Photo: Athan Theoharis in his office at Marquette University in 1991. He used Freedom of Information Act requests to uncover secrets about the F.B.I.Credit…Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Theoharis found formerly unobtainable files of J. Edgar Hoover, whom he called “an insubordinate bureaucrat in charge of a lawless organization.”
Athan Theoharis, a pre-eminent historian of the F.B.I. whose indefatigable research into the agency’s formerly unobtainable files produced revelations about decades of civil liberties abuses under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, died on July 3 at his home in Syracuse, N.Y. He was 84.
The cause was pneumonia, his daughter Jeanne Theoharis said.
Beginning in the mid-1970s, Professor Theoharis, who taught history at Marquette University in Milwaukee, deftly used Freedom of Information Act requests to pry open the F.B.I.’s deep well of secrets, including the extent to which Hoover compiled damning information on public officials and his cooperation with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s campaign against people he accused of being Communists.
The documents showed the extent of the agency’s break-ins and its illegal surveillance of left-wing organizations; its pursuit of allegations that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had extramarital affairs; and the use of the F.B.I. by presidents of both parties for political purposes.
One of Professor Theoharis’s most alarming finds was a surveillance program forged by the F.B.I. and the American Legion in 1940 that lasted until 1966. The F.B.I. used tens of thousands of the organization’s volunteers to report information about other citizens.
The goal of the program was to use Legionnaires, “who were highly motivated and who held pretty conservative views, who were going to act as the eyes and ears and expand the resources of the bureau beyond the agents,” Professor Theoharis said in a joint interview in 2013 for the book “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 in 2014, and the film, released the same year, dealt with the burglars who stole critical documents from an F.B.I. office in Media, Pa., which showed, among other things, active unlawful surveillance of Black, student and peace groups, and led to the revelation of Hoover’s secret Cointelpro program, begun in 1956, which spied on civil rights leaders, political organizers and suspected Communists.
Before the creation of Cointelpro, the Legionnaires were “monitoring activities at defense plants, they were monitoring activities among ethnics within their community, they were monitoring activities of radical activists,” Professor Theoharis said.
Professor Theoharis’s strategic use of the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, enabled him to find pathways to documents through a purposely evasive filing system that Hoover had hoped no one would ever divine.
“Hoover was an insubordinate bureaucrat in charge of a lawless organization,” Mr. Theoharis told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 1993. “He was also a genius who could set up a system of illegal activities and a way to keep all documentation secret for many years.”
Beverly Gage, a history professor at Yale University who is completing a biography of Hoover, said in a phone interview that one of Professor Theoharis’s tactics had been to request “special agent in charge” orders that showed which policies Hoover had wanted the F.B.I.’s field offices to follow.
“For me, these records gave me an institutional sense of the inner workings of the F.B.I.,” Professor Gage said. “He figured out the key words to file the right FOIA requests.”
Professor Theoharis was an eager mentor to his graduate students and to historians on both the left and the right, helping them to navigate the F.B.I.’s filing system. Kenneth O’Reilly, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, was a graduate student of his in the mid-1970s whose dissertation was on the relationship between the F.B.I. and the House Un-American Activities Committee.
But after filing a FOIA request, he was told he would have to pay copying costs of several thousand dollars, and he almost dropped the subject.
“Athan said: ‘Forget about it. I know people. I know people in Chicago,’” Professor O’Reilly said at Professor Theoharis’s Zoom funeral. “‘Forget about it’? ‘I know people’? For a brief moment, I thought, ‘My dissertation adviser sounds like a gangster.’”
Professor Theoharis had arranged a fund-raising dinner that paid Professor O’Reilly’s costs.
“He got me and a lot of other graduate 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 there — my father took joy in that,” said Jeanne Theoharis, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College.
Athan George Theoharis was born on Aug. 3, 1936, in Milwaukee. His father, George, a Greek immigrant, and his mother, Adeline (Konop) Theoharis, operated a diner. At 16, he entered the University of Chicago, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in 1956 and 1957, a master’s degree in 1958 and a Ph.D. in history in 1965.
He taught history at what is now Texas A&M University, Wayne State University in Detroit and Staten Island Community College (now part of the College of Staten Island) before joining the Marquette faculty in 1969. He taught 20th-century American history there until his retirement in 2006.
