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Chris Pyle

Chris Pyle
(Photo by Charles Jenks
Courtesy Traprock Peace Center)

Chris Pyle began his career in the U.S. Army. In 1970, he became a whistleblower, helping to reveal the Army's vast domestic spying program. Soon other revelations followed about domestic spying abuses by the FBI and other federal agencies. Today, Pyle teaches constitutional law and civil liberties at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.


Chris Pyle: I'm Chris Pyle. I'm a professor at Mount Holyoke College where I teach constitutional law and civil liberties and once upon a time, and a very long time ago, I was a captain in Army intelligence. And while teaching at the U.S. Army intelligence school at Fort Holabird, Maryland [I] learned of the Army's domestic spying operations.

Robert O'Harrow: When are we talking about? When were you teaching there?

Pyle: I was teaching [at the US Army Intelligence School in Maryland] from 1966 to 1968. And I learned of [the Army's spying program] in March of 1968 just shortly before I was due to be discharged from the Army. I was an ROTC captain.

O'Harrow: What were you doing when you learned - what was it that you learned and how did you learn of it?

Pyle: I was teaching a class entitled "CONUS Intelligence and Spot reports." CONUS was the Army's acronym for continental United States. A spot report was a six paragraph incident report. Nobody told me what to teach in the class. There was nothing in the files, so I made it up.

I asked myself the simple question, 'What does the Army need to know to go into a city in the United States and be of assistance?' And in those days there were riots. A number of them: Newark, Detroit, Baltimore, and so forth. And so I simply sat down and read all the riot reports in the library - Baltimore Library - that I could find on American history to see what caused riots and what kind of work the military needed to do.

The military has been backing up local police and state and National Guard units since the whisky rebellion of 1793. So, I researched what had been needed in 1967 and 1968, and it was fairly obvious. The Army needed to pick up local maps. They had gone into Detroit with no maps of the streets. They didn't know where they were going in the city. So I recommended to my students that they pick up maps.

I suggested that they check the height of bridges so their trucks wouldn't get stuck under them, and the weight load of bridges so that their trucks wouldn't fall through them. And, that they order their troops not to load their weapons because in Newark, New Jersey the national guardsmen had been shooting out lights, and then other troops were shooting back in that direction thinking they were being shot at. And some of the bullets were ending up in apartment buildings, and that wasn't a particular prudent thing to do.

I suggested that they reconnoiter parks to see how many tents they pitch in a park, and the number of urinals in the high schools so they could properly water their troops.

That was the basis of my lecture, after which a young officer came up to me and said, Captain Pyle, you don't know much about this do you?

And I said, No. What can you tell me?

He said, Well, I was a special duty officer before I came here over at operations for CONUS intelligence section, U.S. Army Intelligence Command, which is right across the post. And he said, If you like I could arrange a briefing.

And I said I'd like that very much.

And a week or so later, I went over with another instructor and we were taken into this big black arched roof building they used to use to assemble railroad engines - a big black building, an ominous building - which had been turned into office space for Army intelligence command

We got our passes and wound our way down through the maze of rooms inside of it, into a big brightly lit room with a steel cage standing in the middle of it - a mesh cage. Outside the cage, along the wall, were thirteen Teletype machines chattering away reporting on any demonstration of 20 people or more. The reports were written by 15 hundred intelligence agents working out of 300 offices coast to coast. These were the agents who normally did security clearances for the Army, but their secondary duty was to monitor dissent: the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement particularly, but also the black power movement and anything else that moved.

So that was kind of interesting to watch those reports spewing out from these Teletype machines. They took us inside the steel cage, which had benches around its sides and the inside, and the first thing we were shown were a stack of mug books.

And I opened volume one and there staring up at me was Ralph David Abernathy, who was Martin Luther King's assistant in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And under Ralph's chin was a police number and beside his face was his police record. And the title of the volume was 'Persons Active in Civil Disturbances.' Sort of like, persons of interest. I found that very interesting.

And we went down the bench, and there was a stack of computer punch cards. In those days computers were fed by punch cards, like the punch cards with the hanging chads in Florida. And they were filled out on the face in pencil with incident reports - my six paragraph spot reports. The top card was made out to the name of Arlo Tatum who was executive secretary of the Committee for Conscientious Objectors in Philadelphia. I knew Arlo because I had corresponded with him helping some guys in the Army get discharges as conscientious objectors.

So I found that very interesting. I read further, and the sourcing of the report - the report said that he had given a speech at the University of Oklahoma on the legal rights of conscientious objectors, and the source was the Oklahoma daily. So, that one card told me that the Army bureaucracy was monitoring anti-war speeches around the country on college campuses and was doing so either directly or by reading newspapers.

