargon, the Bureau responded: "The
transmittal communication only advised the State Department that
the booklet was edited by John Rees and published by the Western
Goals Foundation and contained no opinions as to the credibility
of the editor, publisher or authors...The decision on the credibility
of such a public document in most circumstances is left to the
reader. It is noted that the publisher of the booklet, Western
Goals Foundation, had as its chairman the late Congressman Lawrence
P. McDonald, killed when the Soviets shot down the KAL airliner..."
At the time, McDonald had been en route to a meeting of the
World Anti-Communist League.
While the FBI may not have explicitly endorsed the reliability
of the material, that subtlety was obviously lost on the State
Department. Shortly before Dann's report aired in late 1987, the
State Department removed the name of WILPF from its group of Moscow
"front" organizations. A spokesman for the State Department
indicated that the Department, itself, had no way of knowing whether
the allegations about WILPF were true. The reason the group was
included on the list was that the State Department received the
information from the FBI. It was the FBI's imprimatur on the material
that led the Department to believe in its authenticity and accuracy.
Death Threats and the FBI