I’ve just finished reading Penn T. Kimball’s memoir The File. Today, the author is a historical footnote; he was a liberal journalist, politico and academic who cut his teeth writing for long-extinct publications like PM and Collier’s, as well as Time, The New Republic and The New York Times. He served in the Marine Corps during WW2, and worked for New Deal Democrats such as Chester Bowles and W. Averell Herriman before settling into a career at the Columbia grad school of journalism.
All of this is detailed in the book, clearly, but the autobiography is not exactly Kimball’s own. Rather, it’s his livid, methodical response to government documents released upon his request – via the Freedom Of Information Act – wherein he found that he had been classified, in so (so so so so so so so) many words, as a threat to national security. This verdict was the result of a labyrinthine inquest coordinated over years by the Office of Naval Intelligence, the State Department, the FBI, and – ironically, with the least damning results – the CIA. The full bureaucratic gangbang took years, but it started when Kimball applied for a job with the Foreign Service in 1946; State operatives immediately began investigating him to figure out whether or not his loyalty would be an issue.
Can you imagine? Most of the evidence is not really evidence, but fragmentary comments made, one interview at a time, under tight secrecy guarantees. There is no smoking gun or pivotal betrayal; some of the clearances are equivocal, like this one from State:
Investigation discloses evidence of a material nature tending to affect adversely the applicant’s loyalty to the Government of the United States and its institutions.
It reveals much information both pro and con in regard to the applicant’s loyalty, and though no one placed him in the (Communist) Party, it is noted that but few of the applicant’s most enthusiastic supporters are able to recommend him without explanation and reservation in supporting his stand on past activities.
The general impression gleaned from the file is that Kimball was indeed interpreted by the state as a patriotic, hardworking, reliable American – one who would have been a perfect fit for the job if it weren’t for his progressivism. He spent three decades totally unaware this was going on; it’s impossible to verify, or resist, the notion that he might have been luckier if he had never asked in the first place.
The documents are rife with redacted names/places/concepts, and so I found myself chuckling while underlining key passages and quotes every handful of pages. He’s an excellent writer, deeply embittered by the process – and who can blame him? Read below:
For the next 20 years, my file shows, the FBI’s interest was revived from time to time – and so was the attention of the State Department and the CIA – sometimes for reasons that I could discern and sometimes for reasons that I can still only guess. My document collection eventually grew to 269 pages for me to pore over, worry about, carry around on my mind and rehash during those moments when I wasn’t absolutely required to devote my attention to something else. Over the years after the first installment arrived in February, 1978, more pages arrived in dribs and drabs – from the FBI in Washington, from their field office in New York, from the Passport Division of the State Department and, five years later, from the CIA. It is surprising how much is still missed after leafing through such documents a hundred times. Connections between my FBI and State Department files would suddenly dawn on me when I spotted a tiny initial and date in the corner of a page. Some contained scrawls that took on meaning only later when another piece of the puzzle became available. Janet would chide me gently about my preoccupation when it became clear that I hadn’t heard a word of her conversation at dinner. “Where are you, Penn?” she would ask, as if she didn’t know.
Here’s a verbatim quote Kimball adjoins to the above, which is remarkably telling in terms of these type of investigations’ role in broader politics. It’s taken from one of the FBI’s summaries:
Even if we were satisfied that the man is not a Communist or has Communist leanings, should we make the appointment (to the Foreign Service) there would be the possibility of someone raising the question on the floor of the Senate or House, holding up as an example the Kimball case in which the State Department had made the appointment when it had been charged that he is a Communist or Communist sympathizer.
In other words: by sheer dint of being investigated, whether conclusively or not, Kimball was no longer an option for a government job because the investigation itself could potentially be used against the government. Full circle. If not a page-turner in the classic sense, the book made me gasp a number of times at passages like these, which still can’t quite convey the documents’ full scope. (Although tempted, I think accurately quoting big chunks would be a Herculean task for me to contextualize, and for you to read. Just get a copy of the book!)
I also learned a little something about myself. Kimball writes with real severity about the importance of challenging his official, permanent reputation as a disloyal citizen – informally by writing the book, and officially by appealing the allegations. A few years after publishing The File, Kimball was successful in the latter endeavor. To read the book is to be dissuaded of this attitude, but when I first tried putting myself in his shoes, my initial response to his agonizing was, “who cares?”
After all, since Kimball earned his keep as a private citizen, the government’s (top-secret) opinion could only have caused so much harm. His wife Janet died the same day he received the penultimate shipment of CIA documents; he recounts feeling too sick to stand up, yet somehow tearing into them anyway. His paranoid, heroic obsession with setting the record straight testifies to an earlier generation’s attachment to ideals of due process and government transparency – not things I would identify as hallmarks of mine, even as it unwittingly barfs up more and more potentially actionable data.
Remember, Kimball was a Yale graduate who worked for bigwigs later entrusted with key spots in the White House, living an erstwhile nonchalant suburban life with wife + kid. He was not a proto-hippie, a ganja smoker, a purchaser of firearms, a subversive or an agitator of any kind; although active in journalistic labor unions, his record suggests nothing even remotely out of liberal-whack. Janet Kimball was the leader of a Brownie troop in the 50s, and both of them taught sunday school at their local church in Westport, Connecticut.
Nevertheless, literally dozens of government agents managed to build a case against them by secretly interviewing coworkers, colleagues, former bosses, friends and acquaintances. (One such informant was Arthur Schlesinger Jr., JFK’s so-called “court historian”*. ) There were background checks, credit reports, verifications of press passes, medical history, travel history (frequently incomplete, at least in the files made available to Kimball) and the marriage license.
If this much bureaucratic machinery was brought down on one dude who doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, where does this leave us today? The two most disheartening aspects of the whole thing, for my money, are these:
1. The sweep and expense of this type of investigation, which we can by no means assume was unique. The analysis it yielded was never intended for any kind of prosecution; it was amassed solely for internal purposes, to determine whether or not Kimball was a good fit to work for the State Department. If the government was willing to spend this much time and money verifying a nobody’s inadequacy for a minor diplomatic position, then it becomes more and more unfortunate that somebody like Abbie Hoffman never requested to have his information released. The mind reels.
2. The fact that it really, really, really takes two to tango. I just assumed that Kimball’s file was not a freak occurrence, but he himself is probably unique among people willing to contest this level of surveillance. (I’m sure more than one functionary got off the phone with him and sighed exasperatedly, praying he’d never call back.) At one point, in fact, FBI representatives offered him the chance to have his file destroyed for good, which seemed like a sweet deal until he remembered how much evidence it contained – vital for debunking the other agencies’ coordinated research. (He found out later that the CIA had made multiple classified copies of all the FBI’s documents anyway, totally erasing any potential benefit to that idea.)
*I first heard about The File in Christopher Hitchens’ memoir from last year, Hitch-22. Funnily enough, Hitchens just published a piece for Vanity Fair reviewing (if that’s the right word) Schlesinger’s just-released interviews with Jacqueline Kennedy, recorded less than a year after the assassination. A quick search verifies Schlesinger’s WW2 years with the Office of Strategic Services, which of course grew into the CIA. Hitchens’ vitriol towards all parties concerned made me feel a little bit better about the whole thing.