USC Students for Justice in Palestine

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Counterpunch: How the FBI Spied on Edward Said

Posted by uscsjp on October 30, 2006

The FBI has a long, ignoble tradition of monitoring and harassing America’s top intellectuals. While people ranging from Albert Einstein, William Carlos Williams to Martin Luther King have been subjected to FBI surveillance, there remains an under-accounting of the ways in which this monitoring at times hampered the reception of their work.

In response to my request under the Freedom of Information Act, filed on behalf of CounterPunch, the FBI recently released 147 of Said’s 238-page FBI file. There are some unusual gaps in the released records, and it is possible that the FBI still holds far more files on Professor Said than they acknowledge. Some of these gaps may exist because new Patriot Act and National Security exemptions allow the FBI to deny the existence of records; however, the released file provides enough information to examine the FBI’s interest in Edward Said who mixed artistic appreciations, social theory, and political activism in powerful and unique ways.

Most of Said’s file documents FBI surveillance campaigns of his legal, public work with American-based Palestinian political or pro-Arab organizations, while other portions of the file document the FBI’s ongoing investigations of Said as it monitored his contacts with other Palestinian-Americans. That the FBI should monitor the legal political activities and intellectual forays of such a man elucidates not only the FBI’s role in suppressing democratic solutions to the Israeli and Palestinian problems, it also demonstrates a continuity with the FBI’s historical efforts to monitor and harass American peace activists.

Edward Said’s wife, Mariam, says she is not surprised to learn of the FBI’s surveillance of her husband, saying, “We always knew that any political activity concerning the Palestinian issue is monitored and when talking on the phone we would say ‘let the tappers hear this’. We believed that our phones were tapped for a long time, but it never bothered us because we knew we were hiding nothing.”…

Curiously, Said’s FBI file, as released to me, contains no information on the remaining dozen years of his life. Either the FBI stopped monitoring him, or they couldn’tlocate these files, or they won’t release this information or even the fact that the information exists in the files. The latter two possibilities seem far more likely than the first .

It did not matter how frequently or clearly Edward Said declared that he “totally repudiated terrorism in all its forms”. The FBI continued to focus its national security surveillance campaign on him. Had the FBI read the Palestine American Congress’s proposed constitution placed in Said’s file in 1979, they would have seen the group’s commitment to upholding the “basic fundamental human and national rights of all people and affirms its opposition to racism in all of its manifestations including Zionism and anti-Semitism”. Instead, they kept searching for connections to terrorism.

The FBI’s surveillance of Edward Said was similar to their surveillance of other Palestinian-American intellectuals. For example, Ibrahim Abu Lughod’s FBI file records similar monitoring ­ though Abu Lughod’s file finds the FBI attempting to capitalize on JDL death threats as a means of interviewing Lughod to collect information for his file.

Having read hundreds of FBI reports summarizing “subversive” threads in the work of other academics, I am surprised to find that Said’s FBI file contains no FBI analysis of his book Orientalism. This is especially surprising given the claims by scholars, like Hoover Institute anthropologist Stanley Kurtz in his 2003 testimony before the House Subcommittee on Select Education, that Said’s post-colonial critique had left American Middle East Studies scholars impotent to contribute to Bush’s “war on terror”. Given what is known of the FBI’s monitoring of radical academic developments it seems unlikely that such a work escaped their scrutiny, and it is reasonable to speculate that an FBI analysis of Orientalism remains in unreleased FBI documents.

But some known things are obviously missing from the released file. Chief among these are records of death threats against Said and records of the undercover police protection he received at some public events. But there are no reasons to withhold such records, and their absence gives further cause to not believe the FBI’s claim this is his entire releasable file. (continued. . . )

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