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FBI files on iconoclastic musician Pete Seeger to be released online

Thousands of secret investigation files on folk protest singer will be published on National Archives website

Thousands of investigative files that the FBI maintained for more than half a century on folk singer Pete Seeger are set to be released to the public online, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has told Al Jazeera.

When Seeger died in January at the age of 94, dozens of journalists, researchers and curious members of the public sought his files from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act. The FBI has been informing requesters that it turned over all of Seeger’s files to the NARA before his death.

NARA spokeswoman Miriam Kleinman said in an interview that the archive would now seek to publish the files once it completes processing them. They are thought to total about 2,500 pages and need to be screened for information that is exempt from disclosure, as well as names and details that might be redacted to protect the identities of informants or confidential sources.

“As soon as possible, NARA will post this file online,” Kleinman said. “We are waiting for review to be complete.”

The NARA initially decided to release the files only to researchers on request, for a hefty administrative fee of at least $2,000. But Kleinman said public interest in the files prompted a switch in policy.

Seeger, the subject of secret FBI and CIA surveillance dating to the 1940s, was blacklisted during the McCarthy era because of his political beliefs and was indicted for contempt of Congress.

The government’s files on Seeger will, for the first time, lay bare the extent of federal law enforcement’s and intelligence agencies’ investigations and surveillance of the beloved protest singer.

Even though the FBI claimed it had turned over all its files on him to the NARA, Al Jazeera located one file from the FBI’s Los Angeles field office that consists of 13 pages from the mid-1960s and early 1970s and is released here for the first time.

The file, which contains news clippings, a complaint form and a letter to the FBI from a member of the public, underscores how Seeger was seen as a potential threat to national security. One government official was so repulsed by Seeger’s music that he informed the FBI.

On April 1, 1964, according to an FBI complaint form, the chief of the fiscal division of the Veterans Administration (VA) outpatient clinic in Los Angeles was handed a tape recording from a doctor who was doing research for the VA.

“[Redacted] took the tape home and played same and found that it consisted largely of parodies that were highly inflammatory and derogatory toward the Armed Services of the United States, U.S. defense systems and the FBI,” a bureau agent wrote on the complaint form, in which he characterized the case as “sedition.”

The VA official, whose name is redacted, “became highly incensed” after listening to the tape recording, and his “feelings of revulsion were shared by his family and some neighbors who also heard the tape.”

“[Redacted] advised that he is holding the tape at his home … and had told his wife that he was going to have the FBI come by and listen to it,” the agent wrote. “[Redacted] stated that he wanted his identity concealed, however he was advised that if it was necessary to follow through on the matter, this might not be possible to do.” 

Seeger, the subject of secret FBI and CIA surveillance dating to the 1940s, was blacklisted during the McCarthy era because of his political beliefs and was indicted for contempt of Congress.
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The FBI agent’s recommended action was: “Secure tape, prepare transcription to determine whether this is seditious material.”

A week later, FBI supervisor Neal McGinnis sent a memo to the special agent in charge at the FBI’s Los Angeles field office under the subject “Tape recording of folk songs of Pete Seeger (PH) and unknown British singer is — X.”

“Tapes were played by [special agent] Ewing G. Layhew and it appears they are folk songs by one Peter Seeger (PH), the well known left-wing folk singer, and an unknown British music hall entertainer,” McGinnis wrote. “Nothing of a derogatory nature was heard which required any investigative action on the part of this bureau.”

Seeger’s Los Angeles FBI file also contains an Aug. 10, 1970, handwritten letter to the FBI’s Van Nuys office (rerouted to the bureau’s offices on Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles) by an individual who wanted the FBI to share “information on a man called Pete Seeger.”

“I have heard he has something to do with the Communist Party. He is going to give a concert at the Hollywood Bowl in September. If you could please send me some information I would be very happy,” wrote the person, whose name is redacted.

FBI special agent Wesley G. Grapp responded on Aug. 14, 1970.

“While I sincerely appreciate the interest which prompted your inquiry, I must advised [sic] you that by order of the attorney general information in the files of this bureau is confidential and available for official use only,” Grapp wrote. “I am sure you will understand the reason for this rule. No inference, of course, should be drawn that we do, or do not, have information regarding the subject of your inquiry.”

The rest of the Los Angeles FBI field office file on Seeger contains a press clipping about a July 3, 1975, report from an informant about a flyer “regarding Political Rights Defense Fund,” identified as a “front group of Socialist Workers Party.” The defense fund flyer was headlined “The Bill of Rights is at stake” and begins with this paragraph: “Government agencies carry out illegal political operations that make a mockery of the Bill of Rights.”

The informant’s report was submitted into Seeger’s file as well as the files of other well-known public figures, including Cesar Chavez, journalist I.F. Stone and Dr. Benjamin Spock. 

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