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How the FBI Spied On Edward Said

“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.” 

These are the words of Professor David Price, professor of anthropology at St. Martins University in Washington state. Dr. Price is the author of Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists. He is expert at obtaining secret government documents, by use of the Freedom of Information Act. Now, working for the newsletter CounterPunch (which I coedit), Dr. Price has obtained portions of the FBI’s file on America’s most famous and distinguished Palestinian, the late Professor Edward Said. The latest edition of CounterPunch newsletter features Dr. Price’s assessment of the FBI’s secret file. 

The FBI 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. 

Most of Said’s file, Dr. Price tells us, documents FBI surveillance 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. Dr. Price notes, “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 widow, Mariam Said, 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.” 

The FBI’s first record of Edward Said appears in a February 1971 domestic security investigation of another (unidentified) individual. The FBI collected photographs of Said from the State Department’s passport division and various news agencies. Said’s “International Security” FBI file was established when an informant gave the FBI a program from the October 1971, Boston Convention of the Arab-American University Graduates, where Said chaired a panel on “Culture and the Critical Spirit.” Most of Said’s FBI records were classified under the administrative heading of “Foreign Counterintelligence,” category 105, and most records are designated as relating to “IS-Middle East,” the Bureau’s designation for Israel. 

Large sections of Said’s file remain blacked out, with stamps indicating they remain Classified Secret until 2030, 25 years after their initial FOIA processing.

In the months after the Black September attacks at the 1972 Munich Olympics there was a flurry of FBI interest in Edward Said and other American Palestinians. In early October 1972, the NY FBI office investigated Said’s background and citizenship information as well as voting, banking and credit records. Employees at Princeton and Columbia Universities gave FBI agents biographical and education information on Said, and the Harvard University Alumni Office provided the FBI with detailed information. As Middle East scholar Steve Niva observes, “looking back, this post-Munich period may have marked an historic turning point when statements in support of the Palestinian cause became routinely equated with sympathies for terrorism.” 

Dr. Price recounts in detail one FBI report which detailed events at the fifth annual convention of the Association of Arab-American University Graduates (AAAUG) held in November 1972 in Berkeley, California. Said was living in Lebanon at the time and did not attend the conference, but because he was a member of the AAAUG Board of Directors, the FBI included their convention report in his FBI file. There was a significant FBI presence at the conference and the FBI’s released records include the conference program indicating presentations from a selection of Arab American scholars such as anthropologists Laura Nader and Barbara Aswad. 

The extent of the FBI’s surveillance of the conference is seen in the FBI’s list (provided by a “reliable” FBI informer) of all AAAUG convention attendees staying at the Claremont Hotel. Why the FBI collected information on conference attendees’ accommodations is not clear. Was it to break into participants’ rooms to plant listening devices, search for documents, or to monitor attendees? This redacted report does not say, but Dr. Price points out, that the FBI’s well-documented reliance on such “black bag jobs” during this period raises this as a likely possibility, and Bureau policies for these illegal operations maintained separate filing systems for such operations. The FBI’s report contains summaries of several talks, including a detailed account of Andreas Papandreou’s keynote address criticizing, “the imperialistic forces of the United States against the peoples of the Middle East, Greek and Arab peoples alike.” 

FBI memos from this period discuss the creation of a LHM (Letterhead Memorandum, meaning a memo identified as coming from the FBI), that “should be suitable for dissemination to foreign intelligence agencies.” The agency or country to receive this LHM report is not identified, but Dr. Price says Israel’s Mossad was a likely candidate. 

In 1974 the FBI received word that Said would speak at the Canadian Arab Federation Conference in Windsor, Ontario, and the FBI again tracked Said’s movements, though an FBI informer indicated that “he did not consider Said to be the type of individual who would be involved in any terrorist activity.” The FBI made no entry in Edward Said’s file in 1978, the year of the publication of his groundbreaking book, Orientalism. 

A July 1979 FBI report summarized information on thirty-six individuals (names blacked out in the released documents) preparing to attend the August 1979 Palestine American Congress (PAC) at the Shoreham-Americana Hotel in Washington, DC. The extent of the FBI’s conference surveillance is shown in a partially declassified Secret Report Index indicating that attendee records had been consulted from FBI field offices in twenty-five listed cities alphabetically listed from Albany to Washington. This report contains sentence summaries on participants. Said’s summary, for example, says, “EDWARD SAID—Previously identified as being from Columbia University, New York City, New York, and as being deeply affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.” Other released passages find the FBI preoccupied with tracing various attendees’ PFLP sympathies. 

The PAC, Dr. Price notes, was perhaps the most openly democratically deliberative effort by displaced American Palestinians to address the goals of the Palestinian struggle. With great concern the FBI documented how the PAC, “created a Preparatory Committee that empowered it to prepare a working paper on a proposed constitution for some mechanism for collaborative action.” 

The FBI noted some internal arguments about the legitimacy of some delegates coming from Arab communities with low Palestinian populations. The FBI reported that one delegate at the Congress, “reminded all in attendance that the FBI has no legitimate interest in the activities taking place during the three day convention. There was no reason to be afraid of one’s presence at all functions of the PAC.” Without irony the FBI then noted with concern that some present used false names to register their hotel rooms. 

