When the FBI spied on Swarthmore

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On March 8, 1971, a group of activists picked the lock of an FBI office on the second floor of the County Court Apartments in Media, Pennsylvania, and stole more than 1,000 documents. A few weeks later, Swarthmore student Martha Shirk, who was the editor of the Phoenix, opened her mailbox in Parrish to find a plain brown envelope containing stolen FBI files detailing spying on Swarthmore’s own campus. A letter accompanying the envelope said, “Dear Swarthmore Phoenix, The enclosed materials are copies of materials taken from the Media FBI office on March 8, 1971. We thought that you would be interested in receiving them. This is the last mailing you will receive from the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI.” Said Shirk, “I was both thrilled to have been sent the stolen files, and scared.”

Following the break-in of the Media FBI office, copies of the records were distributed to several senators, congressmen and major newspapers on March 22, 1971. In a letter accompanying the files, an anonymous organization called the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI claimed responsibility for the theft. The letter detailed the intent of the Citizens’ Commission to unearth “the extent, of illegal practices by the FBI, such as eavesdropping, entrapment, and the use of provocateurs and informants [sic],” as it was printed in the April 2, 1971 Phoenix. The documents stolen from the Media FBI office contained information on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s extensive surveillance program, and in particular the obsessive measures taken to scrutinize civil rights movements, Black Power groups, and even Black student groups on college campuses. As the documents showed, some of the surveillance took place directly on Swarthmore’s campus.

Spies at Swarthmore

Swarthmore College, which had a history of anti-war activism and leftist politics, was on spring break when the first news stories about the documents surfaced. Once back on campus, the Phoenix began reporting the story as it related to Swarthmore using published documents and interviews with administrators and students. The Phoenix first had access to many of the stolen files thanks to an organization called Resist, which mailed them the files. Resist, based in Cambridge, MA, had been founded in 1967 with the purpose of promoting unions dedicated to resisting the draft. The documents that Shirk and the Phoenix obtained from Resist revealed that the FBI had placed informants within and around campus who reported on everything from the home activities of suspected ‘radical’ professors to the number of African-American students enrolled at the college.

One file, obtained by Shirk and the Phoenix around April 13, named Senior Secretary to the Registrar Marjorie Webb as an “established informant.” In the file, Webb was described to have relayed information to the FBI about a student named Jacqueline Reuss, who was the daughter of then-Congressman Henry Reuss. Congressman Reuss was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. Of the files mailed directly to the Phoenix, Shirk said they were the most insightful of any files they gained access to. They revealed five years of spying on Swarthmore campus, including that Webb relayed to the FBI the registration information of all black students enrolled at Swarthmore in 1969.

Also included in the documents mailed to the Phoenix were, Shirk said, license plate numbers of cars around campus and accumulated information on three Swarthmore students who had ties to the National Caucus of Labor Committees. Finally, the files included a memo from J. Edgar Hoover himself, stating, “College administrations across the land must unite in placing order on their individual campuses as the top priority item.”

A file which the Phoenix printed word-for-word on April 2, 1971, titled ‘United States Government Memorandum,’ documented FBI surveillance of Daniel Bennett, associate professor of Philosophy for three years and a well-known activist on campus. An unnamed “Boston informant” had given the FBI evidence that Bennett might have connections to two Brandeis students, Susan Saxe and Katherine Powers, who were wanted in connection with a bank robbery. Bennett had taught at Brandeis from 1963 until 1966.

The file detailed the involvement of Henry Peirsol, a security officer at Swarthmore, who lived near Bennett and provided the FBI with information on his family and his activities. The Phoenix contacted Peirsol upon reading the files, but Peirsol refused to comment: In the April 2, 1971 issue of the Swarthmore Phoenix, Peirsol is quoted as saying, “I’m not going to say a thing. Not a word… There’s no comment whatsoever, no matter who calls.”

Equally implicated in the file was Judy Feiy, the chief switchboard operator at Swarthmore, who reported on Bennett’s ‘radical’ actions. These actions included holding “Philosophy [discussion] groups on the topics of political and social Philosophy which are supposedly open to the public and this action has not been approved by the school administration…” said the document, United States Government Memorandum, in the April 2, 1971 Phoenix. According to the document, Feiy also agreed to “furnish pertinent information regarding any long distance telephone calls made by Bennett.” At the time of the memorandum, Bennett was reported as having made no such phone calls. Feiy denied the charges and said she was shocked, telling the Washington Post, “That could cost me my job. It would be a breach of ethics. I would never do that” (Swarthmore Phoenix, April 2, 1971).

The Swarthmore Chief of Police, William Weidner, also informed on Bennett. Weidner reported to the FBI on a printing press in Bennett’s garage that had printed a leaflet supporting the Black Panthers organization. He also mentioned that “hippie types” were often hanging around the garage.

