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My father's FBI file

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As I noted a month ago, last August I filed a Freedom of Information request to get a copy of my father's FBI file.

The file arrived today, delivered by FedEx: 272 pages of material, with almost every name redacted.

I read through half of it tonight, and skimmed the rest. I'll probably write up some of it in more detail later, but for now, just a summary, plus a copy of the best part.

The overall summary goes like this:

In April of 1960, when my father was a 20-year-old junior at the University of Washington, someone whose name is redacted—probably his father, my grandfather—reported Peter to the FBI. Peter had written a ten-page letter home in which he said he no longer believed in God and was planning to apply to a particular Soviet university.

The file contains a photocopy of the handwritten letter, plus a typed copy. It's good stuff; I'll post it at some point. The file also contains, for handwriting-comparison purposes, a two-page handwritten screed in which Peter expresses extreme angst about his lack of a relationship and his general inaction.

The FBI decided to keep an eye on him. In November, a couple days after he turned 21, Peter joined the Socialist Workers Party, which prompted the FBI to add him to their Security Index.

In 1961, Peter traveled to Mexico, planning to go to Cuba. A remarkable number of pages are expended on this trip, even though Peter never made it to Cuba, because apparently while in Mexico he met a young soldier-of-fortune named Rigsbee who apparently subsequently started calling himself Peter Hartman.

(Side note: I gotta say, the FBI is not all that careful at redacting. In addition to letting one instance of Rigsbee's name through, and leaving substantial indications that the person who reported Peter was his father, they also redacted some bits that didn't really need it. My favorite of those is the phrase “Pascal's Wager” in Peter's letter home.)

Rigsbee was five years older than Peter, was blond, came from New Orleans (and had been arrested there in 1953, when Peter was 14), had various scars and tattoos, had possibly participated in the Cuban revolution, had attempted to run guns to Cuba, and was in Mexico long after Peter had returned home to Washington; but the FBI's US offices and legal attaché (“legat”) in Mexico spent quite a bit of time believing that Rigsbee and Peter must be the same person. The FBI eventually showed photos of Peter to informants in Mexico, who couldn't be sure whether he was the same guy as Rigsbee or not. So the US FBI office decided they weren't the same person and closed the case, and then the Mexican legat decided that they were definitely the same person and closed the case, and then the US FBI reiterated that they were different people, and so on.

(Oddly, there is no mention that I can find of the CIA's investigation of Peter during his 1961 Mexico trip, even though that CIA memo says they're going to coordinate with the FBI in Mexico. The CIA, if I'm interpreting right, seems to have been concerned with a friend of Peter's who had defected to the USSR; you'd think the FBI would've noticed that too, but apparently not.)

Rigsbee, the report suggests, may have been “slightly psychopathic” and/or suicidal. I think that's the reason that every so often throughout the rest of the file, it says that the FBI shouldn't approach Peter because he's mentally unbalanced.

At any rate, after the Rigsbee matter blows over, almost the entire rest of the file consists of the FBI keeping tabs on Peter as he moves around the country, taking assorted odd jobs. There's one particularly angry-sounding note that declares that they haven't known where he was for SIX MONTHS, and that this is unacceptable.

Finally, in 1968, the FBI notices that Peter hasn't engaged in any overt subversive activity since a SWP meeting in 1963, and they decide that he's no longer a threat to national security, and they remove him from the Index. There are a couple more administrative notes after that, but only a couple, and the last one is dated 1971.

So more than half of the file consists of the FBI's records of Peter's frequent changes of address and employment throughout the '60s. There's also a lot of duplication, including many copies of a one-page general backgrounder on the SWP. I found the file to be an interesting window onto FBI procedures and the way informants were handled and so on; I guess a lot of paranoid-seeming people at the time were actually right that they were under observation by the FBI.

Anyway, my favorite page that I've seen is one of the last entries. It's dated 4/22/68, less than a month after I was born. I'll attempt to reproduce it below. The places where I'm writing [REDACTED] are actually just white rectangles outlined in black.

     On 4/15/68[REDACTED]Postmaster, Mendocino, Ca.,
advised that GEORGE HARTMAN continues to reside in Cabin 5,
[address removed by Jed], Mendocino, Ca. [REDACTED]
stated that HARTMAN is the dirtiest man he has ever seen and
he resides in a "hippy colony" near Mendocino.  His main
occupation, according to [REDACTED], appears to be to retain
his title as the world's dirtiest human and his only employ-
ment is doing odd jobs.  He recently shocked the community
in Mendocino by personally delivering his wife's baby.  Everyone
expected the baby to be diseased but so far, this has not
been the case.

It goes on to note that they talked to relevant locals “but none were aware of any subversive activities in the Mendocino, California, area.” I'm sad to learn that my birth was not considered a subversive activity.

So that's the story of Peter's FBI file. I'll get the long letter into electronic form at some point, but I think this is enough for now.

(Entry lightly updated the next day after re-checking a few details.)

2 Comments

Wow Jed, this is amazing! I wonder if your dad was friends with my folks, who were also dirty hippies (actually beatnicks, but their pals were hippies. This also makes me want to ask for my grandad's FBI file, though the way he told it they (a pair of agents he chatted up when they came to see him) confessed to him that they were wiretapping the wrong guy for many years.


I knew that we were born fairly near each other, but somehow it never occurred to me before to wonder whether your parents knew mine. Now I'm curious too!

As for requesting your grandfather's FBI file: I recommend it! It may take them a long time, on the order of a year or more, but FBI files can clearly make for fascinating reading. And that's a great story about wiretapping the wrong guy. In my father's file, I feel like the FBI reveals itself to be a mix of remarkably capable and really incompetent; I suppose that's probably just the way spying is.


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