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Inside Politics

Documents reveal FBI surveillance of Kerry in early 1970s

From Phil Hirschkorn

"It is almost surreal to learn the extent to which I was followed by the FBI," Kerry said in a written statement Monday.

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John F. Kerry

NEW YORK (CNN) -- John Kerry's combat experience in Vietnam is central to his bid to become the next commander-in-chief, but Kerry's outspoken opposition to that war drew the personal attention of the president of the United States and FBI agents 33 years ago, documents reviewed by CNN reveal.

After Kerry became the national spokesman of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) in 1971, he came under continued surveillance by the FBI, which filed thousands of pages of reports on the VVAW and Kerry himself.

It was Kerry, the articulate Yale graduate and Navy lieutenant with three Purple Hearts for wounds and a Bronze Star and a Silver Star for bravery, who became the first veteran to testify about the war before Congress.

During his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 22, 1971, Kerry blamed President Richard Nixon for prolonging the war for fear of becoming the first U.S. leader to lose one.

"He was extremely effective," Nixon said the next day in an Oval Office conversation preserved on tape in the National Archives.

"He looks like a Kennedy," White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman said of the then-27-year-old Massachusetts native. "He talks exactly like a Kennedy."

Kerry had led a peaceful demonstration on the Washington Mall, where veterans camped out and called for the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam -- a pullout that would not come for four more years.

"He came back a hawk and became a dove when he saw the political opportunities," special counselor Charles Colson told Nixon the following week in a recorded conversation preserved in the archives. "We'll keep hitting him, Mr. President."

Afterward, undercover FBI agents were in tow as Kerry traveled extensively across the country, constantly speaking and raising money for the antiwar cause -- until a Kansas City gathering in November of 1971, when Kerry resigned as a national coordinator of the group, VVAW minutes show.

"Nixon and the FBI saw VVAW as a major, major threat to the United States," said historian Gerald Nicosia, who wrote the seminal "Home To War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans' Movement."

"They really believed that these veterans were going to come to Washington with rifles and armaments and create a coup, storm the White House, kill the president, take over the government," Nicosia says.

Kerry obtained his personal FBI files years ago, but the 20,000-page VVAW file, obtained by Nicosia in 1999, reveal a more persistent surveillance. Nicosia shared portions of the files during the past few days with CNN and the Kerry campaign.

"It is almost surreal to learn the extent to which I was followed by the FBI," Kerry said in a written statement to CNN Monday.

"The experience of having been spied on for the act of engaging in peaceful patriotic protest makes you respect civil rights and the Constitution even more."

For months, FBI agents recorded Kerry's every public move.

In Oklahoma City, "John Kerry & spoke to 150 to 200 people & against the war and encouraged young people to vote for candidates who will end the war," one typical FBI dispatch said.

"A second confidential source" reported that in a university speech, Kerry "related his impression of national frustration resulting from an apparent powerless[ness] to bring about a change," another dispatch said.

Infiltration of the VVAW by government agents was no secret to its members.

"All my mail including my utility bills came opened with a letter opener and had a piece of tape over the top," Randy Barnes, who headed the Kansas City chapter, told CNN.

"People who identified themselves as FBI agents came to my place of work ... talked to my neighbors," Barnes said. "What they were trying to do is intimidate us."

Bill Crandell said in an interview that his New York chapter knew its phones were tapped when they couldn't pay a phone bill.

"They said somewhat sheepishly that someone was paying the bill. They did not say it was the FBI, but it was made clear that's who it was. At that point, since our phone bill was being paid for, we started giving our credit card to people throughout the antiwar movement and said, 'Charge the calls to us,'" Crandell said.

Kerry's break with VVAW came at the end of 1971 during a four-day convention for VVAW national coordinators.

The organization's minutes record that Kerry and three other fellow moderates "resigned" their posts.

But before that gathering adjourned, there was some discussion about the idea of assassinating American leaders who voted to prolong the war, said Nicosia and three veterans who attended the gathering.

Scott Camil, a Florida vet who put forward the idea, says the notion didn't get very far.

"If people considered our plans to be so bad, we would have been charged, and they would have made a big stink about it."

Camil, who was later tried and acquitted with seven other vets for plotting an assault on the 1972 Republican National Convention, said Kerry's opponents are "trying to blacken him with my brush and my ideas, and that's not fair."

Kerry, whose campaign insisted that Kerry had not been present in Kansas City until the FBI reports and VVAW minutes proved otherwise, cannot recall hearing the radical idea.

Still, Barnes and Crandell said no violent plot was seriously considered.

"I don't think any discussion amounted to more than kind of the wisecrack level, because I don't think anyone took it seriously," Crandell said.

"It's just that VVAW was an absolute anarchy," Barnes added. "Everybody had to say something about something."

By all accounts, Kerry was a moderate voice in the group, who took a grim view even of civil disobedience. Many fellow antiwar vets felt he was too traditional.

"A review of the subject's file reveals nothing whatsoever to link the subject with any violent type activity," concludes a May 1972 FBI memo about Kerry provided by his campaign.

By this time, Kerry was engaged in his second, failed run for Congress, embarking on the three-decade political career that finds him one step away from the White House.

Kerry said in his statement Monday, "I'm proud of the way I stood up for veterans when I came home from Vietnam, and proud of what we achieved as veterans speaking up for our fellow veterans who were still carrying on the fighting."

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