This August my husband, Fielding McGehee, and I observe a very special anniversary. Five years ago we filed our lawsuit, McGehee et al. v. U.S. Department of Justice, in the United States District Court of the District of Columbia. (I am the “et al.” named in the suit.) We filed this litigation under the Freedom of Information Act (or FOIA) to compel the Justice Department to provide an index to three CDs the FBI had prepared. The CDs contained documents collected in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978, as well as files that originated from the agency’s investigation into the assassination of Congressman Leo J. Ryan.
When we filed a FOIA request in 1998 for a copy of all official lists of people who died in Jonestown, the FBI said it had identified more than 48-thousand pages which may or may not be responsive to our request. The agency would make those documents available to us upon receipt of $4873.80. After some negotiation with the agencyincluding the intervention of Congressman Henry Waxmanthe FBI agreed to make all of its documents relating to Jonestown, Peoples Temple, and Leo Ryan available on three CDs.
The good news is that anyone making a FOIA request for information about Peoples Temple and Jonestown may receive three CDsthat is, absolutely everything the FBI has released on the subjectfor $30. (Or, you can order them for $15, including postage and handling, from jonestown.sdsu.edu.) The bad news is that there is no index to the files, which are stored graphically as PDFs. One must search all three CDs, more than 48,000 pages, to find what one is looking for. In short, the FBI is not being truly responsive to requests for information about these subjects, and that is the reason we filed suit: to compel such an index.
There are several additional problems with the FBI’s Peoples Temple collection. First, many of the FBI’s scanned pages are illegible, and thus unusable. Second, the FBI has withheld hundreds of pages and blacked out portions of hundreds more, citing FOIA exemptions on national security, privacy, and law enforcement. A third problem is that the FBI has shifted responsibility for releasing some items to the departments which initially generated the materials. A final problem, and most significant, is that in recent years the FBI has re-examined some documents, and begun to classify material which was formerly available.
What does the FBI’s handling of its files about a particular religious organization have to do with the larger issue of religious freedom? Any classification and withholding of information threatens to undermine the foundations of democratic society. “Knowledge is power,” wrote former CIA Director William Colby, “giving strength to one who possesses it, weakening him deprived of it.”[i] Colby was reiterating what James Madison had said 200 years earlier: “A people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”[ii]
Democracy by definition requires an informed electorate so that citizens may participate responsibly in the decision-making process. That in turn requires open access to information. Everyone needs, and is entitled to, the information essential to make a variety of judgments: personal, economic, political, social. This entitlement especially pertains to government functions. “The public’s ‘right to know’ has always been a basic tenet of American political theory. A healthy democracy requires public participation in the formulation and administration of government policy.”[iii]
Although there are legitimate uses of secrecythe secret ballot comes to mindit still has a negative valence, primarily because it is seen as the antithesis of democracy. Making information inaccessible “is a form of government regulation… a regulatory system essentially hidden from view,” the United States Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy declared in 1997.[iv] By controlling information, agencies can control, if not dictate, policy that affects the electorate. This control inexorably accompanies the bureaucratization of society and government, according to Max Weber and others.[v]
Bureaucratic growth, and the obsession with secrecy, occurred after World War II for several reasons. For one thing, the federal government had grown as a result of the New Deal and the war effort. The development of nuclear weapons, as well as the creation of the Atomic Energy Commission, justified measures to prevent access to the awesome power of the atom.[vi] A post-war expanding economy required greater regulation, and greater protection of trade secrets, personal financial information, and personnel administration.[vii] Containment of communism and limiting Soviet expansion seemed to require an extraordinary degree of secrecyboth in terms of domestic surveillance and foreign espionageall under the claims of national security. Despite the universal acknowledgement that openness and transparency are required to sustain a democratic government, a culture of secrecy emerged in the United States during the Cold War.
The battle against Communism was fought at home and abroad. The history of U.S. intervention in the politics of the small South American country of Guyana to ensure an anti-Communist regime is paradigmatic.[viii] America did not want another Cuba in the Western Hemisphere, so clandestine activities financed by the CIA helped keep a Marxist government out of Guyana for decades. It wasn’t until 1992 that the Marxist Peoples Progressive Party ousted the U.S.-sponsored government of the Peoples National Congress.