Ironically, the little information the FBI had on Bennett turned out to be mostly wrong. In a March newspaper interview, Bennett was unsurprised about his surveillance, characterizing it as an example of the FBI’s incompetence. While Peirsol reported Bennett to have one car, Bennett said he had two. The document reported him having two children, yet he only had one. Bennett also expressed confusion that the FBI had not simply questioned him in person rather than resorting to spying, saying in an interview with the Philadelphia Bulletin, “I never did anything that was not open to everybody… I would have told them more than this if they wanted to know it.”

Radical philosophy at Swarthmore

Bennett was likely unsurprised about the surveillance because he was an outspoken and politically active leftist. While no evidence ever surfaced linking him to the two Brandeis University students, he brought Philadelphia Black Panther leader Reggie Schell to Swarthmore in October of 1970 without the permission of the Swarthmore administration, which the FBI noted in their files. During the 1970 school year, Bennett also held a weekly lecture, Philosophy 10, which discussed liberal politics and socialist reform of society. Former Swarthmore student Joe Horowitz wrote in 1971 in the education magazine Change, “The weekly Phil 10 lecture, held in a room so stuffed with people and dogs that it seemed more like an arena than a lecture hall, was a major campus social event, a contest in which the participants vied with one another for attention and notoriety. Informality and lack of decorum resulted in a sense of shared experience, of instruction without condescension.”

Philosophy 10, which was usually in solidarity with the Black minority at Swarthmore, clashed with the Swarthmore Afro-American Students’ Society (SASS) when SASS asked for their own cultural center. The Philosophy 10 instructors organized a meeting of the entire student body and claimed that the demands were “chauvinistic” and that members of SASS were in pursuit of “community control.” This controversy caused a deep divide in Swarthmore politics, particularly because Black students were already so marginalized on campus. Shirk recalls that there was very little contact between Black and White students. During these years, several articles and op-eds in the Phoenix indicated that SASS often did not receive communication about events or speakers that would be pertinent to their organization, and they were excluded from the organization of major events, even those concerning Black students on campus.

Bennett was one of at least three other Swarthmore faculty members, including Uwe Henke, also of the philosophy department, who were in support of the Philadelphia Labor Committee, a Marxist labor organization that would later morph into the right-wing US Labor Party.

“The political discussion at Swarthmore was dominated by a radical offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) called the National Caucus of Labor Committees (referred to as NCLC or the Labor Committee), which had a lot of junior faculty involvement,” Shirk said. According to Shirk, the Labor Committee was not well regarded on many college campuses, but faculty endorsement of the organization at Swarthmore made it a more appealing option for left-leaning students.

A surveillance document from September 24, 1970, described an FBI informant sitting in on a meeting of the Philadelphia Labor Committee. The file reported meeting participants, including Bennett and Henke, “sitting around discussing the coming Black Panther Party Conference and smoking marijuana.” Additionally, it noted that meeting attendants considered themselves “intellectual revolutionaries” but were not personally interested in organization or activism.

Upon President Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia in May 1970, Bennett was part of a group of Swarthmore students and professors who formed a Marxist-Hegelian movement called Holism. The movement opposed current academic tenets and called instead for action in the world. Bennett was also the driving force behind a mostly socialist newspaper called Tensor, which sought to connect education and science with socialist organization. The publication was built on the controversial idea that education should serve the primary purpose of forming a working-class force that would aid in solving society’s concrete problems. The newspaper only lasted a short time, but was probably printed in the press in Bennett’s garage noted by the FBI.

In May of 1970, such an overwhelming number of students attended mass meetings in response to Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia that the school was forced to suspend classes. The Philosophy 10 lectures were cited by many as a huge factor in the expansion of the socialist attitude on campus. In fall of the next year, Bennett attempted to continue the Holism movement via two courses, “Metaphysics” and “Social and Political Philosophy,” but after only a month, he and his students cut ties over differing politics. Most of the students involved left Swarthmore and began their own movement, while Bennett also left the school for the small town of Marcus Hook, PA.

 FBI surveillance of Black students 

Perhaps the most significant piece of information in the stolen files were the orders from Hoover to begin an immediate investigation on every Black student group at every college in the country. Three 1968 reports in the files were interested in obtaining racial informants, stating, “all officers must now give serious and penetrative thought to methods of obtaining maximum productivity from the ghetto informants developed by each individual office.” A file dated August 12, 1968, contained instructions to seek “all indications of efforts by suspected black extremist organizations.” The same file had a list of six Black community groups, pegged as locations for “ghetto informants” to gather information and nine restaurants or bars where there was suspected “militant Negro” activity. Another report contained the names of members of SASS, along with twelve other Black student organizations at schools such as Penn and Dickinson, that the FBI was watching to “determine the size, aims, purposes, activities, leadership, key activists, and extremist interest or influence in these groups.” (Swarthmore Phoenix, April 9, 1971.) Another student group targeted was Harvard’s Afro-American Student Union (AASU). On April 15, 1971, a member of the union came forward stating that an FBI agent had asked them to serve as an informant on AASU activity.

