Jean Seberg and the FBI - 21 September 1979

Well, the golden days are here now, and the first rash of scarlet is showing in the maples along the Vermont-Canadian border.

Living just now along the north-eastern coast makes it hard to recall the stifling and drenching months of the atrocious summer that we’ve had. But while this marvellous clear warm weather is usual with us now, we have only to turn on the tube to realise that we represent some sort of a freak among the ferocious weather systems that roam and batter this continent.

Two of the worst hurricanes in memory have taken an appalling toll. First there was David which, having devastated Dominica with its unbelievable 150-an-hour winds, caused a million people to be evacuated from their homes along the Atlantic coast to Florida. And just when all these people were pouring back to see if indeed, they had a home at all, and were checking their insurance policies to see if it contained a hurricane and damage clause – if not, a hurricane is an unredeemable act of God – just then, came warning of another monster called Frederick. Once again the inhabitants of southern Florida got ready to pack up what was left, when Frederick veered west and north and crashed into Mobile, Alabama.

When I read that 40,000 homes along the Gulf Coast were destroyed I was forcibly reminded of a sentence in the Ego diaries of the late James Agate. He had been attending a rather squalid trial of a well-to-do wife who had conspired with her chauffeur lover to have him kill her husband. At one point, the woman was asked, what was her first thought when her lover came to tell her what he had done and she replied, "My first thought was to protect him".

Agate couldn’t get this reply out of his head. And just then, there was an appalling earthquake in India – which, however, failed to appal Agate. He wrote in his diary, "This trial has moved me immensely, probably because I saw part of it, while the dreadful affair at Quetta makes no impression, the 20,000 said to have perished might be flies. I see no remedy for this, one can’t order ones feelings, and to pretend different is merely hypocrisy."

Of course, he’s right. Though television has made it possible to leave an unforgettable impression, with shots of people wandering through a city that looks as thoroughly ruined as Berlin in the spring of 1945, and the great crowds being policed outside supermarkets and the national guards standing, with rifles loaded, against roving bands of looters.

Most of the hurricanes which are born in the Caribbean move north-north-west and hit either Florida, or inland, the Gulf Coast. Frederick did not do this, it roared due north on land and did lots of damage along the path of its next 1,000 miles, rushing up through New York State and, in the end, flooding Buffalo, leaving cars and buses drowned or floating. Buffalo, I must say does not seem an ideal place to live, it catches its summer and winter. Two winters ago, you may remember, it had over 70 inches of snow in three days.

Well, as the man said, you can't order your feelings. Looking at the painful business of rebuilding Mobile you can only feel lucky and foolish, for all we had on Long Island was some heavy rain, then spatters of it, and a 50-mile-an-our wind. I hope I won’t sound insensitive if I say that, having once thanked God for our escape, I telephoned the pro at my local golf club. The wind was pounding our house and the trees were thrashing away, but it was a brilliant day and puffs of clouds were scurrying across the sky with the speed of freight trains. I asked the pro if the course was playable, "Sure," he said, "but there isn’t a soul out there, only you would think of playing in this typhoon". "How about you?", I said. "Sure," he said. So the two of us went out there. "All you have to do", said the pro," is get the ball airborne and the good lord will do the rest".

He was hilariously right. For the first time, I knew what it was like to make the downwind par fives in two shots. Against the wind, I am afraid the par fives tuned into par eights. In the euphoria of knowing for the first time in my life what it must be to feel like Jack Nicklaus, I came home beaming with vanity, and felt almost repulsively amiable towards everybody.

And then I picked up the Sunday paper, and read a story, that I hope, has given Americans the sort of pause that chills the blood. It was a postscript to the suicide of Jean Seberg, the young actress from Iowa, an expatriate in France, who was found dead in her car leaving an empty bottle of barbiturates and a note. The postscript was released by the government, but in fact, the FBI. And it’s certainly to the credit of its present chief, that he released the detestable confession which reinforces the suspicion that, for many years, the FBI, in the hands of J Edgar Hoover – its first and long-time head – could hardly be matched by any government for malice and cunning.

