CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer
For more than a decade, Sen. John Kerry knew that the FBI tracked him as a young activist, fresh from Vietnam, embittered by bloodshed, as he spoke out in his green Army fatigues against the war.
But newly public FBI files show that agents followed him, monitored his speeches, deemed the Navy war hero as being of "extreme importance to highest U.S. government officials."
The Vietnam War changed Kerry. Upon return, he was angry at a war he saw as unjust, going public with his opposition in the early 1970s and soon becoming a leading anti-war activist. The agents' files on his speeches, on Kerry himself, give an insight into the scope of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI.
Today, Kerry is against another war and a Justice Department that has once more broadened the reach of the FBI. Kerry often mentions his disgust for John Ashcroft, head of Department of Justice, in his stump speeches. Ashcroft's leadership has granted wide-reaching intelligence powers similar to those practiced three-decades ago under Hoover.
The most recent FBI files on Kerry -- obtained by CBS News and first reported Monday in the Los Angeles Times -- are not colorful. On the contrary, the files are blandly written, dry and shed no great light on Kerry the man.
After more than a year of following Kerry, agents conclude that he was not a violent radical. A May 24, 1972 memorandum dictates that none of Kerry's activism "link subject with any violent type activity." Kerry, then a leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, had an "apparently legitimate involvement in politics."
And politics would remain Kerry's game to this day. Before he was the concern of the current Republican president, George W. Bush, Kerry was on the mind of another. Former president Richard Nixon discussed Kerry with his chief of staff Bob Haldeman.
Nixon: Apparently, this fellow, uh, that they put in the front row, is that what you say, the front [unintelligible] the real stars.
Haldeman: Kerry. He is, he did a hell of a great job on the, uh --
Nixon: He was extremely effective.
Haldeman concludes: I think you'll find Kerry running for political office.
In another conversation, Nixon referred to Kerry's group of anti-war veterans as "bastards."
As a vocal critic of Nixon, Kerry was on the White House radar, especially after his appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971.
"How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?" Kerry testified. "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
"Given what Kerry was involved in at the time, it would have surprised me if that wasn't what was going on at the time, there was really wide surveillance," said Brandeis University Professor David Cunningham, author of "There's Something Happening Here: The New Left, the Klan, and FBI Counterintelligence."
"Even Kerry himself is very careful to say this is a product of the Hoover FBI-type thing. But I don't think there is a clean break between Hoover's FBI and post-Hoover FBI activities,'' said Cunningham.
"It's what the FBI does. They monitor potential threats to national security and what changes over time is how much latitude they have to do that. And by the mid 70s, they have very little latitude to do that, after the congressional committees into the COINTELPRO stuff," Cunningham said. "That latitude now is much broader, than since the early 1970s, because of the Ashcroft Guidelines and the Patriot Act."
COINTELPRO is an acronym for an FBI counterintelligence program from 1956 to 1971 designed to monitor political dissidence. The monitoring of Kerry was not necessarily part of COINTELPRO's operation specifically, but invariably related to the FBI and the president's concern over anti-war activists like Kerry. Concern over such domestic counterintelligence led to Senate and House committees formally launching lengthy inquiries into such tactics, eventually leading to their abolishment.
"The same conduct is being engaged today, many of the measures being used by the FBI and the Justice department seemed designed to chill speech," says Georgetown University constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley. "The difference is that many of the people who are the subject of today's surveillance are in a far less secure position than John Kerry was after the Vietnam War."
Referencing Kerry's privileged background and status as a war hero -- Kerry earned three Purple Hearts -- Turley notes that "Muslim groups and Arab Americans feel very little protections from confrontations with the FBI."
The Ashcroft guidelines, issued in the summer of 2002, allowed FBI agents once again to attend all public gatherings without authorization from a superior.
"The Ashcroft guidelines generally lowered the required showing of agents to monitor chat rooms or attend mosques. Before, you didn't need probable cause. But you needed to show a particular suspicion," said Turley, also referencing anti-war rallies of today. "Now there is virtually no showing required for an agent to sit in and monitor mosques or churches or chat rooms."