So I turned to the briefer, and I said, "This is really terrific stuff. You fellows are doing a wonderful job. Do you have anything I can show my students?" And he probably tore off a 5 and half-foot long Teletype print out for the week of March 11 through 18, 1968. And one of the reports on it told of the Army - of Army agents - attending a meeting at a Unitarian Church. So they were monitoring meetings in churches as well.

I thanked him very much for his help and after we turned in our badges and left the building I turned to my fellow instructor and said, "When I get out of the Army I'm going to write an article about this," because it was very clear to me that we had just witnessed the essential apparatus of a police state. It wasn't that these people were trying to create a police state. They were very nice, decent human beings. ... The kind that you would want as your friends and neighbors. ... But they were creating a reporting apparatus that would cover millions of Americans engaged in entirely lawful political activity.

It was precisely the kind of political activity I'd been telling my students that they didn't need to cover as Army intelligence agents because all they needed to know to go into a city was how to get there and what to do in there. They didn't need to know the names of any of the people on the street. They simply had to declare a curfew and tell people to get off the street, and if they didn't get off the street, arrest them. And that's exactly what happened, and in many cities they arrested them and ended the riots very quickly.

O'Harrow: Give me a thumbnail sketch of the enemies list.

Pyle: Nixon's enemy list was not just a list that Nixon came up with. It was a list that Kissinger and anybody could put people on, and the military was adding people to it. And really what this was was a list of people that was given to the Treasury Department for tax audits. Punitive taw audits. And so the Army put me on the list, and in due course my taxes were audited. And the IRS discovered that my wife had overpaid by $154.00, and they had to give us the money back. So we got a check that year we hadn't been expecting. We had no idea that year why we had received the check, but it was thanks to Uncle Sam.

O'Harrow: The IRS

Pyle: [Interrupting] Doesn't it make you proud to be an American. It makes me very proud to know that when government spies on me, and finds out that I overpaid on my taxes, it gives me the money back. I think that's pretty decent.

O'Harrow: What was the outcome of Sen. Ervin's investigation?

Pyle: Well the first thing about Ervin's investigation is that it took a long to hold the hearings because Sen. Ervin was being resisted by the chair of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi, and James Eastland was a rabid anti-communist.

Sam Ervin was an old judge. Sam Ervin believed in the constitution. He carried a copy of the constitution wherever he went inside his suit pocket. I think some days his constitution only got as far as the 13th Amendment, but it was enough in any case to protect freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, and due process of law. And he was quite religious about that in his folksy way.

Ervin recognized the danger. He also recognized the need to keep the military out of civilian law enforcement. Not simply for civil liberties purposes, but because the military needs to be protected from being politicized and from being drawn into domestic politics. And the military understands that, too. They are much better at guarding the Posse Comitatus Act than most political enthusiasts.

O'Harrow: You keep using this phrase 'civil liberties.' When you say, 'it's not just for civil liberties.' The senator has some strong feelings about civil liberties. What were those feelings about?

Pyle: Sen. Ervin did not call his hearings Army surveillance hearings. He called them 'Computers, Data Banks and the Bill of Rights.' Ervin understood, way ahead of most people at the time, that the greatest danger lies in the government knowing everything about its citizens, of the government being able to intrude into the private lives of people, to be able to harass them, to make life difficult for them - particularly if they are outspoken in their political dissents. And he saw in what I had disclosed, and the rising computer technology, a tremendous danger to our right to be free from unreasonable searches of our persons, papers, and affects.

Louie Brandeis had predicted that in the famous Olmstead Case of 1928. Brandeis said in that case that there will come a time when technology will permit the government to get into our papers and affects without opening our drawers. And of course computers have done that, because now our papers and affects are in the hands of others. They're outside our homes or they're in our computers and can be remotely accessed.

John Biewen: Can we kind of talk a little bit more about the Army's program and sort of the scale of it? You said that it was big, and it was bigger than what the FBI and CIA were doing and so forth. How can you sort of give us a sense - if you can quantify that. And then just talk a little bit about how - who created this thing? How did it come to be?

Pyle: Long about the fall of 1970 I realized that the dissertation I was writing on affirmative action was never going to get done. And so I took that dissertation which was about two-thirds done and threw it on the shelf, and sat down and started writing a dissertation about Army surveillance. And, the question I tried to answer in that dissertation was not, 'Is this wrong from a civil liberties perspective?' But, 'How did this come about? Who authorized it?' I used 3 models, as political scientists do. The first model was: was it authorized by the people at the very top? Did a few people issues order at the top of a hierarchy and that's how this came about? Or, did it come about through bureaucratic processes, from the middle management level, from the culture of the bureaucracy? Or, third, did it come about through political pressures in a pluralist world: from Congress, from approving decisions of the courts, from interest groups, from executive agencies - a variety of ways? And I concluded after researching and interviewing a lot of people and such that this particular phenomena came about through bureaucratic processes.