Professor Theoharis was originally a Cold War scholar; his early books included “The Yalta Myths: An Issue in U.S. Politics, 1945-55” (1970) and “Seeds of Repression: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of McCarthyism” (1971).
In his research, he found documents dealing with wiretapping policy and the federal employee loyalty security program during the Truman administration, including records in the Truman library about the expansion of the F.B.I.’s wiretapping authority.
His article “Thirty Years of Wire Tapping,” published in The Nation in 1971, brought him to the attention of the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities, better known as the Church Committee for its chairman, the Idaho Democrat Frank Church.
Professor Theoharis became a consultant to the committee, which in 1975 and 1976 investigated the legality of the F.B.I., the C.I.A. and the National Security Agency’s intelligence operations. He did research in the archives of several presidential libraries, including those of Truman, Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson, on the classified material the F.B.I. sent to presidents.
“They have access to F.B.I. records, unrestricted access,” he told Ms. Medsger and Ms. Hamilton, referring to the Church Committee and its counterpart in the House, led by Representative Otis Pike, a New York Democrat. “And it’s a different ballgame.”
And it was for Professor Theoharis as well. He deployed FOIA, which had been strengthened by Congress in 1974, to plumb Hoover and his top aides’ sensitive “Official and Confidential” files, along with those designated “Do Not File,” which were kept from the F.B.I.’s central records, presumably safe from being disclosed.
“That absurd “Do Not File’ file was one of the things that Athan drilled down on,” Professor Gage said, “and he got a lot of information that way.”
Professor Theoharis wrote numerous books about 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 agency memorandums accompanied by Professor Theoharis’s commentary.
Reviewing “The Boss” in The New York Times, Herbert Mitgang wrote: “Unlike some other recent Hoover biographers, the authors do not make apologies for the excesses of ‘The Boss.’ They have the goods on him.”
Professor Theoharis thought that the portrait of Hoover as a homosexual cross-dresser that emerged in 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 in 1995 with “J. Edgar Hoover, Sex and Crime: An Historical Antidote,” in which he wrote that Hoover’s leadership of the F.B.I. was “a story of a resourceful bureaucrat who successfully circumvented the limitations of the American constitutional system of checks and balances” — and not, as Mr. Summers had it, a “morality play” about a closeted gay man whose secret was used by organized crime bosses to leave them alone.
In addition to his daughter Jeanne, Professor Theoharis is survived by another daughter, the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chairwoman of the Poor People’s Campaign; a son, George, a professor of educational leadership at Syracuse University; his sisters, Arhontisa and Zoe Theoharis; his brother, Theoharis Theoharis; and five grandchildren. His wife, Nancy (Artinian) Theoharis, a human-rights activist, died last year.
Ms. Medsger — who broke the story of the F.B.I. burglary for The Washington Post in 1971 and enlarged on her reporting in her book, which revealed who the burglars were and assessed the impact of their act — recalled approaching Professor Theoharis with trepidation during her research.
“I didn’t want to get in touch with him until I’d read all his books on the F.B.I.,” she said by phone. “I wanted to confirm things with him, knowing he was the person who knew the most about the F.B.I. But I remember feeling comfortable with him. He wasn’t intimidating.”
“I wanted,” she added, “to reveal my secrets to him.”
Richard Sandomir is an obituaries writer. He previously wrote about sports media and sports business. He is also the author of several books, including “The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a Classic.” @RichSandomir
JIM HIGGINS | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (no date listed)
Marquette University history professor Athan Theoharis was a persistent scourge of the FBI for its practice of violating Americans’ civil liberties by spying on them. But he also had a technical respect for J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime FBI director who led those clandestine practices.
“Hoover was an insubordinate bureaucrat in charge of a lawless organization,” Theoharis told Milwaukee Journal reporter Kevin Harrington in a 1993 interview. “He was also a genius who could set up a system of illegal activities and a way to keep all documentation secret for many years.”
Theoharis countered the FBI’s penchant for secrecy with dogged persistence, using each nugget of information he obtained to pry loose more nuggets. He pioneered the use of Freedom of Information Act requests in historical research, taught his many graduate students how to make such requests, and wrote a guide for scholars.
Theoharis died July 3 of pneumonia in Syracuse, New York, where he was living with his son George. He was 84.
