Happy Birthday, J. Edgar

F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover is seen in his Washington office, date unknown.  (AP Photo)
F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover is seen in his Washington office, date unknown. (AP Photo)

It may seem passing strange for a civil libertarian, a general counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, to be celebrating the birthday of the dreaded FBI director. But for me, Hoover, who would celebrate his 120th birthday on January 1, was a godsend.

In an age when ubiquitous surveillance makes a mockery of personal privacy, my own experience shows there can be an upside to massive government data collection.

While Johnson had Boswell, I had the Federal Bureau of Investigation. From the time I was a 16- year-old Baltimorean and for the next twenty years, I had FBI agents tracking my comings and goings.

But before you jump to any conclusions, unlike many subjects of FBI surveillance who suffered greatly as a result, I have found it a great benefit.

One example. On our 25th anniversary, my wife took me on a mystery ride. We drove through her old neighborhood in the Bronx, and when we passed the sign "Welcome to Harrison, N. Y.", I realized she was tracing the path of our elopement. However, when we reached our destination, the only thing either of us could remember was that we were married by a Justice of the Peace named Venezia. When we could not find a house that looked familiar, the telephone book listed no Venezias, and no one at the police station could remember him.

My wife's mistake was not having told me in advance where we were going. If she had, I could have consulted my FBI file, an expurgated copy of which I had obtained under the Freedom of Information Act in the late 1970s. A belated search revealed, as I had suspected, that the FBI knew all about JP Venezia. His name was Charles and we had been married in his living room at 3 Calvert Place, Harrison.

No, the FBI did not accompany us on our elopement. Agents discovered a report of the event after the fact on the New York Times social page, which listed the names of my new in-laws. A telephone call to my mother-in-law by an agent posing as an old friend from Baltimore provided other relevant details for the FBI's insatiable files, including the revelation of a proud mother that her daughter "was attending a graduate school of Columbia University under a scholarship."

The FBI file also comes in handy under various other circumstances, such as when filling out government security forms. By a strange twist of fate I actually had to seek security clearance from the FBI in the late 1980s when I was serving as special counsel (while on academic leave) to a Congressional committee which had oversight over the nation's intelligence services

In completing the security form, I had to list every address where I had ever lived and every job I had ever held. For most people my age that would have been a real headache. I just let my fingers do the walking -- since all of the information was right there in my FBI file.

What was the reason for my inclusion on the FBI's Security Index, the catalog of dangerous radicals who could be rounded up and interned in event of a national emergency? I have never in my life been accused of a crime. But at the age of 16, I became a civil rights advocate in my native Jim Crow city of Baltimore, leading sit-ins and other protests against racial segregation in schools, public recreation programs and local restaurants and lunch counters. In the late 1940s it was not politically correct to be for civil rights in J. Edger Hoover's country.

But I am most thankful to Hoover for keeping me out of the Korean War. I was drafted all right, but after six months I was unceremoniously discharged, although I was one of the few members in my barracks who was not actively trying to find a way out. I told my curious comrades in arms that I had a politically connected uncle -- not explaining that I really meant my Uncle Sam. Indeed, Uncle gave me something called a General Discharge, which I later had to sue to change to Honorable, since I had done nothing to warrant my discharge.

I must admit I was unusually lucky in being able to transform this lemon of FBI surveillance into lemonade. Indeed, it eventually led me to law school and a career as a civil liberties teacher and lawyer. After discovering the First Amendment in my constitutional law class, I started to question where the FBI got the authority to gather information and keep dossiers on individuals like me for doing nothing more than exercising our constitutional rights. And the first major lawsuits I ever brought on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union challenged that authority all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Those challenges were ultimately dismissed on technical grounds, and the underlying legal issues remain unresolved to this day, athough the Federal Privacy Act now appears to forbid it.

But there can be no doubt that J. Edgar inspired my life's mission and a very rewarding career. Maybe one upside of today's overly intrusive FBI and NSA is that they may inspire the next generation of civil libertarians to take up the mantle as their life's mission.

This first appeared in the Washington Post on January 1.