The Few, the Proud, the Spies

Spying on civilians was part of El Toros mission

Photo by Myles RobinsonJarheads and KC-130 Hercules planes aren't the only things gone for good from the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, which officially closed on July 2. A small military surveillance operation that spied on Orange County political activists was also mothballed.

According to recently declassified documents released by the U.S. Navy to me earlier this month in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the Marine base compiled dossiers on anti-war demonstrators during the Vietnam War, routinely forwarding intelligence reports not only to military higher-ups but also to the FBI.

On May 21, 1966, members of the UC Irvine chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)—the anti-war group co-founded nationally by now-state Senator Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles)—and others demonstrated outside the base. Military surveillance team members took photos, filmed protesters, taped the speakers, and recorded the license plates of rally participants.

The base behind the Orange Curtain was an important target for anti-war demonstrators at the time. Just months earlier, in 1965, the 9th Marine Expeditionary Force had landed in Da Nang, South Vietnam, "marking the beginning of large-scale Marine involvement in Vietnam," according to a Marine history Web site (www.geocities.com/Pentagon/ 3026/history). More than 13,000 Marines died and 88,000 were injured in the war, the longest in the Marine Corps' history.

The base's 6th Counterintelligence Team report of May 27, 1966, runs some 66 pages and includes transcripts of speeches and copies of handouts given at the rally six days before, as well as copies of surveillance photographs of the protesters.

On paper, counterintelligence teams spent the Cold War hunting possible Soviet spies that infiltrated Marine Corps installations such as El Toro. They also monitored Marines suspected of being Soviet agents. By the 1990s, declassified Marine Corps documents released by the Federation of American Scientists show the El Toro counterintelligence team was one of only three teams nationwide that specialized in locating and countering "technical surveillance"—Defense Department jargon for high-tech spy gadgets and such. But monitoring and observing civilians—even civilians gathered around the base—were never part of any counterintelligence team's legal mandate.

The El Toro counterintelligence team noted that its "investigation" was to determine the extent of military personnel participation; the extent of the rally's influence on the personnel; the rally organization and its nature; and the identity of personnel participation, if any. However, the remainder of the report is devoted to identifying the "civilians" who participated in the demonstration. Nowhere does the report indicate any active personnel involvement.

The report states that instead of watching the base, a "surveillance team" was stationed at the Irvine train station to observe demonstrators parking there. The spies dutifully recorded the license-plate numbers of a tan-and-gray Volkswagen bus parked there and began taking down the license plates of another 19 vehicles, including two more Volkswagen buses, two Volkswagen "sedans," a Morris Minor, a Volvo, a Fiat and a Renault. There were more Fords than any other make. The spies gave up after the area became too congested.

At 2:16 p.m., the 37 demonstrators formed a straight line and marched from Central Avenue in Irvine toward Trabuco Road. The report identified UCI student Patty Parmalee as an "obvious leader" of the group. It noted that the Marines had a file on her already. By 2:56 p.m., the group had reached the main gate to the base and began passing out literature along Trabuco Road.

The literature the SDSers passed out, which was preserved for history in the file, included an untitled SDS leaflet (about rights under the draft law), another titled "Victims and Executioners" and a "National Vietnam Examination."

At 4 p.m., Parmalee introduced the first of two speakers. If the Marines were expecting a couple of bomb throwers and communists, they would be disappointed. Reading the transcripts, their speeches appear rather tame, even reasonable. Greg Hofmann, identified in the files as representing the UCI SDS, explained to the gathering that "demonstrations of this type are about the only method of political expression left to us," but he cautioned that "as we march, it's very easy to think that I am moral and these guys are all misguided." He suggested that "it is easy to be antagonistic toward people who disagree with you" and called for dialogue: "Talk with them; try and reason things out."

The other speaker, Bill Timmerman, who was from the SDS regional office in Los Angeles, continued in the same vein. "What brings 40 or 50 people out to a Marine base carrying signs that read, 'The U.S. should leave Vietnam' and, 'Thou Shalt Not Kill'?" He suggested that the Marines know the brutality of war "better than we do because they have the experiences that so far none of us has. But I don't think, however, this justifies anyone telling us that we should experience it first before we disagree with it. The more important problem, as I see it, is whether or not what the U.S. government says about the war in Vietnam is supposed to protect us from Communism is the truth or not." He even criticized totalitarian governments. He concluded: "Before we give up and say the only alternative is war, we better be sure there aren't any others. And that I think is why most of us are here today."

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