Right-to-know crusader Moss was FBI's thorn

By Michael Doyle
Bee Washington Bureau
(Published Sept. 2, 2001)

 WASHINGTON -- John Moss caught the eye of FBI gumshoes long before he wrote the pesky Freedom of Information Act.

 The late Sacramento-area congressman had a knack, it seems, for getting under J. Edgar Hoover's skin. But it's only now, thanks to Moss' very own information-freeing law, that the flavor of FBI distaste for Moss has become clear.

 "Our relations have not been favorable with Congressman Moss," observed a March 31, 1960, FBI note, obtained by The Bee under the Freedom of Information Act. "It is noted that in 1956 Moss publicly stated he was inquiring of the Attorney General as to why the press had been barred from FBI schools for Southern police officers on civil rights."

 Six years after that FBI memo got filed, Moss would shepherd into law the Freedom of Information Act that has irrevocably changed how government does business. His 1966 law, amended and shaped by numerous court rulings, is the tool empowering more than 1 million requests filed annually in search of everything from trade secrets to UFOs.

 It's the tool that's disgorged FBI files on Fresno-based Central Valley peace activists and on the late San Joaquin Valley Congressman Bernie Sisk. It's revealed accidents of nuclear-weapons convoys in the Central Valley, injuries of Yosemite National Park workers and the subsidized antics of Mr. C.W. -- the California Walnut Commission's animated figure used in overseas ads.

 But Moss' Freedom of Information Act has also spurred those seeking corporate advantage or conspiracy theories. Of the 18,841 requests received by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1999, 88 percent were classified as commercial. And of the 832 FOIA requests received by the secretive National Security Agency in 1998 and reviewed by The Bee, 117 sought information on UFOs. This was the greatest single topic for requests to the agency.

 "He thought it was just fundamental to the democratic process that people have information," said Tom Greene, a former Moss staffer who's now California's senior assistant attorney general. "He thought that the more it was used, the better."

 Many of the uses weren't predicted in the mid-1950s, when the Freedom of Information Act was still a gleam in Moss' eye and when the FBI began compiling its dossier. By the time of his death in 1997 at age 82, Moss' FBI file would grow to be nearly 2 inches thick, padded out with duplications, cover pages and routine correspondence.

 "Given the battles that he waged on behalf of freedom of information, he must have known that the government was compiling a thick dossier on him," said Michael Lemov, a Washington attorney who served as Moss' committee counsel. "He irked everyone who was in power."

 The FBI file does not show Moss was under active surveillance by the agency he criticized, nor did he face any formal investigation. A big portion of it covers the FBI's efforts to track those who'd written threatening letters to Moss and other lawmakers.

 But in 1957, when Moss was 42 and in his third congressional term, the FBI began compiling documents under his name. The tenor of the coverage shows, in hindsight, just how sensitive the agency was to criticism. When Moss chastised the Air Force for a "silly cover-up," the FBI clipped the resulting May 1958 news article and made it part of his file. And when Moss spoke about government secrecy and press freedoms at the University of Arizona in 1959, the FBI considered more active countermeasures.

 "Recognizing the type of speech an individual such as Moss would probably make, I think it might be an excellent idea as a follow-up to explore the possibility of having a Bureau speaker appear at the University of Arizona at an opportune time," a Jan. 10, 1959 FBI memo proposed. "I think the Phoenix office should secure additional data in a discreet fashion concerning Moss's speech and explore the possibilities of having a Bureau speaker appear before approximately the same group."

 The "discreet fashion" proposed in the memo, sent to Hoover's close personal assistant Clyde Tolson, was not fleshed out in the file; Moss' speech was public and reported in the press. The FBI included a United Press International report of Moss' speech, in which he complained that "the federal government is substituting Madison Avenue fiction for the necessary facts."

 The FBI file does not, however, make clear whether the agency succeeded in offering a rebuttal.

 As the '60s blossomed, Moss had other run-ins with the FBI.

 A September 1967 note upon the opening of a new FBI office in Sacramento reiterated that "relations with Congressman Moss have been generally not favorable." In a sign of the bureau's long bureaucratic memory, the note cited critical comments made by Moss 12 years earlier.

 That same year, Moss went to bat for one of his constituents who had been denied an officer's commission in the Navy. Moss learned from the Bureau of Navy Personnel that the man had, according to the FBI, engaged in "questionable" behavior. Moss demanded to see the FBI information, prompting what one July 1967 memo termed a "very heated" confrontation between the congressman and Undersecretary of the Navy Robert Baldwin.

 "(Baldwin) is extremely angry ... and personally very sorry that the FBI's name became involved," the FBI memo stated.

 An accompanying memo explained that "an FBI informant operating in a valuable and sensitive covert role" had helped authorities discover 81 grams of marijuana in the officer candidate's room and car. But Moss had his doubts; the man's conviction at his court-martial was eventually overturned because the car search had been illegal.

 "Mr. Moss apparently is taking the position of fighting for his constituent in order to obtain an Honorable Discharge," states the memo written by a Navy captain and included in the FBI file. "He ... in fact stated that he believed that we had planted the marijuana in (the candidate's) car to get rid of him for other reasons."

 Moss, defending the officer candidate as coming from a "fine family," threatened to use his powers as a congressional subcommittee chairman to force the FBI to release papers on the case. One of those documents alleged the officer candidate "had previously lived with a homosexual."

 The FBI, in one memo, noted that "we are very disturbed" by the fact that Moss learned about the informant, and added, "We expect the party responsible will be appropriately disciplined."

 The file does not disclose what fate eventually befell either Moss' constituent or the Navy captain who told Moss about the FBI informant.

 After the Freedom of Information Act took effect, the FBI continued piling up documents. In July 1970, for instance, a top-ranking FBI official wrote that Moss was "caustically" inquiring about whether the bureau was blocking reporters' access to a hijacking incident at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia. And by 1975, Moss was attempting to use FOIA to obtain his own FBI and CIA files.

 "The congressman was informed that the FBI has never conducted an investigation concerning him, and our files contain only a small number of references," a July 1975 memo stated. "It was mentioned to the congressman that we also have in our possession some classified documents ... (which) would be exempt from disclosure because of their classification."

 Some of the documents in question concerned what an August 1975 memo called a "sensitive double agent operation targeted against a foreign diplomatic official." An April 1975 memo from the CIA, included in the FBI file, explained without elaborating that Moss' name "is mentioned collaterally" in the reports.

 This CIA memo identified three people in the memo, who appear to be what were then Soviets. Their indirect connection to Moss is not told; it's a mystery that even John Moss' Freedom of Information Act cannot answer.

The Bee's: Michael Doyle can be reached at (202) 383-0006 or mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com.

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