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Death of Historian Athan Theoharis, Who Chronicled FBI Abuses


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Today’s NY Times (7/12/21) published a lenghty obit re death of Prof. Athan Theorharis, a Marquette University historian who “chronicled F.B.I. Abuses.”

The article is quite lengthy (a full half page) and may be of interest to anyone who has followed controversies of the FBI, and the Freedom of Information Act; and the March 1971 burglary of the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania— which, in retrospect, turns out to be rather significant, historically.

Here are points I found noteworthy:

ITEM: Theoharis was interviewed for “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret F.B.I. (by Betty Medseger); and also the documentary film “1971” (directed by Johanna Hamilton).Presumably, these items are —or will be— available via Amazon.

ITEM: Both the book and film dealt with the burglary (3/8/71) of the Media, PA., FBI office, which (according to the NYT) “showed among other things, active unlawful surveillance of black, student and peace groups, and led to the relevation of Hoover’s secret Cointelpro program. . .which spied on civil rights leaders, political organizations,” etc.

ITEM: The Times article quotes Theoharis describing Hoover as “an insubordinate bureaucrat in charge of  lawless organizaton. . . He was also a genius who could set up a system of illegal activities and a way to keep all documentation ecret for many years.”

ITEM: Theoharis has donated “[his] voluminous trove of F.B.I. papers to Marquette.”

ITEM:  Regarding the “Do Not File” files; The Times notes Prof. Theoharis’ skill at using the FOIA:  “Prof. Theoharis. ..deployed the FOIA, which had been strengthened by Congress in 1974, to plumb Hoover and his top aides’ sensitive “Official and confidential” files, along with those designated “Do Not File,” which were kept from the F.B.I.’s central records, presumably safe from being disclosed.”

ITEM: The Times article implies that the designation “Do Not File” was effectively used by Theoharis (in filing FOIA requests) and that “he got a lot of information that way.”

ITEM: Regarding “the portrait of Hoover as a ‘homosexual cross-dresser’ (as reported by Anthony Summers (in his 1993 book, “Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover,”)  the Times obituary takes issue with that.  Here’s what the Times obit says: “He (Theoharis) refuted Mr. Summers in 1995 citing a Theoharis book  (DSL Note; one that I was unaware of): “J. Edgar Hoover, Sex and Crime: An Historical Antidote.”  Specifically addressing Summers, the Times obit then quotes Theoharis as noting that “Hoover’s leadership of the F.B.I. was "a story of a resourceful bureaucrat who successfully circumvented the limitations of the American constitutional system of checks and balances” — and not, as Mr.Summers had it, a ‘morality play’ about a closeted gay man whose secret was used by organized crime bosses to leave them alone.”

Personal Note: I will not be surprised if Anthony Summers writes a “Letter to the Editor’" about all of this (which should be interesting).

Hopefully, this post to the London Education Forum will be of interest to students of the FOIA, and the F.B.I.

Personal Note: I have reviewed this for typos; and other errors. Please feel free to post any comments (and correct any errors).

Here is the link to the original FBI story, which has some nice photos of Prof. Theoharis, at his desk:

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/10/us/politics/athan-theoharis-dead.html

Edited by David Lifton
Minor edits to clarify.
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5 hours ago, Andrew Prutsok said:

So did Theorharis content Hoover was not a cross-dresser, or that it just wasn't important?

I happened to read an article about Truman Capote today.  The article claimed that Capote was the one who started the Hoover cross dressing rumor.  When someone asked Capote, "What if it's not true?" or something like that.  Capote replied, "Who cares."

Edited by Dan Rice
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  • 2 weeks later...
On 7/14/2021 at 1:48 PM, Micah Mileto said:

Basically, when people ask for "examples of proven conspiracies", this guy helped expose some of the "smaller" stuff nobody ever heard of?

Sounds like he was an early critic and chronicler of the FBI, did a good amount of scholarly research. 

It could be said that he did some work on COINTELPRO, based on what David wrote here. I'd say that's a "conspiracy" that everyone has heard of or is one of the better known conspiracies these days rather than characterize it as smaller stuff. 

At the time he was working on it though, surely it was little known. 

I would characterize the guy as a historian who focused early-on on FBI excesses which are today well documented but not so much at the time. 

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