The FBI has been shaken by a string of embarrassments, including the discovery that longtime agent Robert Hanssen was spying for the Kremlin. Now it turns out he was also spying on American citizens in this case for the U.S. government.
A CBS News "Eye on America" investigation found Hanssen was part of a decade-long surveillance operation, little known until now.
Newly released FBI documents obtained by CBS News reveal a widespread domestic spying and intelligence operation that kept thousands of ordinary American citizens under surveillance throughout the 1980s.
CBS News Anchor Dan Rather reports those being watched ranged from the SANE Nuclear freeze group to the senior Gray Panthers, in a program intended, the FBI said, to limit the influence of Soviet propaganda in the United States.
Also under FBI surveillance was Melvin Beckman, who works to improve neighborhoods in Omaha, Neb.
Beckman was a Catholic priest who opposed military training, like ROTC, in junior high schools.
"I believe in trying to improve things where you are," says Beckman. "I believe it's wrong to kill, to hit, to threaten."
Also in the FBI files is a letter discussing labor law written by Democratic Congressman Barney Frank in 1989.
Frank calls the FBI's practice of intercepting, filing away and looking at the mail of members of Congress, "wholly and completely inappropriate."
"It was intended to discourage people from engaging in the kind of political activity the FBI didn't like," said Frank. "Secondly, it's just a colossal waste of money."
Frank says "These things are evidence of a nostalgia for the good old days of Joe McCarthy."
But David Major, President Reagan's adviser on counterintelligence, insists hostility between the U.S. and Soviet Union justified the money spent to limit Russian influence.
"Espionage then and today is very real and active measures, manipulation of public opinion, was very real at that time," said Major.
"Active measures" was the name given to Soviet disinformation, front groups and forgeries. At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, a racist flyer supposedly from the Ku Klux Klan turned out to be a KGB forgery designed to disrupt the games.
"It was a very dark period," said Major.
But in the case of active measures, there is more: In a bizarre twist, a key player who signed off on many of the documents was none other than Robert Hanssen, the former FBI agent who has confessed to spying for the Soviets.
"I literally felt as though someone kicked me in the stomach, not only because I knew the man but I knew what he had access to," said Major, who was Hanssen's supevisor.
Today at a crossroads, a new FBI director hopes to lift the agency above the embarrassments of misplaced documents, lapses in prosecution and the spy found in its ranks.
As for Melvin Beckman of Omaha, he's still working to improve the world. His current project is a newsletter urging reform of the American prison system. It's work that could help the master spy, Robert Hanssen, now facing life behind bars.
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