The last time this disturbing interview came to mind was immediately after the Boston Marathon bombing more than a year ago, when, frankly, I feared that it had possibly been the work of right-wing domestic terrorists like those who planted the truck bomb that destroyed the Alfred P
But now, in the wake of the Las Vegas murders, I find that the memories of that interview are haunting me again, particularly when I think about how much more vocal and visible the anti-government, right-wing fringe has become through demonstrations like those at the Bundy Ranch in Nevada in April. Among those who came armed to help "protect" scofflaw rancher Cliven Bundy from the federal government was Jerad Miller, who with his wife Amanda, murdered Las Vegas police officers Alyn Beck, 41, and Igor Soldo, 31, at a CiCi's pizza parlor and then killed a civilian at the Walmart across the street before taking their own lives.
The evening prior to the 1971 interview, Sullivan delivered a speech that I covered. Before the speech, I had made a request for the interview which Sullivan granted for the following morning in the restaurant at his hotel in downtown Louisville. When I arrived, Sullivan was sitting at a table with two other agents, both from the Louisville FBI office. I introduced myself and when Sullivan invited me to sit, the other agents got up and moved to another table, where I sensed they were keeping a careful eye on me.
A Massachusetts native, Sullivan resembled and sounded very much like James Cagney, one of my favorite movie stars.
At first, I felt a little uncomfortable. Here I was, a reporter with long hair and drooping, Zapata mustache, a little more than a year out of college where I had participated in numerous anti-Vietnam War protests and had built a healthy distrust of the FBI and suspected that they probably had a similar distrust of me. But Sullivan quickly put me at ease -- probably a skill he learned from his interrogation techniques.
For more than an hour we conducted a wide ranging interview on a variety of topics of interest to both of us. I was fascinated by the man because of the history of his work with the FBI, particularly in the area of counter intelligence, which he began to specialize in almost immediately after joining the bureau shortly after the start of World War II when he was dispatched to Spain as a counter-intelligence officer. During the war he chased Nazi spies. Afterward, from the 1940s into the 1950s, he headed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's efforts to ferret out the alleged Communists among us and, at the same time, led the bureau's efforts to crush the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan -- an activity he felt a strong commitment to. In the 1960's, Hoover had Sullivan turn his counter intelligence skills against the Civil Rights movement, including the secret wire tapping of Dr. Martin Luther King, and the anti-Vietnam War movement, an effort that he admitted to me he had little stomach for. For more than two decades, his career in the FBI had been dedicated to chasing down the nation's enemies, both real and perceived, on both the right and the left.
Finally, as the interview wound toward a conclusion, I asked: "Given your experience, if there was ever really a threat to the nation's government as we know it, where do you think it will come from, the right or the left?"
He collected his thoughts for a moment and then spoke.
"I don't really see the left as a threat," he said. "The 'left' as we know it today is made up of some well-meaning, but largely ineffective politicians and bunch of over-educated college students who will eventually grow up to be bankers and stock brokers and will moderate their views. Basically, the left is a just bunch of socially concerned wimps.
"If there is ever to be a real threat to our government as we know it, to the Constitution, to our liberties and the principles we hold scared, it will come from the right. There are people there with serious money and more power than you might expect. They have the potential to be ruthless and they know the issues that can be raised to swing the fearful and ignorant to their side," he said, concluding the interview.
Although I was surprised by his candor, his views -- which he had taken to frequently expressing even though they ran counter those held by his boss -- apparently did not go unnoticed by Hoover. Despite their years of friendship, several months after our interview Sullivan arrived at the FBI headquarters in Washington one morning to find his nameplate removed from his office door and his tenure with the bureau terminated.
In the following years, he became steadily more publically critical of Hoover and his counter-intelligence activies -- dubbed COINTELPRO -- including testimony critical of the bureau and Hoover before the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1975.
Sullivan died in November 1977 when he was accidentally shot in the neck by a hunter, who said he mistook the former FBI agent for a deer, despite the fact that his rifle had a powerful scope, as he walked in the woods near his home. His death has long been considered by some to be "suspicious."
In his obituary, The New York Times described Sullivan as "the only liberal Democrat ever to break into the top ranks of the bureau."
Over the 43 years since that interview, Sullivan's words of caution regarding the extreme right have come back numerous time to haunt me. They did so in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the bombing at Centennial Park in Atlanta during the Summer Olympics in 1996 and in 2010, when a disgruntled government hater flew a plane into the IRS building in Austin, Texas.
Now, in the wake of the Las Vegas shootings, the Sullivan interview is again as fresh in my mind as it was moments after it was concluded in 1971.
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