Pyle: There was no evidence that Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon ordered it. There was no evidence until about November 1969 that anybody in the Secretary of the Army's office really knew what was going on. They were receiving reports but they thought the reports were coming second-hand from the FBI. They didn't really know that all of those security clearance investigators were doing double-duty and collecting their own stuff.

Now what was happening was the Army intelligence command wanted to keep up with the Jones' or the Hoover's and so they wouldn't rely upon what the police or the FBI gave them. They had to collect it themselves. In addition, they got to talking with the FBI, and the FBI I think was saying, 'We could use some help on special occasions like the March on Washington in 1963,' which the Army infiltrated because the Army has all the young guys. But the FBI didn't want any competition. It wanted a little help on the side maybe, but essentially this was authorized by the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence at the Pentagon and the commander of the intelligence command.

And my guess is the further you got down in the hierarchy, the more energy got generated, the more imagination got generated. For example, the military intelligence unit in Chicago got so enthusiastic at the time of the demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in '68, that it got itself a van, and painted the name Midwest News on the side of the van, and gave it a Michigan Ave. address. Which, if you looked it up, was about a quarter of a mile out into the lake.

But in that van they had a TV camera, and they went around and they interviewed all the protesters. And the film would then be put on a plane to Washington and would be viewed at the Pentagon the next day. And the Generals loved it because they had their own news service. It was like they didn't have to wait for Walker Cronkite, or Chet, or David to tell them what was going on. In Chicago, they had their own agents on the scene. And so the enthusiasm just got built up.

But the civilians at the top, being busy with budgets and other things, weren't paying that much attention. Eventually they began to get a sense something was wrong, but they couldn't do anything about it. And there's a reason why they couldn't.

And I interviewed David McGifford who was the Deputy Secretary of the Army, and the Army General Council, and a few others after the hoo-rah was over. And they had sent a letter to the Justice department in the spring of 1969 asking to be relieved of the necessity to do this kind of surveillance. They said this is not something the Army should be involved in. This is not appropriate Army activity.

The letter went to William H. Reinquist, who was then the assistant attorney general at the Office of Legal Council. Reinquist shared that letter with attorney general John Mitchell, and his assistant Kleindienst, and I think Robert Mardian who was head of internal security in the Justice department. These are all names familiar from Watergate, and Mitchell did some time in prison for his activities.

Anyway, that leadership group decided to keep the Army spying. This became of great interest in 1972 when Laird versus Tatum finally found its way to the Supreme Court. We had lost Laird v. Tatum in the district court. The judge wouldn't show any interest in hearing our agents testify. He said that the plaintiffs have no standing to sue because you have no evidence they have been hurt. We said we had no evidence that they had been hurt because we hadn't been able to get to the Army's files to find out what they did with the information, but we do believe this is highly inhibiting in the exercise of constitutional rights.

That didn't persuade the judge. He didn't believe anybody should be frightened by the existence of a domestic intelligence apparatus, so he ruled against us. We appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit, and they ruled two to one in our favor.

One of the votes in our favor was Judge Tan, who used to be a high official in the FBI. The court of appeals said that the plaintiffs in Laird v. Tatum have a present fear of future harm and that's sufficient to give them standing to sue, and therefore pre-trial discovery into the Army's files. The case went up to the Supreme Court, and as the case was going up to the Supreme Court, William Renquist was confirmed as a new Supreme Court justice.

I stood in the well of the Supreme Court chamber in January 1972 with Sen. Ervin, who was going to argue part of the case, and I turned to Ervin and said, "Do you think Bill Renquist will come through the drapes?" And Sen. Ervin said, "No, that would be unethical."

He thought it would be unethical for the same reason I did. First, Renquist had testified at the hearings I organized for Ervin that the case of Laird versus Tatum had no legal merit. He had a theory of modified marshal law that was going on unbeknownst to everyone in the nation. Second, Renquist has been the custodian of the computer data banks. The Army had finally after my disclosures agreed to shut down the data banks and put one set of print outs aside for the litigation. They put it aside for the litigation so they didn't have to give it to Sam Ervin until Ervin's hearings were over and the potential for embarrassment was gone. After the hearings were over they agreed to let us have them, and I went over to Renquit's office and got them out of a supermarket shopping cart in the back of his conferences room. I always wondered where the Justice Department acquired supermarket shopping carts. In any case, he had been custodian of the evidence. And would you believe - he decided to participate. He came through the drapes. He participated, and he cast the deciding vote against us.