“He cracked the FBI’s secret files partly because he knew the way was to figure out their filing systems, analyze them, request them, sue for them,” his three children wrote in their memorial tribute to their father.
Ethics lessons started in Milwaukee
Those files informed his many books, including “The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition” (1988), co-written with John Stuart Cox, and “From the Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover” (1992).
Theoharis’ research proved or verified many episodes of FBI skullduggery, including multiple instances of Sen. Joseph McCarthy enlisting the FBI to seek sexual or political dirt on government officials and workers, even President Dwight D. Eisenhower himself.
In a 1983 interview, Theoharis told Milwaukee Journal reporter James Rowen that his desire to unearth the truth about domestic government surveillance stemmed in part from the ethics his father taught him as a boy growing up in Milwaukee.
Athan Theoharis was born in Milwaukee in 1936. His father, a Greek immigrant, ran a small diner out of their home on North Van Buren Street. Theoharis attended Lincoln High School, but after his sophomore year he passed the competitive entrance exam for the University of Chicago. He earned all his degrees there, culminating in a Ph.D. in history in 1965.
After working at several other universities, he returned to Milwaukee in 1969 to teach at Marquette University.
An expert on government surveillance
His early books “Anatomy of Anti-Communism” (1969) and “Seeds of Repression: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of McCarthyism” (1971) established his scholarly concerns with surveillance in 20th-century America.
In 1975, Theoharis served as a consultant to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, also known as the Church Committee, investigating abuses by the FBI and other agencies. His book “Spying on Americans: Political Surveillance from Hoover to the Huston Plan” (1978) focused on abuses of domestic intelligence.
Using his increasing understanding of how the FBI kept secret records from being indexed, in 1979 he filed an FOIA request that included Hoover’s “dirt files,” secret files with derogatory information on prominent people. In 1983, the requested files started arriving — 7,000 pages of documents in 15 boxes.
In those pre-electronic records days, there could be hefty fees for those records. Even after a waiver of 60% of search and copying charges, Theoharis estimated his final bill for document requests from the FBI would exceed $50,000, he told The Journal’s Rowen. Theoharis raised money from foundations to cover those costs.
“He was a straitlaced kind of guy, but he helped lay the groundwork for exposing the FBI’s monitoring and harassment of gay public servants,” his children wrote in their tribute.
At the same time, he considered it irresponsible when people wallowed in rumors about Hoover’s sexuality. “The problem with Hoover, Pop made clear, was his abuse of power,” his children wrote. “Focusing on his sexuality was using Hoover’s smear tactics of personal attack and missing the systems of power.”
Innate feminist, supportive father
During his Marquette years of plowing through carton after carton of documents, Theoharis and his wife, Nancy, who predeceased him, raised three children in Fox Point. Their children’s careers reflect their parents’ passion for civil rights and justice. Jeanne is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College, a scholar of Black history and civil rights, and the author of “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” (2014). Liz is co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. George is a professor of education at Syracuse University who focuses on equity, social justice, diversity, inclusion, urban education and school reform.
Athan and Jeanne wrote a book together, “These Yet to Be United States: Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in America Since 1945.”
The Theoharis children remember their father as both firm in his positions and incredibly supportive. For example, Athan was a committed atheist but regularly went to church with the deeply religious Nancy, and stood behind Liz’s decision to become an ordained Presbyterian minister.
The children called him an “innate feminist” who supported their mother’s activism and was solicitous of her needs as a polio survivor.
“At all performances, he wouldn’t imagine sitting in the seats accessible for visual impairments, even though he couldn’t see very well. They sat in the wheelchair seats because Mom’s disability was the priority,” his children wrote.
Theoharis retired from Marquette in 2006, fulfilling his plan to step down at 70 to open a position for younger scholars. He continued researching and writing, served as an active board member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, and campaigned for Scott Walker’s recall and against Wisconsin voter ID laws. Some of his final publications were warnings about the government using Sept. 11 and the Patriot Act to expand secret investigations and violate civil liberties.
He was also legendary for weekly basketball games he organized, where he played with history department colleagues and graduate students. He played well into his 60s, when he still had a decent shot but couldn’t jump anymore, his son George said fondly.
In addition to his children, Theoharis is survived by five grandchildren. His family suggests memorial contributions in his name to the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin Foundation.
His papers, including thousands of pages of FBI files, have been donated to the Marquette University archives and are available to scholars.