Following opening remarks by Jawad George, another speaker described in the FBI report as a revolutionary black male named Smith, “ensured the PAC that the black Americans would render assistance to Arab revolution.” Other speakers discussed in the FBI report included a member of the Organization of Arab Students and Ramallah Mayor Krim Khlif speaking on efforts to establish a Palestinian State on the West Bank. 

The FBI report discussed problems arising at the conference’s conclusion when there was, “much discussion on just the preamble to the constitution. Strong disagreement on the wording of a sentence concerning return to its national homeland, to national self-determination, and to its national independence and sovereignty in all of Palestine, by the Arab peoples.” Fights over the wording of the constitution’s preamble continued and several disputes “almost broke out into fist fights” between rival factions. Said’s FBI file contains a copy of the “Proposed Constitution of the Palestine American Congress” that had been distributed to PAC attendees, which the FBI marked it as classified “SECRET.” This information provided by an FBI informant from this period has now been reclassified under Patriot Act measures making the document classified “Secret” until the year 2029. 

On September 3, 1982, FBI Director Webster instructed FBI librarians at Quantico to use their computerized New York Times index to locate all past references to Said. This generated a thirteen page report containing abstracts of forty-nine NYT articles featuring Edward Said. These articles range from political editorials by Said, features featuring him, to literary book reviews by Said. According to Dr. Price, The New York Times Information Service was long used by the pre-Google FBI to compile dossiers on persons or organizations of interest. In the case of Said, the FBI collected a filtered analysis of Said’s writings and public statements that was predigested to fit the concerns and sensibilities of the FBI by NYT editors. 

Said’s released FBI file concludes with a few redacted reports (now reclassified until the year 2030) from 1983 and a highly censored Classified Secret memo from August 1991 that concludes with the suggestions that the FBI “may desire to contact your Middle East Section for additional information concerning Said.”

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

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 him to collect information for his file. 

Dr. Price writes that “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 FBI claim this is his entire releasable file. 

Of course some will say that since he was a Palestinian, a political one and also a member (before he broke with Arafat) of the Palestinian National Council, Said was a legitimate object of concern for the FBI and the Bureau would have been remiss not to have kept an eye on him. 

But labeling Said as a friend of Arafat misses the point that the FBI's surveillance of this US citizen found absolutely no evidence that he broke any laws — not even jaywalking or tape recording songs off the radio. As Dr. Price says: “FBI action needs to be based on demonstrable wrongdoing, not thought crimes or having unpopular friends. The American right perhaps understands this better than the left, and given the anti-Bush flutter I'm hearing on talk radio, they seem to understand the threat to democracy represented in unfettered surveillance expeditions.” 

Another way of viewing the FBI's surveillance of Said is in the context of their surveillance and harassment of other prominent activists, people like Martin Luther King, who advocated democratic lawful solutions to problems of social justice. Had the federal government chosen to support rather than harass and monitor activists willing to work within extant systems like Said and King, they could have precluded the coming of more radical and violent efforts. In effect, the FBI's surveillance and harassment of Said creates the conditions for the development of more violent efforts to resolve the Palestinian problem. If you spy on and block those advocating reason, you are aiding and abetting those who will follow with violence. 

Because the FBI has yet to release the whole Said file, Dr. Price says, “We don't know what they are withholding but I wonder if it doesn't show the sort of illegal wiretapping and surveillance that we now know that President Bush has illegally charged the NSA to conduct on an unknown number of Americans. The FBI's unusual step in re-classifying these files for another quarter century raises the very real possibility that they did this to hide just what steps they were taking to spy on Said, I'll challenge this in an in-house review and my lawyer is gearing up for a suit in federal court to get a judge to look and see if the FBI was illegally spying on an American who was breaking no laws.”


  1. Douglas Coulter August 25, 2020

    Guantanamo Bay vacation Guantanamo Bay
    Guantanamo Bay welcome to Guantanamo Bay
    We teach you water boarding under constant recording
    And there is sleep deprivation followed by strong medication

    When our peaceful protest results in violent arrest
    And from police confrontation my skull has deep indentation

    Don’t look for habeus courpus it does not suit our purpose
    And prolonged isolation provides for deep meditation

    No boring menus need reading we enjoy some force feeding
    Today is our game day we invite our guests to all play

    Just one more tune about Truth, justice, and the American way

  2. Douglas Coulter August 25, 2020

    I committed open mutiny on October 24th 1983. I should have been Court Martialed and spent my life in prison, unless what I said was true. Did Ronald Reagan murder 435 Americans in 1982-84 Beirut Peace Mission?
    Unloaded weapons in a combat zone? 15 min phone call for permission to return fire? No deadly force zones? How does American history answer this question. They don’t, they avoid it, they deflect it. Beirut was not a combat zone, end of story. Beirut veterans do not get combat recognition. The highest suicide rate of any American war, the peaceful war and death by paper cuts

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