My Father’s Red Scare

By Peter W. Klein, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 04/01/07):

THIS week the United States government will begin automatically declassifying hundreds of millions of documents from the cold war, under a law meant to streamline the cost and hassle of keeping secret files that are more than 25 years old. Among the dossiers bearing names like Alger Hiss, Theodore Hall and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg will be one labeled “Frigyes Klein”: my father, Fred Klein.

My father was never a spy, never a member of the Communist Party. He came by ship to the United States in 1956, fleeing Communism during the Hungarian revolution to pursue the American dream. He worked on a Ford automobile assembly line in Cincinnati by day and moonlighted sharpening lawnmowers at night, saving enough money in a few years to buy a small house. To him, treasonous behavior meant buying a car made outside of America. Nonetheless, as I discovered recently, the F.B.I. kept a file on him from the day he arrived in the United States.

J. Edgar Hoover sent a personal memo to the C.I.A. director calling my father a person of current interest; the case was handled by Alan Belmont, a top bureau official who was instrumental in the case against the Rosenbergs. I discovered this after filing a Freedom of Information Act inquiry as part of some family research for a book. I was shocked to receive 50 F.B.I. pages riddled with my father’s name, the edges dotted with weathered stamps marked “SECRET.” I matched what I read with stories I remembered from when he was alive, and began piecing the case together.

My father once mentioned that during the voyage over, he got into an altercation with another refugee, a man he didn’t know from a town he had never visited. According to the file, this man told an Army captain that my father had been an agent for AVO — the Hungarian K.G.B. — in his town of Tatabanya, that he had interrogated and beaten the man for speaking out against the regime, and that he’d subsequently sent the man to a prison camp. The story was a complete fabrication.

I can only imagine how many names of patriotic, law-abiding Eastern European immigrants like my father are to be found in the millions of documents being released by the F.B.I. and other agencies. In a recent article in this newspaper about the declassification law, L. Britt Snider, a former intelligence official who is advising the White House on the process, warned that most of the documents were boring and suggested that the agencies concentrate first on those that were interesting and important.

But I would caution intelligence officials not to discount both the interest and the importance of files like my father’s, if only to avoid repeating some of the embarrassing legacies of the cold-war era.

It has already happened. Last year a Syrian informant told the New York police that five Arabs he knew were importing weapons for a suicide bombing. After several weeks and the involvement of more than 30 New York police agents, as well as federal customs officials, the F.B.I. and Israeli law enforcement, it was determined that the “weapons” were in fact jewelry. As with my father, the informant had a vendetta and had lied to the authorities.

My father’s case remained open for more than a decade. His F.B.I. file contains a creepy secret memo from 1963 in which a mole inside the Hungarian community in Cincinnati reported to his handler that he had “heard rumors [about] a family named Klein who do not associate with the Hungarian group.” The fact that this level of surveillance was taking place behind my family’s back seven years after they arrived in America says something about the pathological level of paranoia during the Red Scare.

The Frigyes Klein file was finally closed in 1968, only after people from the informant’s Hungarian hometown admitted to an F.B.I. special agent that my father had not been with the secret police. Twenty-five years from now, some unsuspecting son may stumble across a file about his own father — a patriotic, law-abiding Arab immigrant whose name inexplicably ended up on a list. Like the cold-war-era files, these new ones being drawn up could leave a historical paper trail about an era of scares and witch hunts — if intelligence officials do not learn from the lessons in the documents released today.