Monday, October 20, 2008

Contemporary 1975 account of a Weather Underground bombing

The McCain campaign has made Bill Ayers into the "Willie Horton" of the 2008 Presidential campaign.

Here is part of the text of a robocall being used by the McCain campaign. Chris Wallace confronted McCain with it on FOX News and McCain not only affirmed it was his campaign's material but defended its use with McCarthyist guilt-by-association insinuations against Obama.

I looked up a 1975 hearing of the Internal Security Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee dated 01/31/1975, titled "State Department Bombing by Weatherman Underground". It concerned a bombing at the State Department for which the Weather Underground (WU) organization took responsibility. The Internal Security Subcommittee investigator that Sen. Strom Thurmond had there to testify, Robert James Short, was already convinced that the WU were responsible. They had delivered a 12-page communiqué about the action and they already had an established modus operandi by this point. So their responsibility was not in question.

When I first saw this hearing transcript, I thought I should probably wait until after Nov. 4 to post anything about it so that the focus would be more clearly on the actual historical events rather than election-related. But it only took a few seconds' reflection to recall that the loons are going to believe what they want to believe, especially since McCain has made this a central argument in his campaign.

So I decided I would proceed with a reality-based post (or maybe more than one) about the WU. I've posted historical material about the group before, including Terrorism, the old-fashioned kind 06/04/07 and Was the antiwar movement against the Vietnam War counterproductive? 08/04/07, both of which preceded John McCain adopting Bill Ayers as his campaign mascot. But the latter post in particular dealt with how "the Sixties" figures in the Republican/Christianist "culture war" narrative.

Below is the full text of a contemporary news report of the State Dept. bombing, "Weather Underground Strikes - Bomb Set Off At State Department" by Lance Gay and Brad Holt Washington Star-News 01/29/1975, as it appears in the official subcommittee report.

Several items stand out in looking at this news report now:

  • No one has ever seen Barack Obama engaging in, encouraging or in any way supporting a violent political action of this type. Just reading the article makes that clear to anyone whose brain hasn't been pickled in OxyContin.
  • The WU were technically good at the terrorist tactic they used. As Gay and Holt report of the State Department bombing, "The building is one of the most closely guarded government buildings in the Nation's Capital."
  • No one was injured in the bombing. And it was clear that the WU did not intend to injure anyone. They phoned in a bomb warning before the blast was set to explode.
  • The WU had engaged in a series of bombings of the same type, all aimed at facilities they took to be symbols of bad acts of American imperialism.
  • The State Department bombing was specifically described as a protest against continuing aid to the governments of South Vietnam and Cambodia, which the WU claimed were violations of the Paris Peace Accords.
  • The WU's ideology was secular and political, not religious.
  • The active members of the WU were a small number, at most a few dozen. Gay and Holt report at the time that FBI "estimates that it consists of 20 to 30 persons".
After the fall of Saigon and Phnom Phen later in 1975, the WU rapidly dissolved into internal factional fights. Despite their sweeping revolutionary rhetoric, the Vietnam War was always their primary focus. As former WU member Brian Flanagan said in a 2003 documentary on the group, "I think that the Vietnam War made us all a little crazy." In that same documentary, the now-newly-infamous Bill Ayers says, "I think the war was what unified us. And when the war ended, it was hard to go on."

Weather Underground terrorist attack on State Dept. men's room, Jan. 1975

As I've said before, even though the Obama campaign understandably wants to avoid saying anything that could be "spun" as defending the WU and their actions, that doesn't get the media off the hook for failing to do elementary fact-checking. And I do think that it's wrong to falsely accuse people of killings, as the McCain robocall depicted above does. As Andrew O'Hehir writes in When terrorism was cool Salon 06/07/03, the only deaths caused by the WU were two of their own members, killed accidentally while assembling a bomb:

As misguided and counterproductive as the Weather Underground's activities may have been, after the townhouse bombing [1970] the group never again planned attacks against human beings. Their post-1970 bombings were symbolic in nature and happened at night when the buildings were empty. For all the vitriol heaped on the Weather Underground by other leftists - and especially by ex-leftist neocons like David Horowitz and Ronald Radosh - it never killed or injured anyone except its own members. (In this regard, it's striking that right-wingers routinely employ the excesses of Weatherman to paint the entire left as anti-American terrorist sympathizers, while the left is either too civil or too cowardly to use the hateful acts of Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph and James Kopp to attack conservatives in general.) [my emphasis]
In 1975, Lance Gay and Brad Holt reported very straightforwardly that the WU at that point had claimed responsibility for seven bombings. "None of the previous explosions - one of which was in a washroom at the Capitol, and another in a restroom at the Pentagon - resulted in any injuries." Why can't the press today handle such basic fact-checking and background reporting?

Below is the text of the Gay/Holt article as it appears in the Subcommittee report, except that I've emphasized some passages in bold:

[From the Washington Star-News, Jan. 29, 1975]

(By Lance Gay and Brad Holt)

An explosion ripped through a third floor men's restroom at the State Department early today moments after callers here and in San Francisco claiming to represent the anti-war Weather Underground group said they had set bombs in government buildings to protest continued U.S. involvement in Indochina.

No one in the heavily guarded building was injured in the blast, which came at 12:56 a.m. today in a restroom next to the Sahelian Drought Emergency desk - the State Department office coordinating American relief aid to drought-stricken areas of the Sahara Desert.