It seems inevitable that the Cold War obsession with communism would lead U.S. agencies to spy upon Peoples Temple. During the 1960s and 1970s, democracy appeared to be under siege by a variety of Marxist movements for national liberation. America seemed to be attacked by its own citizens within the civil rights and antiwar movements. Peoples Temple was part of this “enemy within.” It was involved in progressive politics in San Francisco in the 1970s, it relocated to a “cooperative socialist republic,” and it had contacts with representatives of the Soviet, Cuban, and North Korean embassies in Georgetown, Guyana. The emigration of 1000 citizens, the majority of whom were African Americans espousing radical ideas, would make the group suspect in almost any era, but especially during the Cold War. CIA documents released under FOIA make it clear that the United States was indeed monitoring activities in Jonestown.[ix]
Peoples Temple is not the only religious group spied upon by federal agents, however. The FBI maintained extensive files on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other religious leaders involved in the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. During the American war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, peace groups and religious activists were regularly targeted for penetration. During the 1980s, the FBI infiltrated the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), the interfaith committee that was rescuing people from El Salvador during that nation’s 12-year civil war. And in 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (or ATF) had an agent living with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. Indeed, the agent tried to warn the ATF on February 28, 1993 that the group knew of the agency’s planned attack that day.[x] Unfortunately, ATF refused to abort the attack, and lives were lost then, and again on April 19, fifty-one days later.
The end of the Cold War did not terminate the culture of secrecy, and it has burgeoned since the al-Qaida attacks of September 11, 2001. A brief list of current secrets held in our “national security state” would include warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency; extraordinary rendition and “black sites” for torturing political prisoners; and the George W. Bush administration’s plans for invading Iraq as early as 2001. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Bush administration has targeted American Muslim groups for infiltration and scrutiny. In December 2005, the FBI’s secret monitoring of radiation levels at mosques around the country became public knowledge thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request. (No radiation was reported.) In May this year, the ACLU filed a FOIA request asking for documents relating to surveillance of mosques and individual Muslims in Southern California. According to the executive director of an Islamic group in Anaheim “numerous Muslims reported being questioned by the FBI about their religious practices and sermons given during prayer services.”[xi]
In 2002 Attorney General John Ashcroft widened government ability to investigate religious groups when he declared worship services fair game for infiltration, and authorized FBI agents to pretend to be spiritual seekers. With the new directive, Ashcroft enlarged the opportunities for surveillance, lowered the threshold for terrorist investigations, and introduced an unregulated area of “initial checking of leads,” which essentially allows agents unregulated investigative authority.[xii] The rationale behind the revised guidelines was to check up on Islamic institutions at which terrorists might be involved.
The FBI has also directed investigations of Christian peace activists. Records obtained by the ACLU in 2005 under FOIA reveal that counterterrorism agents have spied on the Catholic Worker movement since 2001.[xiii] According to another FOIA release, the FBI has spied on the School of the Americas Watch, a multinational faith-based group which gathers yearly at Fort Benning, Georgia, to protest the School of the Americas and U.S. policy in Latin America. The School of the Americas trains hundreds of soldiers from Latin America, and has a reputation for including torture techniques in its curriculum.[xiv]
It is no exaggeration to say that freedom of religion is at great risk these days.
When we say “freedom of religion” in America, we mean two things. First, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. In plain English this means that the government will not finance, support or favor any one religion over another. Second, the First Amendment states that Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. This means that people can practice the religion of their choice, and may request and obtain accommodation for their religious beliefs.
Freedom of religion is profoundly connected to freedom of information. It is only by exposing government activities, and making officials accountable for their actions, that we can maintain constitutional guarantees for liberty of conscience. In other words, what we don’t know can hurt us, and does hurt us because of the inhibiting effects of surveillance, bogus worshippers, and religious power politics. This seems quite evident today with the Bush administration’s intimate relationship with conservative Christian leaders. To what extent are these leaders dictating policynot just in the general sense of being advocates, but in the specific sense of being close advisors? Lack of disclosure obscures the large role that fundamentalist Christians are playing at the highest levels of government. At the very least, we know that public funds are supporting evangelical projectsand votersunder the faith-based initiatives program. This clearly violates the non-establishment clause of the constitution. At the same time, when certain religious groups are targets of infiltration and spying, the free exercise clause is violated. We thus see the establishment of a particular religious view, on the one hand, and the suppression of alternative religious views, on the other, in clear contravention of the two religion clauses in the First Amendment. It is only by learning about these facts through the Freedom of Information Act that we can understand the true nature, and the true danger, of our current situation.
What is the community of religious studies scholars to do about the problem of government secrecy? This affects not only the study of Peoples Temple, but research into other incidents of religious violence as well, such as that of the Branch Davidians and more recently, the Nuwaubians, radical jihadists, and the Fundamentalist Mormons. More broadly it also affects inquiry into all government infiltration and spying on religious groups. Scholars took some preliminary steps toward increasing government transparency in 1998, on the twentieth anniversary of the deaths in Jonestown. A group of thirteen NRM scholars wrote an open letter to Congress which asked the House committee on International Relations to release documents generated by the Committee’s investigation into Leo Ryan’s death.[xv]
The academic call for declassification went unheeded. In the intervening years, my husband and I have contacted several members of Congress about protecting and preserving these records, even though we have not been allowed to view them. An important part of these contacts has been to maintain congressional interest so that the documents are not inadvertently lost or destroyed. Unfortunately, Congress has exempted itself from the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, as well as from other open government legislation. Constituent and public pressure will always be required to secure the release of Jonestown documents.
