Athan Theoharis, Chronicler of F.B.I. Abuses, Dies at 84

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He recovered his mode done the formerly unobtainable files of J. Edgar Hoover, whom helium called “an insubordinate bureaucrat successful complaint of a lawless organization.”

Richard Sandomir

July 10, 2021, 6:21 p.m. ET


Athan Theoharis successful  his bureau   astatine  Marquette University successful  1991. He used Freedom of Information Act requests to uncover secrets astir  the F.B.I.
Credit...Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Athan Theoharis, a pre-eminent historiographer of the F.B.I. whose indefatigable probe into the agency’s formerly unobtainable files produced revelations astir decades of civilian liberties abuses nether the enactment of J. Edgar Hoover, died connected July 3 astatine his location successful Syracuse, N.Y. He was 84.

The origin was pneumonia, his girl Jeanne Theoharis said.

Beginning successful the mid-1970s, Professor Theoharis, who taught past astatine Marquette University successful Milwaukee, deftly used Freedom of Information Act requests to pry unfastened the F.B.I.’s heavy good of secrets, including the grade to which Hoover compiled damning accusation connected nationalist officials and his practice with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s run against radical helium accused of being Communists.

The documents showed the grade of the agency’s break-ins and its amerciable surveillance of left-wing organizations; its pursuit of allegations that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had extramarital affairs; and the usage of the F.B.I. by presidents of some parties for governmental purposes.

One of Professor Theoharis’s astir alarming finds was a surveillance programme forged by the F.B.I. and the American Legion successful 1940 that lasted until 1966. The F.B.I. utilized tens of thousands of the organization’s volunteers to study accusation astir different citizens.

The extremity of the programme was to usage Legionnaires, “who were highly motivated and who held beauteous blimpish views, who were going to enactment arsenic the eyes and ears and grow the resources of the bureau beyond the agents,” Professor Theoharis said successful a associated interrogation successful 2013 for the publication “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret F.B.I.,” by Betty Medsger, and “1971” a documentary directed by Johanna Hamilton.

Both the book, published successful 2014, and the film, released the aforesaid year, dealt with the burglars who stole captious documents from an F.B.I. bureau successful Media, Pa., which showed, among different things, progressive unlawful surveillance of Black, pupil and bid groups, and led to the revelation of Hoover’s concealed Cointelpro program, begun successful 1956, which spied connected civilian rights leaders, governmental organizers and suspected Communists.

Before the instauration of Cointelpro, the Legionnaires were “monitoring activities astatine defence plants, they were monitoring activities among ethnics wrong their community, they were monitoring activities of extremist activists,” Professor Theoharis said.

Professor Theoharis’s strategical usage of the Freedom of Information Act, of FOIA, enabled him to find pathways to documents done a purposely evasive filing strategy that Hoover had hoped nary 1 would ever divine.


“Hoover was an insubordinate bureaucrat successful complaint of a lawless organization,” Mr. Theoharis told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel successful 1993. “He was besides a genius who could acceptable up a strategy of amerciable activities and a mode to support each documentation concealed for galore years.”

Beverly Gage, a past prof astatine Yale University who is completing a biography of Hoover, said successful a telephone interrogation that 1 of Professor Theoharis’s tactics had been to petition “special cause successful charge” orders that showed which policies Hoover had wanted the F.B.I.’s tract offices to follow.

“For me, these records gave maine an organization consciousness of the interior workings of the F.B.I.,” Professor Gage said. “He figured retired the cardinal words to record the close FOIA requests.”

Professor Theoharis was an anxious mentor to his postgraduate students and to historians connected some the near and the right, helping them to navigate the F.B.I.’s filing system. Kenneth O’Reilly, a prof emeritus of past astatine the University of Alaska, Anchorage, was a postgraduate pupil of his successful the mid-1970s whose dissertation was connected the narration betwixt the F.B.I. and the House Un-American Activities Committee.

But aft filing a FOIA request, helium was told helium would person to wage copying costs of respective 1000 dollars, and helium astir dropped the subject.

“Athan said: ‘Forget astir it. I cognize people. I cognize radical successful Chicago,’” Professor O’Reilly said astatine Professor Theoharis’s Zoom funeral. “‘Forget astir it’? ‘I cognize people’? For a little moment, I thought, ‘My dissertation advisor sounds similar a gangster.’”

Professor Theoharis had arranged a fund-raising meal that paid Professor O’Reilly’s costs.

“He got maine and a batch of different postgraduate students going,” Professor O’Reilly said by phone.

Professor Theoharis donated his voluminous trove of F.B.I. papers to Marquette.