The Justice Department response is that even if anti-war rallies or mosques are monitored, "you can't do surveillance," explains Department of Justice spokesman Mark Corallo.
"This is just literally to say to an FBI agent that you don't have to have special authorization to attend a public event," Corallo added.
For opponents to both the Patriot Act and the Ashcroft guidelines, the concern is the gray area that exits between "attendance" and "surveillance" -- which is left to the discretion of the FBI agent.
"This is exactly why Ashcroft was wrong to allow the current FBI to go back to the days of COINTELPRO," said Nat Hentoff, a Village Voice writer and activist.
"We are back in the wild days of J. Edgar Hoover,'' said Hentoff. "Once again, Ashcroft has said that the FBI, without any real predicate, not even reasonable suspicion, can go into public meetings."
Hentoff adds that the FBI "did this kind of stuff not only to Kerry but also to hundreds of other people."
Kerry told the L.A. Times that the "experience of having been spied on for the act of engaging in peaceful, patriotic protest makes you respect the civil liberties." In the interview, the Massachusetts senator also said, if he is elected president, he would appoint an attorney general who "balances law enforcement with our tradition of civil liberties."
"John Kerry becomes a symbol of how innocent people are often the subject of these kinds of abusive acts," Turley said. "Here you have an individual who has become, or is about to become, the nominee for one of the two major parties. And yet he was at the top of the FBI list of suspicious persons."
Here are excerpts obtained by CBS News of the FBI surveillance files on John Kerry during the early 1970s.
Memo from FBI, November 16, 1971
" … On October 10, 1971, a confidential source, who has provided reliable information in the past, advised that at WDC the VVAW, an anti-war veterans organization, incorporated in New York, lacks cohesiveness and direction. The source advised this condition has resulted from/the disenchantment of local VVAW (blacked out section) supporters, mainly (blacked out portion) and John Kerry, a leading VVAW spokesman.
"The source advised that local supporters became dissatisfied with the VVAW following a speech by John Kerry on September 27, 1971 at George Washington University (GWU), WDC."
A second confidential source who has provided reliable information in the past, advised that on September 27, 1971, JOHN KERRY addressed a capacity at Gaston Hall, GWU. Kerry related his impression of national frustration resulting from an apparent powerlessness to bring about a change in United states policy toward Vietnam.
" … On October 10, 1971, the first source advised that Kerry's speech was received by local VVAW supporters as a clear indication that Kerry is an opportunist with personal political aspirations. Therefore, the source advised, support has been withdrawn from New York office in general and John Kerry in particular."
Undated, Un-signed, Un-datelined memo:
" ... On November 6, 1971 (blacked out name) advised that on November 3, 1971, JOHN KERRY, organizer of the April, 1971 encampment of VVAW at Washington, D.C. addressed about 350 persons in the Student Union Ballroom of the UP, Pittsburgh, Pa. The essence of KERRY's speech was to condemn those who did not get involved in social change. HE added that fewer than 25% of the youth between the ages of 18 and 25 take the time to vote and that their vote alone could have changed the last election. He urged those present to make a conscientious commitment to end the war. ... "
November 12, 1971 memo from Oklahoma City FBI office re. a VVAW convention at the University of Oklahoma:
"Due to abundant indications of subversive influence, we are actively investigating VVAW" (11/1971)
"Springfield is currently conducting intensive effort to obtain additional informants for coverage of VVAW activities. In addition, investigation is underway to fully identify leaders, members, sponsors, and future plans of VVAW."
Confidential memo to POTUS, VPOTUS, Sec. of State, Director of CIA, Diretor of DIA, Dept. of Army, AG (and others)
From: Director, FBI
"John Kerry, a national VVAW leader, appeared at the meeting and announced to those present he was resigning from the executive committee for personal reasons."
"New York immediately contact pertinent VVAW informants for any indications that VVAW policies become more militant [end of sentence blanked out]. Recipients note this matter of extreme importance to highest U.S. government officials.
Nov. 11, 1971
"...It was learned that at regional VVAW convention, Norman, OK [illegible] that John Kerry and Al Hubbard, members of executive committee, VVAW, were planning to travel to Paris, France, week of Nov. 19, 1971 for talks with North Vietnamese, Peace Delegation