The FBI files even contained a list of all 34 Black Swarthmore students, dated May 1969. The dates of departure and arrival to and from campus of many of these students were included in the file. Several active SASS members had asterisks next to their names, and two names were preceded by the word “neg?” The Assistant Dean of Students, David Closson, acknowledged in a Phoenix interview that it must have been “fairly easy” for the FBI to gain access to a list of students at Swarthmore via the Cygnet. Webb’s complicity as an informant likely made this even easier.

The FBI was particularly interested in SASS because members of SASS had occupied the Admissions Office in 1969 in response to a controversial report written by Dean Fred Hargadon about African American students on campus. The report was put on reserve at the library and presented negative and subjective statements about SASS, insinuating “military separatist inclinations” and branding some potential black students as “risk” students. Moreover, the report provided information on financial aid, parents’ occupations and incomes, grades and SAT scores of Black students at the college, and although the students were not named, only 47 Black students attended the college. SASS requested that the report be removed, but Hargadon did not consent.

On October 16, therefore, SASS contacted Admissions with the endorsement of Student Council with four demands: to remove the report from circulation, to form a Black Interest Committee, to form a committee to hire a Black Assistant Dean of Admissions, and lastly to collaborate with Admissions to recruit and enroll Black students. When no action was taken, they occupied the Admissions office, covering the windows and locking the doors. 500 students boycotted class the day following the occupation, and classes were suspended for nearly a week. Some students initiated hunger strikes. At the end of the week, the college president, Courtney Smith, died of a heart attack in his office. SASS immediately vacated the Admissions office, leaving it in perfect condition, and issued the following statement:

“In deference to the untimely death of the President, the Swarthmore Afro-American Students’ Society is vacating the Admissions Office. We sincerely believe that the death of any human being, whether he be the good President of a college or a black person trapped in our country’s ghettos, is a tragedy. At this time we are calling for a moratorium of dialogue, in order that this unfortunate event be given the college’s complete attention. However, we remain strong in our conviction that the legitimate grievances we have voiced to the college remain unresolved and we are dedicated to attaining a satisfactory resolution in the future.”

An atmosphere of distrust

“You didn’t know who might be watching you,” Shirk said of the mood at Swarthmore upon discovery of the files. “I was appalled by the participation of College employees in the FBI’s spying, and alarmed that the FBI also seemed to have recruited students to inform on student political groups, though none of those informants was named. The revelations fostered an atmosphere of distrust.”

In fact, this environment was one of the FBI’s main goals. A file in those given to the Phoenix, entitled “New Left Notes,” expanded on the objective to “enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and … to get the point across [that] there is an FBI Agent behind every mailbox.”

This was not the first time the FBI had overstepped boundaries on Swarthmore property. At 2 a.m. on a Thursday night in October 1970, 16 Swarthmore students living in a house at 1001 Baltimore Pike were awakened by FBI agents pointing guns at their faces and ordering them to get up. The agents refused to show the students a search warrant or to call a lawyer, and the students were grouped in the living room while up to thirty agents ransacked the house, smashing a hole in the third floor ceiling. Some agents refused to leave the room while girls got dressed. The hostages were interrogated about Saxe and Powers, the former Brandeis students who would also erroneously be tied to Bennett. Beyond asking about the wanted women, the agents were especially interested in a poster of Lenin, some radical leaflets, and political books in the apartment. When the agents left, the students found that their phone line had been cut. The response of President Robert D. Cross ’47 was mainly one of powerlessness: while he could ask police to consult the deans before coming to campus, he could not stop them (Swarthmore Phoenix, October 13, 1970).

Despite strongly divergent opinions by students in regards to liberalism, so-called radical politics, and the role of the FBI, the general reaction of the student body was outrage at the complicity within the administration with FBI surveillance. The president’s reaction ultimately served mainly to reinforce this opinion. Cross stated that “Any faculty, students or staff who divulge confidential information [to the FBI] risk dismissal.” While Cross began an investigation of the staff members implicated in the documents, he said that the investigation would be slow because he had to “find out what the dimensions of the situation are.” (Swarthmore Phoenix, April 2, 1971.) The Department of Justice had recognized the files as legitimate as early as March 25th, but President Cross stated that he would not pursue further action until the FBI verified the validity of the documents. Feiy, switchboard operator, and Webb, secretary to the registrar, continued working at Swarthmore.