The explosion tore through two adjoining bathrooms and ripped out parts of the ceiling, breaking water pipes and causing both heavy structural and water damage to the third floor and the two floors below which include the State Department's security offices.

About 19 minutes before the explosion, the Washington office of the Associated Press said it received a call telling the news agency that a "communique" had been left in a telephone booth near the AP office "Tonight we attack the AID (Agency for International Development) in the State Dept. Headquarters in Washington D.C. and the Defense Department in Oakland, California," the 12-page typed letter said. The AID offices are located on the third floor of the State Department complex at 23rd and C Streets NW.

The Washington Post said it also received a call about 12:35 a.m. from a female caller who claimed to be from the Weather Underground and who told the newspaper that a bomb had been placed in the west wing of the State Department. The newspaper contacted D.C. police, who then notified the State Department.

A guard assigned to the building said a District policeman came to the building about 12:50 a.m. "He told me there was a bomb and I picked up the phone to call my office and the bomb went off just then," said the officer, who asked not to be identified. The officer noted the exact time of the blast 12:56 a.m.

There were only a few employees of the department in the tightly secured building at the time and those in the operations division on the 7th floor of the structure said they did not know of the blast until they were told by guards. The building was not evacuated.

"We only heard reports of it, we didn't hear a thing up here," said an employee in the operations division shortly after D.C. police and firemen rushed to the building following the explosion.

"The floor of the third floor looks like a river," said one guard. "Some of the ceiling is down but none of the walls was blown down. The damage is pretty extensive in three rooms." Among the rooms damaged were the offices of AID's African Affairs Division.

District police cordoned off the building and brought in dogs to search for more explosives, but found none. Police also searched buildings at 1901 Pennsylvania Avenue NW and 1875 Connecticut Ave., NW, based on a tip they received, but found no explosives.

Early today, the FBI brought in sifting equipment and were combing through the wreckage to try to determine what kind of explosive device had been used. District bomb squad officers said today that they believe the explosion was caused by a dynamite bomb of perhaps as many as 10 sticks.

In San Francisco, another bomb threat telephoned to the AP prompted officials to cordon off the Armed Forces Induction Center in Oakland, but a search of the sprawling facility failed to turn up any explosive device.

The 12-page letter the AP picked up in a telephone booth near its downtown offices here linked the bombing at the State Department to President Ford's request yesterday for a total of $522 million in arms aid for Cambodia and South Vietnam. Insurgents in both countries have recently achieved a number of military victories and administration officials have warned Congress that South Vietnam will go under unless it is given additional aid.

The Weathermen's statement said the Ford request is a "deliberate and outright sabotage of the Paris Peace agreement" that was signed two years ago. "The U.S. government continues to wage war against Vietnam and Cambodia," the communique continued. "Unable to resolve the deepening economic crisis at home, the imperialists mobilize for further war."

State Department officials said they don't know how anyone could get into the building to plant such a device. The building is one of the most closely guarded government buildings in the Nation's Capital and visitors must have a building pass at all times to get by a guard located in the front lobby. The building was being guarded at three open entrances at the time of the blast.

The early morning bombing marked the seventh time in four years that someone claiming to be from the Weather Underground has claimed responsibility for a bomb blast. None of the previous explosions - one of which was in a washroom at the Capitol, and another in a restroom at the Pentagon - resulted in any injuries.

On March 1, 1971, a time bomb of between 15 and 20 pounds of dynamite, was detonated in a ground floor lavatory at the Capitol, causing minor damage. The Weather Underground claimed responsibility for that explosion and said the act was in retaliation for U.S. foreign policies.

The bomb in the Pentagon was set off May 19, 1972 in a fourth-floor women's restroom of the sprawling complex and again the Weather Underground claimed credit, saying the act was in response to continued U.S. bombing and mining of North Vietnam.

The other bombings the group has claimed credit for were:

  • The June 14, 1974 explosion at Gulf Oil's international headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pa., which damaged two floors of the 38-story building.
  • The Sept. 28, 1973 explosion that demolished four rooms at the International Telephone and Telegraph Corp.'s Latin American division offices in New York City.
  • The May 31, 1974 explosion in the California attorney general's office in Los
    Angeles that ripped off doors and tore holes in the office ceiling.
  • The August 1971 explosion and fire that gutted two California prison system
The Weather Underground originally called itself the Weathermen and had its origins in a left-wing splinter group of the radical, but generally non-violent Students for a Democratic Society in the late 1960's. The Weathermen took their name from a 1965 Bob Dylan song "Subterranean Homesick Blues." which includes the verse "You don't need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows."

The Weathermen officially split off from the SDS in 1969 after a sometimes bitter dispute within SDS over tactics. The group then went underground and the FBI - which has been unable to penetrate the group - estimates that it consists of 20 to 30 persons. One of the group's leaders is Bernardine Dohrn, a fugitive since 1970 who remains on the FBI's "10 Most Wanted" lists.

Meanwhile, in an unrelated incident, more than 1,100 employees of the New Executive Office building near the White House, yesterday were evacuated from the building following a bomb threat. The 10-story building was evacuated for an hour yesterday afternoon while officials searched it and failed to discover anything unusual.
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