Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Drinan: Lawmaker, priest, and target of FBI scrutiny

Drinan: Lawmaker, priest, and target of FBI scrutiny
By Michael Paulson, Bosto Globe, January 28, 2009

It remains one of the stranger episodes in the annals of congressional-FBI relations: In the winter of 1975, US Representative Robert F. Drinan was touring the FBI headquarters when he broke away and opened a drawer to find a set of index cards under his name.

A three-month battle ensued between the Massachusetts Democrat and the federal law enforcement agency over access to the file. When Drinan finally got a redacted copy of his own record, he pronounced it garbage, filled with news clippings in which the names of people already published in the newspapers were carefully blacked out by federal officials.

Now, on the second anniversary of his death, a copy of Drinan's FBI file, obtained by the Globe through a Freedom of Information Act request, provides a bookend to the story.

The file is unlikely to reshape history's view of the only Jesuit priest to serve in Congress, but it provides a backstage look at the dispute between the congressman and the agency and a reminder of how much the FBI changed over the second half of the 20th century.

In the 1970s and before, the FBI clearly viewed the congressman as potential trouble. At one point, when Drinan was quoted by a news service denouncing Attorney General John N. Mitchell as "the most dangerous attorney general that we have ever had," an FBI official scribbled on a document, "This fellow Drinan is like McGovern + Anderson - anything to get publicity."

The document does not make clear who McGovern and Anderson are, but the references seem likely to be to Senator George S. McGovern and either US Representative John B. Anderson or Jack Anderson, a syndicated newspaper columnist.

But by 1994, when the FBI was asked to do a background check on Drinan for a possible federal appointment, the tone was completely different. The file is packed with testimonials from Drinan's colleagues describing him in highly laudatory terms.

"Twenty-seven persons . . . were interviewed," the FBI reported. "They provided favorable comments concerning Father Drinan's character, associates, reputation, and loyalty."

Drinan, born in Boston in 1920, had served as a professor and dean at Boston College Law School from 1956 to 1971, when he began a decade in Congress after being elected in 1970 as an antiwar candidate. Drinan was an outspoken liberal, a critic of the Vietnam War, a forceful advocate of civil liberties, and, to the dismay of church officials, a supporter of abortion rights. He was also the first member of Congress to call for the impeachment of President Nixon.

Drinan announced he would not seek reelection in 1981 after Pope John Paul II decreed that priests should not serve in elective office. Drinan then taught at Georgetown Law School from 1981 until his death in 2007.

The file indicates that the FBI had run its first check on Drinan in 1960, a decade before his election to Congress; upon his election, a note indicates that the bureau's files "reflect that the Reverend Drinan has been active in civil rights matters."

In 1971, a suspicious nun wrote FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, saying, "I had doubted Father Drinan's authenticity as a Catholic priest because I had read of certain views he expressed that seemed to be un-American, as well as unorthodox, from a religious standpoint. If he is someone who has been 'planted' in the church, he could do great harm."

In 1975, the FBI investigated an anonymous death threat against several public figures, including Drinan, from someone purporting to represent "antiliberal and anti-Communist groups."

But the heart of the file is the history of the dispute that began in February 1975, when Drinan took a congressional tour of the FBI and discovered 20 to 30 3-by-5 cards with his name on them in a file. Drinan demanded to know how the FBI could justify collecting information on private citizens, and said, "I assure you I shall work to prevent the FBI from further engaging in the practice of attaching a stigma to persons whose political or social views may be at variance with the temporary majority of the nation."

"I have never at any time been involved in anything related to criminal prosecution," Drinan wrote to the FBI. "Consequently I was astonished and chagrined to discover the surveillance of a political nature."

The FBI accused Drinan of having ignored instructions and "delved into a file drawer containing index cards" and refused to honor Drinan's timeline for releasing his files, saying that would amount to special treatment for a congressman.

After considerable back-and-forth and for a fee of $8.10, the FBI released a redacted version of Drinan's file three months after his tour; he quickly made it public and denounced it.

"In his view, they had stepped across the line into violating the civil liberties of citizens by keeping track of what he was doing," said Arthur D. Wolf, a law professor at Western New England College School of Law in Springfield. Wolf was a special counsel to Drinan from 1973 to 1978. "He thought the FBI should concentrate on crime and not worry about people exercising their right to speech."

By the time the FBI next scrutinized Drinan, in 1994 with his consent, the tone had completely changed. The agency reported two minor issues: In 1975, there had been an unsubstantiated complaint that Drinan had improperly solicited disabled veterans for a campaign, and in 1985 he had been arrested for protesting apartheid in front of South Africa's embassy.

But the file is overflowing with praise from Drinan's co-workers, supervisors, and fellow Jesuits, all of whom were asked about Drinan's loyalty to the United States, a standard question in background checks.

"No derogatory or negative information was revealed," the Newark office reported to FBI headquarters, while the Kansas City office said simply, "All made favorable comments regarding the candidate."

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