The Phoenix’s reporting on the surveillance garnered an onslaught of op-eds in the Swarthmore community. The first, titled “A Question of Freedom,” observed that “distrust has made Swarthmore a discomforting place.” However, another, “Open Letter: Who’s Paranoid?” described the “crisis in liberalism” as a disintegration of the liberal party into two basic roles, one “anti-humanistic” and the other “reduced to virtual inactivity.” The article referenced the FBI raid on the 1001 house the year before as an example of the College’s political immobility, saying, “The Swarthmore administration made it clear that its stand on issues of surveillance was no stand at all. It effectively stated that it would do nothing significant to prevent further busts such as 1001.” The article supported the “true political, sociological and educational significance” of Holism, Philosophy 10, and Tensor while attacking Swarthmore for its pretense of being a liberal institution despite remaining silent or apathetic on relevant political issues (Swarthmore Phoenix, April 2, 1971).

Students were not the only ones to notice Swarthmore’s coverage of the surveillance. “After we published articles about the documents, [two] FBI agents visited me and demanded I turn over the copies I had been sent,” said Shirk. “The Citizens’ Commission had asked us to make copies of the copies of stolen files and to destroy the ones we had been sent. I had no idea if I would be committing a crime by doing so, but I did it. When [the] FBI agents questioned me after the next Phoenix article appeared, I could say honestly that I no longer had the files I had been sent… I had no desire to help the FBI track down people who I thought had done a service to our country.”

Over 40 years later, most of the burglars of the FBI office have come forward. Intriguingly, Shirk believes that one of the three burglars who has not revealed their identity must have been a Swarthmore professor. She went on to say that the burglars chose Swarthmore campus as a meeting point after the break-in, and there is evidence that there was a failed attempt to recruit “a philosophy professor” as a burglar. This professor, says Shirk, may have been Bennett or another left-leaning philosophy professor at the time named Richard “Richie” Schuldenfrei.

We may never know for sure whether or not a Swarthmore professor was one of the three unidentified burglars, but it is incontrovertible that Swarthmore played a huge role in the politics of the time. FBI informants spied on professors working for radical organizations and even on students who were doing nothing political at all. Said Shirk, “The files documented a massive spying campaign on American colleges and a total disregard for individual’s right to privacy. They showed that the FBI was out of control, answerable to no one.”  

4 comments

  1. 0
    HylozoicHedgehog says:

    Thanks for the article. In my own study of the Labor Committee’s early history (HOW IT ALL BEGAN: The Origins and History of the National Caucus of Labor Committees in New York and Philadelphia (1966-1971)), I devote an entire chapter to the Swarthmore story. It can be found at
    http://laroucheplanet.info/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=Library.HIABChapter5Swarthmore

    In order to better understand what happened at Swarthmore, I think it is necessary to keep in mind the situation in Philadelphia as well. Swarthmore students were active in supporting a major strike at the U. of Pennsylvania in Spring 1970, a strike where the Labor Committee played a critical role. A few months later the head of the Labor Committee in Philly, Steve Fraser, was arrested on a bogus “bomb plot” — an event that greatly enhanced the group’s presence in the Philadelphia region. (For a look back at the “plot” see http://www.philadelphiaweekly.com/news-and-opinion/cover-story/The-Liberty-Bell-Bomb-Plot-76-79949692.html.)

    One reason the case hit home at Swarthmore was that Fraser’s “co-conspirator” who lived with him at the time was a Swarthmore sophomore named Richard Borghmann.

    For more on all this, please see my chapter on Philadelphia’s Left at this time at

    http://laroucheplanet.info/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=Library.HIABChapter4Philly

  2. 0

    Fascinating and brilliant article. Rings true with my experience as a faculty member 1966-72. On Dan Bennett and Uwe Henke, I believe they were both denied tenure in 1971 (as was I). So it’s likely that Dan’s move to Marcus Hook was not entirely voluntary. Intriguing also to think that one of the three radical philosophers of the time was one of the burglars. Being a faculty member those days was truly stranger than fiction–maybe that remarkable activist/academic will write his own memoir, or even better, a novel, one of these days.

  3. 0
    David Fine says:

    Fascinating article! I met some of these people when my Parents, longtime Swarthmore Residents, boarded several Swarthmore College Students. I believe Uwe Henke came to a party one of them held at our house. I also met Fonya Davis and Cathy, or Kathy, Wilkerson at that time since she knew some of the students we boarded. I vaguely remember my late mother telling me that Wilkerson came by one time seeking donations for a Printing Press. You should do a story on what happened to her.
    BTW I am no relation to the Older David Fine that was involved in the Madison Wisconsin Computer Building Blast, though a friend of mine at the time, (who later graduated from Haverford), and I were chased from the Canadian Border into New York State by some border patrol agents who thought I might be.

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