With the ACLU I wrote a motion to recuse and motion to reconsider. And Renquist wrote a 16-page response to our motions rejecting them, never addressing a single point we made in our briefs, [laughing] but advancing the law of necessity. He said, "Necessity requires that there be an odd number of Supreme Court justices so we always get a decision." Well, that is utterly contrary to Supreme Court practice. The Supreme Court has a rule that if the court divides evenly that the opinion of the court below stands, in which case we would have had access to the Army's files.

Had we had access to the Army's files, there is a chance we would have gotten a copy of the Houston Plan for Domestic Surveillance. The Houston Plan was drafted by a former Army intelligence agent on Nixon's staff in the White House. It was drafted in June 1970, and it specifically ordered the intelligence agencies of the government to engage in illegal activities against anti-war people, particularly - also maybe civil rights people. A very embarrassing - wiring tapping, eavesdropping, surveillance.

J. Edgar Hoover had been doing that stuff for years without any express order. And he didn't want an express order, and he certainly didn't want a document floating around with his signature on it saying that he was pledging to do it. But Houston had persuaded Nixon to insist upon this because Nixon felt that the intelligence agencies were dragging their feet. Well, the document was staffed around, and Hoover wrote all these disclaimers, and footnotes which he attached to it, and so did the Army.

The Army said, "We can't do this sort of thing. We have no security. We're all over the newspapers." And they were, because my agents were coming out about once every two weeks with a news story. All around the country Army intelligence agents were telling what they knew to TV stations, to print reporters in Chicago sometimes, various newspapers, and the Army was leaking like a sieve. Very embarrassing.

O'Harrow: What was the outcome when you boil it all down? Did the Army stop its domestic spying?

Pyle: The Army that summer, although it was under great pressure from the White House to continue it and increase it, stopped [spying domestically] because it knew Ervin's hearings were coming. And I had written another article published in June 1970 that detailed the cover-up, and it was clear I had inside sources. So they knew they'd better shut it down.

O'Harrow: Was there any order to shut it down?

Pyle: Yes, there were orders shutting it down and were redefining the Army's mission. But yes, there had to be orders all the way down the chain of command saying we're not going to do this anymore.

O'Harrow: Did that become policy?

Pyle: Yes and they informed Sen. Ervin toward the end of the year that that was their policy. It was sort of like, "We didn't do it, and besides we've stopped, and no we won't do it again."

O'Harrow: Is that policy still in effect technically today?

Pyle: I wouldn't know what new orders have come out. They don't share their order with me.

O'Harrow: What were the orders called?

Pyle: I don't know what they called it.

O'Harrow: They basically said no more domestic surveillance.

Pyle: Oh yes. And in 1973 I was on the committee staff that wrote it. We wrote the Privacy Act. It was a funny thing. After all these disclosures: the COINTELPRO disclosures, the FBI [disclosures], the Watergate disclosures, the Army disclosures - and the Army was just the lead up to all this stuff. The beginning of Watergate, so to speak. After all those disclosures, there was a general consensus among the politicians in Washington that we needed a law protecting privacy. Even President Nixon was in favor of privacy. He came out with a statement in favor of privacy.

And I had this amazing breakfast one day with Rep. Ed Koch, later mayor of New York, and Barry Goldwater Jr. who was also a congressman, and they were trying to persuade me to help write the Privacy Act. And I said, Why should I do this? This is never going to pass. And they said oh yes, it'll get passed. The time is right. You just give us the content we'll pass it." And of course a whole committee staff was created to do it. And the committee staff came up with the content. I had a bit role in it, not a very big role.

But among other things, we had a provision in there saying that the Army - that the government - that no government agency will maintain files on wholly lawful political activity of citizens. And in anticipation of that law going into effect in 1974, in late '73 the Army started burning all its files. And I interviewed some the agents who did the burning over the Christmas holidays because the Army didn't want people filing Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act requests for the documents.

And so I went into that giant warehouse at Fort Holabird, that big, black building I told you about, which had enormous files. And to get a sense of it, these things were on racks. It looked a Home Depot with all these racks. And they had a cherry picker on rails that rode down the aisles - up and down the aisles, computer run by a console in the corner - picking off the shelves. They had 108 linear feet of files on the Communist Party U.S.A. just to give you a sense of the quantity of paper files they had on political activity. All of that had to be burned.

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