Athan Theoharis, a preeminent historian of the FBI whose indefatigable research into the agency’s formerly unobtainable files produced revelations about decades of civil liberties abuses under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, died on July 3 at his home in Syracuse, New York. He was 84.
The cause was pneumonia, his daughter Jeanne Theoharis said.
Beginning in the mid-1970s, Theoharis, who taught history at Marquette University in Milwaukee, deftly used Freedom of Information Act requests to pry open the FBI’s deep well of secrets, including the extent to which Hoover compiled damning information on public officials and his cooperation with Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s campaign against people he accused of being Communists.
The documents showed the extent of the agency’s break-ins and its illegal surveillance of left-wing organizations; its pursuit of allegations that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had extramarital affairs; and the use of the FBI by presidents of both parties for political purposes.
One of Theoharis’ most alarming finds was a surveillance program forged by the FBI and the American Legion in 1940 that lasted until 1966. The FBI used tens of thousands of the organization’s volunteers to report information about other citizens.
The goal of the program was to use Legionnaires, “who were highly motivated and who held pretty conservative views, who were going to act as the eyes and ears and expand the resources of the bureau beyond the agents,” Theoharis said in a joint interview in 2013 for the book “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI,” by Betty Medsger, and “1971” a documentary directed by Johanna Hamilton.
Both the book, published in 2014, and the film, released the same year, dealt with the burglars who stole critical documents from an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, which showed, among other things, active unlawful surveillance of Black, student and peace groups, and led to the revelation of Hoover’s secret Cointelpro program, begun in 1956, which spied on civil rights leaders, political organizers and suspected Communists.
Before the creation of Cointelpro, the Legionnaires were “monitoring activities at defense plants, they were monitoring activities among ethnics within their community, they were monitoring activities of radical activists,” Theoharis said.
Theoharis’ strategic use of the Freedom of Information Act, of FOIA, enabled him to find pathways to documents through a purposely evasive filing system that Hoover had hoped no one would ever divine.
“Hoover was an insubordinate bureaucrat in charge of a lawless organization,” Theoharis told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel available in 1993. “He was also a genius who could set up a system of illegal activities and a way to keep all documentation secret for many years.”
Beverly Gage, a history professor at Yale University who is completing a biography of Hoover, said in a phone interview that one of Theoharis’ tactics had been to request “special agent in charge” orders that showed which policies Hoover had wanted the FBI’s field offices to follow.