Wiretaps and Weathermen
How Hoover’s FBI kept its ears open—in the White House and the counterculture alike.
But then the Weathermen became the Weather Underground. They began to shift from open rabble-rousing to clandestine bomb making in the fall of 1969. They seemed to vanish. Dyson’s taps went silent. The FBI was caught flat-footed. The wiretappers traced calls to pay telephones; they placed radio transmitters in public phone booths. But the trail went cold. That sent a chill of fear through FBI intelligence chief Bill Sullivan, who had reported on Sep. 8, 1969, that the group had “the potential to be far more damaging to the security of this Nation than the Communist Party ever was, even at the height of its strength in the 1930s.”
Starting from Chicago, clandestine cells of four or more Weathermen spread across the country, from New York to San Francisco. That winter, three key members of the New York faction blew themselves up in an elegant town house on West 11th Street while trying to wire 60 sticks of dynamite in a bomb intended to kill soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J. After that deadly fiasco, the movement went deeper underground, but it managed to take credit for a fresh outrage every few months during the Nixon
years, taunting the FBI and the White House with wild-eyed communiqués, planting bombs at will in seemingly impenetrable places.
A group barely 100 strong—with a core of a dozen decision takers and bomb makers—began to drive the government of the United States half-mad with fear as the ’60s became the ’70s.
Dyson, who became the FBI’s lead case agent on the group, took them at their word. He judged the threat as deadly serious, and so did his superiors. The message from the underground, as he read it, was one of murderous intent: If you don’t end the war, we’ll kill your congressmen. We’ll kill your senators. We’ll kill the president.
“They were able to get into the U.S. Capitol, build a bomb into a wall, and blow it up at will,” Dyson said. “They got into the Pentagon. . . . They were able to call up and say it’s going to go off in exactly five minutes and it would go off in five minutes. They were as good as any terrorist group in the world in terms of their sophistication.”
They carried out 38 bombings. The FBI solved none. “We didn’t know how to investigate terrorism,” Dyson said. “We did not have enough intelligence on these people.”
That presented the FBI with a terrible problem. Its answer was to take the most drastic measures. “There were certain people in the FBI who made the decision: We’ve got to take a step—anything to get rid of these people. Anything!” Dyson said. “Not kill them per se, but anything went. If we suspect somebody’s involved in this, put a wiretap on them. Put a microphone in. Steal his mail. Do anything!”
Dyson had questions about the rule of law: “Can I put an informant in a college classroom? Or even on the campus? Can I penetrate any college organization? What can I do? And nobody had any rules or regulations. There was nothing . . .”
“This was going to come and destroy us,” he said. “We were going to end up with FBI agents arrested. Not because of what they did was wrong. But because nobody knew what was right or wrong.” Not knowing that difference is a legal definition of insanity.
Dyson’s premonitions of disaster would prove prophetic. In time, the top commanders of the FBI in Washington and New York would face the prospect of prison time for their work against the threat from the left. So would the president’s closest confidants.
Excerpted from the book Enemies: A History of the FBI. Copyright © 2012 by Tim Weiner. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
Tim Weiner has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his writing on American national security. As a correspondent for the New York Times, he reported on war and terrorism from Afghanistan and other nations over the course of 15 years. Enemies is his fourth book.