The larger issue of freedom of information, however, is one that should appeal to scholars across a variety of disciplines: religious studies, history, political science, sociology and even psychology. There are compelling reasons why CESNUR, the American Academy of Religion, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Institute for the Study of American Religion should join forces in an organized and collegial way to work with their counterparts in other disciplines in a concerted effort to make the Freedom of Information Act work. Individual efforts, no matter how important and dedicated, are insufficient.
This past Fourth of July marked the fortieth anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Freedom of Information Act into law. The purpose of FOIA is to grant access to government records by law. In theory, FOIA allows any member of the public to ask any government agency, for almost any government document. The act does permit agencies to withhold documents, but only if they fall into a category of exemption. On the occasion of FOIA’s anniversary, former President Jimmy Carter observed that: “Obstructionist policies and deficient practices have ensured that many important public documents and official actions remain hidden from our view.”[xvi] According to Carter, nearly 70 countries have adopted freedom of information legislation which is far more comprehensive and effective than that in the U.S.
The abuse and disregard of the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act is not just about Jonestown, or Waco, or any single religious group. It is about religious freedom, and about democracy at its very heart and soul. It is worth quoting Madison again: “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both.”[xvii] We have witnessed the tragedies of Jonestown and Waco, and the near-tragedies of the Montana Freeman, and the Nuwaubians. Freedom of information is just one more way to make government agencies and officials accountable, without which the idea of freedom of religion is indeed a farce.
[i] William E. Colby, “Intelligence Secrecy and Security in a Free Society,” International Security 1, no. 2 (Autumn 1976): 3.
[ii] James Madison, quoted in Morton H. Halperin and Daniel N. Hoffman, “Secrecy and the Right to Know,” Law and Contemporary Problems 40, no. 3, “Presidential Power,” Part 2 (Summer 1976): 165.
[iii] Halperin and Hoffman, 132.
[iv] “Secrecy: Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy,” PS: Political Science and Politics 30, no. 3 (September 1997): 490.
[v] Max Weber, “Bureaucracy,” in Essays in Sociology, trans. and ed. by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), 233-34; quoted in Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Secrecy: The American Experience (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998), 143. Rourke, “Secrecy in American Bureaucracy,” doubts that Weber’s model can adequately be applied to the American experience, however, 544.
[vi] Edward Shils, The Torment of Secrecy: The Background and Consequences of American Security Policies (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1956), 42.
[vii] Francis E. Rourke, Secrecy and Publicity: Dilemmas of Democracy (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1961), 32-38.
[viii] See Shiva Naipaul, Journey to Nowhere: A New World Tragedy (New York: Penguin Books, 1980); and Gordon K. Lewis, “Gather with the Saints at the River”: The Jonestown Guyana Holocaust (Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico: Institute of Caribbean Studies, University of Puerto Rico, 1979).
[ix] Rebecca Moore, “McGehee v. CIA,” in A Sympathetic History of Jonestown (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1985), 399-427; “McGehee v. CIA” is also available online at http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/AboutJonestown/Articles/mcgehee.htm, accessed 26 June 2006.
[x] Catherine Wessinger, How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate (New York and London: Seven Bridges Press, 2000), 60, 64-65.
[xi] H. G. Reza, “On Behalf of Muslims, ACLU Seeks FBI Surveillance Data,” The Los Angeles Times, 16 May 2006, B4.
[xii] For a discussion of Ashcroft’s directive, see Michael Barkun, “Religion and Secrecy After September 11,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 74, no. 2 (June 2006): 275-301.
[xiii] “New Documents Show FBI Targeting Environmental and Animal Rights Groups Activities as ‘Domestic Terrorism,’” American Civil Liberties Union, 20 December 2005, http://www.aclu.org/safefree/spying/23124prs20051220.html, accessed 8 July 2006.
[xiv] Ann Beeson, Associate Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, quoted in “FBI Counterterrorism Unit Spies on Peaceful, Faith-Based Protest Group,” ACLU, 4 May 2006, http://www.aclu.org/safefree/spying/25442prs20060504.html, accessed 8 July 2006.
[xv] “An Open Letter to the Committee on International Relations of the United States House of Representatives on the occasion of the 20th Anniversary of Jonestown, November 18, 1998,” Center for Studies on New Religions, https://www.cesnur.org/testi/guyana_lett.htm, accessed 23 June 2006.
[xvi] Jimmy Carter, “America has far too many secrets,” The San Diego Union-Tribune, 4 July 2006, B7.
[xvii] James Madison, quoted in David O. Stewart, “On 40th birthday, Freedom of Information Act faces midlife crisis,” The Baltimore Sun, 4 July 2006, A9.