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'I was spied on': Author was FBI's Unabomber suspect

Philippe Merle / Today
Author William Vollmann in 2012 in Lyon, central eastern France.

For most, the controversial debate over the government’s surveillance practice is an impersonal philosophical question. Few can imagine that their relatively mundane lives would be of interest to CIA or FBI agents in pursuit of terrorists.

So you can imagine the surprise of author William T. Vollmann when he recently sued the government for his FBI file and discovered he had once been designated and spied on as a suspect in both the Unabomber and anthrax cases. It’s a bizarre and shocking tale of surveillance that Vollmann describes in this month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine.

“I was accused, secretly. I was spied on. Very possibly I still am…” Vollmann writes. “To be sure, I am not a victim; my worries are not for me, but for the American Way of Life.”

Vollmann is a journalist and novelist who traveled to Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan for his work over the years. But he apparently first came to the FBI’s attention during the agency’s 1990 investigation of Jock Sturges, a noted photographer for whom Vollman was writing a book introduction. Vollman voluntarily spoke to agents during the investigation, which cleared Sturges, and moved on with his life.

The only problem was that the FBI never moved on. A “fellow citizen” eventually told the agency that Vollmann might be the Unabomber, the man eventually identified as Theodore Kaczynski and sentenced to prison for sending deadly mail bombs. The unnamed informant argued that the “anti-growth” and “anti-progress” themes in Vollmann’s books were evidence of a connection.

“This may seem like a small matter,” Vollmann writes, “but… in effect, his case relied on literary criticism. My mind boggled.”

The story gets harder to believe. Vollmann notes the many tenuous, flat-out wrong assumptions and inferences made by the FBI. According to his file, Vollmann owns a flame-thrower, traveled to Beirut and is likely familiar with chemistry and explosives, all of which Vollmann says are false. One report tries to link the Unabomber’s moniker with the initials of one of Vollmann’s books.

Even after the Unabomber is caught, Vollmann’s file shows him still in the FBI’s sights. A tip about Vollmann’s handwriting leads the agency to investigate him as a suspect in the 2001 anthrax case. He is detained at the California-Mexican border twice at length in the following years.

“I remember believing, as did my neighbors, that Al Qaeda must have sent these poisoned letters,” Vollmann writes. “Apparently I should have suspected myself.”

Even now, Vollmann is unsure whether the surveillance has stopped; only 294 pages of his 785-page file have been released. A request for his National Security Agency file is still pending.

Vollmann writes about the government’s scrutiny of his life with the kind of good humor required for such a strange tale. But he remains deeply disturbed by the act of indiscriminately tracking the lives of innocent people.

“Once upon a time we believed in a certain concept called trial by jury,” Vollmann writes. “Three aspects of this quaint process are particularly striking to me. The first is that the accused was to be judged by his peers, not by some secretive functionary. The second is that he had the right to face his accuser, or the accuser’s representative. The third is the firm instruction given by the judge to the twelve citizens in the jury box: ‘Innocent until proven guilty.’ A trial is not an investigation.”

To read William T. Vollmann’s story, “Life as a Terrorist,” visit Harper’s Magazine.