Miss Seberg, at one time, was the passionate supporter of leftist causes and made no bones about it. In Mr Hoover's view, she became, like the late Martin Luther King, a social nuisance whom it was necessary to intimidate and then to bug in the hope of breaking their will. Some anonymous source, one day got in touch with the FBI, and passed on to them a rumour – or an invented smear – that Miss Seberg was pregnant by one of the Black Panther leaders. The source suggested to Hoover that if this rumour could be fed to gossip columnists it would help tarnish Miss Seberg's image as a glamorous young movie star from the middle west. "Very good", said Mr Hoover. "Fine idea".

So the bureau fed the item. Most papers turned it down but, a Hollywood writer – what is politely known as a lady columnist – printed it. Pretty soon, Jean Seberg saw it, living in Paris. There are always good friends alert enough to see that you get the nastiest clippings. From that moment on, Jean Seberg was a doomed girl. She was pregnant by her husband, the French novelist Romain Gary but, as he said last weekend, while she was intelligent and courageous she did not possess a tough hide, the ruthlessness that can tolerate an outrage against oneself.

She saw the item and, within hours, went into premature labour, was delivered by Caesarean section of a girl who died within days. She took the dead baby back to Iowa in a glass coffin, as a glaring proof that the baby was white. An excessive reaction perhaps, but in 1970 she knew the the FBI could and did destroy hundreds of radicals, and non-radicals. Romain Gary said that on each succeeding anniversary of the baby’s death, she attempted suicide. Finally, last week, she made it.

A former FBI man who was with the bureau at the time had no other justification to offer for this barbarity than to say that getting involved in radical politics could get you involved in national security – that the kid with the picket sign might turn into the kid with the bomb. And he said, you just keep going down the line.

Well, for too long the FBI went down the line of its own improvised rules, as we can horribly see once the Freedom of Information Act, made it possible for you and me, the ordinary citizen, to go to government files, including the files of the FBI, and read anything and everything which had been kept under wraps as confidential government information. Congress has up for debate in this session,and its committees are already taking testimony on it, a new law a charter of dos and don’ts, a legal charter of behaviour for the FBI.

Admittedly it's extremely difficult to set strict public rules for the main investigating arm of a department of justice and the western nations are just now boggling over the problems of maintaining intelligence systems which are at once efficient and decent. Maybe it cannot be done. You only to read something like A Man Called Intrepid about the workings of the British secret service and the cooperation of Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt during the second war, to realise that there was a secret war being fought by the most powerful men in the alliance, which makes the history books seem naive and romantic.

Roosevelt once confided to a friend that if the Congress had ever had a hint of the shifts and manoeuvres he was engaged in with the British before this country got into the war, he would have been impeached. And many of these manoeuvres involved brutal decisions and secret tricks not at all unlike the techniques of James Bond. We can now salve our conscience by saying that, after all, Hitler was the enemy we were fighting to survive, and that it was essential for us to go beyond any traditional code of open warfare.

However, these tricks and shifts passed over, when the war was over, from the main secret intelligence body, the OSS, into the running of the CIA which was set up after the war. Watergate of course, more than anything, did enormous damage to the reputation of the CIA and the FBI. And when all the dirt was shovelled out from under, President Ford's attorney general revamped the FBI and set his own, strong rules.

It was the present head of the FBI who choose to make public the disgraceful treatment, of Jean Seberg. Romain Gary said he was grateful; he had always maintained that she had been destroyed by the FBI, but he said, "If the post-Watergate FBI had not issued a confirmation to this day, I would have been considered a mythomaniac".

I think if this sad wind has blown any good it must be in the thought that the Seberg case will quicken the conscience of the Congress, and sharpen its wits, and make it get busy writing and passing new legal charter of the FBI.

Talking about freedom of information, and the department of justice, they collided in the scariest way this week. Last March the department got an injunction to prevent a magazine from printing an article entitled, "The H bomb secret, how we got it why we are telling it". The government said the material, which told how to make the bomb, violated the security clauses of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. The author said not so, he used no classified information and he got everything from encyclopaedias and other sources in the public domain. And last week a computer employee wrote a letter to a senator, which also contained at great length a recipe for making the bomb. The letter was published in Wisconsin. Now, the justice department had two culprits to chase down, but then other papers printed the letter, and on Monday the justice department, threw in the towel – it will not stop the publication of the article or the letter.

To scared innocents like me, the consolation comes in the commentary of a noted scientist that "to follow either recipe, would require extensive scientific research, a whole slew of expert researchers and vast industrial and scientific resources". That is a secret that was not mentioned in the make-your-own bomb articles. For the moment, that should hold us.

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