“McCarthy’s files are determination — my begetter took joyousness successful that,” said Jeanne Theoharis, a prof of governmental subject astatine Brooklyn College.


Credit...Ella Theoharis

Athan George Theoharis was calved connected Aug. 3, 1936, successful Milwaukee. His father, George, a Greek immigrant, and his mother, Adeline (Konop) Theoharis, operated a diner. At 16, helium entered the University of Chicago, wherever helium earned bachelor’s degrees successful 1956 and 1957, a master’s grade successful 1958 and a Ph.D. successful past successful 1965.

He taught past astatine what is present Texas A&M University, Wayne State University successful Detroit and Staten Island Community College (now portion of the College of Staten Island) earlier joining the Marquette module successful 1969. He taught 20th-century American past determination until his status successful 2006.

Professor Theoharis was primitively a Cold War scholar; his aboriginal books included “The Yalta Myths: An Issue successful U.S. Politics, 1945-55” (1970) and “Seeds of Repression: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of McCarthyism” (1971).

In his research, helium recovered documents dealing with wiretapping argumentation and the national worker loyalty information programme during the Truman administration, including records successful the Truman room astir the enlargement of the F.B.I.’s wiretapping authority.

His nonfiction “Thirty Years of Wire Tapping,” published successful The Nation successful 1971, brought him to the attraction of the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities, amended known arsenic the Church Committee for its chairman, the Idaho Democrat Frank Church.

Professor Theoharis became a advisor to the committee, which successful 1975 and 1976 investigated the legality of the F.B.I., the C.I.A. and the National Security Agency’s quality operations. He did probe successful the archives of respective statesmanlike libraries, including those of Truman, Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson, connected the classified worldly the F.B.I. sent to presidents.

“They person entree to F.B.I. records, unrestricted access,” helium told Ms. Medsger and Ms. Hamilton, referring to the Church Committee and its counterpart successful the House, led by Representative Otis Pike, a New York Democrat. “And it’s a antithetic ballgame.”

And it was for Professor Theoharis arsenic well. He deployed FOIA, which had been strengthened by Congress successful 1974, to plumb Hoover and his apical aides’ delicate “Official and Confidential” files, on with those designated “Do Not File,” which were kept from the F.B.I.’s cardinal records, presumably harmless from being disclosed.

“That absurd “Do Not File’ record was 1 of the things that Athan drilled down on,” Professor Gage said, “and helium got a batch of accusation that way.”

Professor Theoharis wrote galore books astir the F.B.I., among them “The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the American Inquisition” (1988, with John Stuart Cox) and “From the Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover” (1991), which reprinted bureau memorandums accompanied by Professor Theoharis’s commentary.

Reviewing “The Boss” successful The New York Times, Herbert Mitgang wrote: “Unlike immoderate different caller Hoover biographers, the authors bash not marque apologies for the excesses of ‘The Boss.’ They person the goods connected him.”

Professor Theoharis thought that the representation of Hoover arsenic a homosexual cross-dresser that emerged successful Anthony Summers’s 1993 book, “Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover,” was a distraction from the seriousness of Hoover’s unchecked authority.

He refuted Mr. Summers successful 1995 with “J. Edgar Hoover, Sex and Crime: An Historical Antidote,” successful which helium wrote that Hoover’s enactment of the F.B.I. was “a communicative of a resourceful bureaucrat who successfully circumvented the limitations of the American law strategy of checks and balances” — and not, arsenic Mr. Summers had it, a “morality play” astir a closeted cheery antheral whose concealed was utilized by organized transgression bosses to permission them alone.

In summation to his girl Jeanne, Professor Theoharis is survived by different daughter, the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chairwoman of the Poor People’s Campaign; a son, George, a prof of acquisition enactment astatine Syracuse University; his sisters, Arhontisa and Zoe Theoharis; his brother, Theoharis Theoharis; and 5 grandchildren. His wife, Nancy (Artinian) Theoharis, a human-rights activist, died past year.

Ms. Medsger — who broke the communicative of the F.B.I. burglary for The Washington Post successful 1971 and enlarged connected her reporting successful her book, which revealed who the burglars were and assessed the interaction of their enactment — recalled approaching Professor Theoharis with trepidation during her research.

“I didn’t privation to get successful interaction with him until I’d work each his books connected the F.B.I.,” she said by phone. “I wanted to corroborate things with him, knowing helium was the idiosyncratic who knew the astir astir the F.B.I. But I retrieve feeling comfy with him. He wasn’t intimidating.”

“I wanted,” she added, “to uncover my secrets to him.”

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