Slowly but surely, a debate has begun to rage in Washington over personal privacy. As technology advances, so has a concern among civil libertarians that everything we do -- from grocery shopping to going to the doctor -- is leaving an electronic fingerprint accessible to practically anyone.
Sadly, it's an old story. Under J. Edgar Hoover, the crotchety old bulldog who ran the FBI for half a century until 1972, federal agents snooped the old-fashioned way: using surveillance, hidden cameras, phone taps -- and especially rumor-mongering.
We recently obtained the FBI files of a diverse group of deceased Americans, from Miles Davis to Dean Martin and cult leader Marshall Applewhite. And we found that long before spying went high-tech, the government was keeping close tabs on anyone deemed "undesirable." Here is an abridged version of what we found:
Unsubstantiated rumors sparked intensive investigations in several files. For instance, the FBI caught wind in 1965 of a "very obscene" recording supposedly made by singer Dean Martin, a member of the original Rat Pack. Over the next several months, FBI agents diligently searched for a copy of the tape "on the quiet." Once obtained, the tape was promptly sent off to the FBI lab for analysis, all under the signature and careful eye of Hoover himself.
And what did the lab find? The tape was "not identified with any material contained in Obscene File." Yet the tape was kept on file for another three years.
The scrutiny of Martin didn't end there. Hoover's well-known fascination with all things Hollywood and homosexual would keep Martin's file active in hopes of learning the crooner's "true" sexual preference. Reports on file indicate that one "known Hollywood homosexual" told the bureau that Martin was considered gay.
Former President Richard Nixon and an unnamed California governor requested information on Martin at different times. The California governor wanted to check Martin's background before bestowing an honor. Both were told the same things: unproven rumors that Martin was engaged in gambling and hoodlum activities, homosexuality and prostitution.
Martin did not receive the honor.
John Denver, the country singer and actor who perished in a 1997 plane crash, also had a file rich in rumor. His file is made even more compelling because of the large number of "redactions," or deleted material. Denver's file was launched when he participated in a Vietnam War protest in 1971.
At one point, the Bush administration asked for a name-check on Denver, which turned up several highly censored pages. Nevertheless, the file does list Denver as a "narcotics user" who was "pretty well strung out on cocaine" during one concert -- perhaps adding new meaning to Denver's signature song, "Rocky Mountain High."
One three-page memo in Denver's file is completely censored except for the title: "Racketeer influenced and corrupt organizations; La Cosa Nostra -- Narcotics." The FBI cites two possible reasons for the blacked-out portions of the file: Either the release of such material would result in an invasion of privacy, or it could disclose the identity of an informant.
Then there was the case of Les Aspin, a former Democratic congressman from Wisconsin (and secretary of Defense), who invited Hoover's wrath by condemning the Nixon administration for "using the FBI as a political peeping-Tom and gossip columnist since it took office."
Aspin had gotten ahold of an FBI memo, titled "Operation Inlet," which ordered agents to forward to Nixon inside information and "items of unusual twist or concerning prominent personalities.
"It is to be noted," the memo continued, "that (the type) of information desired may be obtained through investigation not wholly related to the security field."
As it turns out, Operation Inlet predated Nixon. Hoover had started the program years earlier to keep any potential White House occupant "fully informed" about the private lives of public figures.
By challenging this practice, Aspin may have sealed his fate as one of the most investigated members of Congress. The FBI probed Aspin's connections to Russia and all of his international travel, dug for past criminal records for him and his family, and even had his credit history on file. During his 22-year stint on Capitol Hill, the FBI scrutinized virtually every facet of his life -- without finding a single "scandal" (real or rumored). Even Aspin's ex-wife had good things to say about him.
Unfortunately, while the Bureau was keeping tabs on the rich and famous, it had precious little information on someone who really was worth watching. Marshall Applewhite, the head of the "Heaven's Gate" UFO cult who led a mass suicide of 39 followers in 1997, was virtually ignored by the bureau until it was too late.
The FBI opened a file on Applewhite in 1975, when parents in various states alleged that Applewhite had kidnapped and brainwashed their children. Altogether, the FBI records Applewhite as being connected with 20 mysterious disappearances.
The file was shuffled between 13 different offices and basically ends there, except for the inclusion of an 18-page diary written in 1975 by two men who tracked the group through seven states.
-- Jack Anderson and Jan Moller are columnists for United Feature Syndicate.