Writer William T. Vollmann Uncovers His FBI File
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The writer William T. Vollmann is known for going to extremes to research his subjects. He's traveled with the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the early 1980s, smoked crack with prostitutes in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, covered the Bosnian War in 1994. The list just goes on.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In 2005, he won the National Book Award for fiction for his novel, "Europe Central." Among Vollmann's many interests are privacy issues. That led him to make a Freedom of Information Act request on himself, and the shocking discovery that he was tracked by the FBI for decades, suspected of domestic terrorism.
GREENE: In an essay out today in Harper's magazine, William T. Vollmann details his first brush with the FBI. It was in 1990, after he was connected to the controversial photographer Jock Sturges, whose work includes nudes of adolescent girls and their families. At the time, Sturges was being investigated by the agency. He was later cleared.
WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN: Jock had asked me to write an introduction for one of his books. And so when the FBI seized his computer, they eventually got to me. So I went down to their headquarters and told them that I thought it was a witch hunt against Jock, and I talked with them for a while. And finally, I said, well, I guess that's all I have to tell you. And they said: So, you don't care to cooperate anymore? And I said: That's right. So they let me go. It was no big deal.
GREENE: Years later, though, Vollmann was detained twice with a traveling companion at the U.S.-Mexican border. The second time was in 2005.
VOLLMANN: We were fingerprinted. We were prohibited from talking to each other, or even reading. I wasn't allowed to take notes. All I was allowed to do was sit with my back against the wall and stare into space, which I found quite offensive. When I had to take a pee, they followed me and watched me do that. And finally, they called in the FBI, and I thought, OK, good. Now, finally, everything will be straightened out.
GREENE: Because that agency had let you go in the past. You're thinking they'll tell them, you know, that they've dealt with me and cleared me before.
VOLLMANN: That's right. And the FBI woman was really nice. I liked her a lot. She interrogated me. She interrogated the person I was with. And then, finally, they let us go. And I thought, you know, these people have deducted more time from my life. And maybe I should have feared them, but I'd been detained by uniformed bullies all over the world, and these people weren't so bad. No one threatened to hit me or imprison me. So I never understood what this could be about. So it wasn't until I got my FBI file that I found out that I was a Unabomber suspect.
GREENE: They thought that you might be the Unabomber. That is stunning.
VOLLMANN: Yeah. In a way, I guess I can't blame them.
GREENE: You can't blame them for thinking you might be the Unabomber?
VOLLMANN: Yeah, you know, it was OK. I was sort of amused. But after they caught the Unabomber, then I found out that I became an anthrax suspect. And, in part, that was because someone else denounced me based on my handwriting. And in part it was, of course, because I was a former Unabomber suspect.
GREENE: But let me take a step back, here. You know, on paper, you're a writer with a cult following. You're a writer who's interested in and has written about violence. You live proudly off the grid. You have a certain distaste of government. I guess some might say the FBI might have had a reason to keep checking you out.
VOLLMANN: Absolutely, yeah. You can't blame them for checking me out once.
GREENE: And I wondered, is there - can you assure us that there's nothing in there that might prove that you are guilty of something and did something wrong?
VOLLMANN: Well, everybody is probably guilty of something. I'm sure that if anyone looked into my heart long enough, they could say, you know, Bill had some unkind thoughts back in second grade. But, you know, really what it gets down to is that my idea of the American life, the American dream, whatever, is that I can do what I wish in the privacy of my own home. And as long as I'm not hurting anyone, no one has a right to know what I do. The main thing that I have to hide is that I don't have anything to hide. And the FBI either doesn't need to know that or refuses to believe it.
GREENE: You call the people who investigated you un-Americans.
VOLLMANN: They certainly are.
GREENE: Why did you call them that?
VOLLMANN: Because to be an American, I think, is to trust and be trusted by a certain kind of system, a Constitution which guarantees safety from illegal search and seizure, the right to assemble, excoriate the president, to do whatever, really, we want to do. And the fact that I am free means, of course, that the system is still working. But the un-Americans are sort of whittling away at our system. And, frankly, that's not the kind of America that I believe in and I think most people believe in. I think it's disgusting, and I think it's un-American.
GREENE: Well, let me sort this out, if I can. You said that it was OK for the FBI to be suspicious and to check you out. Where, in your mind, did they cross some sort of line?
VOLLMANN: Well, I guess I would say, David, that once they caught the Unabomber - and they had been spying on me for at least a couple of years - then maybe they could have decided that I was not a suspect anymore.
GREENE: Isn't there an argument that the FBI should continue looking into the lives of people who they think might be a threat?
VOLLMANN: Of course. So, first of all, how should they do it? Should they be doing it by spying on everybody? And if they do have to spy on everybody, shouldn't they let us know? OK, David, you know, we're a little concerned about you, so you're going to have to sit here at the border station for seven hours, but you can certainly read. You don't have to sit with your back against the wall and stare into space, and we're not going to watch you pee. They could show a little bit of courtesy, I think.
GREENE: Yeah, you wrapped up your article by saying: (Reading) Were I to be shown in accurate detail why it was necessary for me to be kept under surveillance, possibly for the rest of my life, I might be able to accept these invasions of my privacy for the collective good. Is that true?
VOLLMANN: Of course it's true. And so far, I tend to think that these invasions of my privacy are to keep a few office drones busy. But if they refuse to talk about it, if we're not allowed to know what they're doing with this information, I can't help but think that, you know, we are headed for really serious trouble.
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GREENE: That's William T. Vollmann. His article titled "Life as a Terrorist" is in Harper's magazine. It's online and on newsstands today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.