Nixon's Paranoia Is Chicago's Reality

The Townhouse Explosion

It was a explosion that shocked federal law enforcement. 

In March of 1970, a townhouse in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City being used as a bomb factory for the radical group the Weather Underground accidentally exploded, killing three WU members and injuring two others. 

The bombing itself was bad enough, but what investigators found in the ruins of the townhouse was even more shocking. There was radical literature with calls for Marxist revolution, more dynamite that had miraculously not exploded, and a bomb factory that portended numerous plots to bomb other locations. Investigators eventually learned that the bomb makers had planned on using the devices at a military base in New Jersey, which could have killed hundreds. 

The bomb factory was a major step up in the violent tactics employed by the group. Before this, they had mostly used Molotov cocktails in their attacks, including the firebombing of a judge and his family as they lay sleeping in their home. At the time of the townhouse explosion, some WU members were wanted for their actions in the “Days of Rage” riots in Chicago, an event organized by WU leader Bill Ayers to kick off the Marxist revolution WU members believed in so passionately.  

From the townhouse bombing onward, the WU, along with other militant, revolutionary groups, posed a somewhat new problem for investigators. Should these groups be treated like every other criminal, their constitutional rights protected throughout the investigation, or should they be treated as violent revolutionaries, a threat to the national security of the country and therefore not entitled to constitutional rights afforded criminals?  

The question became more pressing given the magnitude of evidence uncovered in the townhouse bombing, with bombs that could cause mass deaths, and with other evidence collected by the FBI that the WU was willing to murder thousands in their revolutionary zeal. Then there was the unfolding evidence that WU members were conspiring with leaders in Marxist countries to initiate a revolution at home, that they were reaching out to leaders in these communist countries to assist with revolutionary activities at home. 

From Discover the Networks:

FBI files from 1976, recently made public under the Freedom of Information Act, confirm the connections between Weatherman, Castro’s Cuba, and Moscow. Weatherman leaders like Mark Rudd traveled illegally to Havana in 1968 to engage in terrorist training. There, camps set up by Soviet KGB Colonel Vadim Kotchergine were educating Westerners both in Marxist philosophy and urban warfare.

For many members in the government and in law enforcement, this was enough evidence to move the WU radicals from mere criminals into enemies of the state, and therefore a threat to national security. 

The question of how to deal with radicals like the WU eventually worked its way up to the Oval Office, where President Nixon and the FBI director J. Edgar Hoover discussed how to fight the WU and other terrorist groups. Nixon, like many conservatives, believed the unconstitutional tactics employed against radical groups were appropriate given the threat they posed to public safety and national security. Hoover, on the other hand, had come to reject these tactics. But then Hoover died in 1972.

Mark Felt, second in command at the FBI, engaged in these extralegal tactics, claiming they were approved by the FBI Director who took over for Hoover. The illegal tactics, called “black bag jobs,” included opening mail, warrantless searches and wire taps, and breaking into apartments.  

These tactics were supported by many FBI members, who, like Nixon, saw the WU as an extremely violent organization, despite their claims after the townhouse bombing that they would not kill anyone in their subsequent bombings. 

Nevertheless, it was these illegal searches by U.S. intelligence agencies that compelled the creation of a U.S. Senate committee, called the Church Committee, aimed at reviewing the legality of intelligence gathering like the FBI black bag jobs. The committee eventually declared the tactics illegal, the findings generating intense debate. Charges were dropped against Ayers and Dohrn and other WU members because the FBI investigations were deemed unconstitutional. They escaped a trial that could have led to life in prison, or possibly even execution, depending on what evidence emerged. 

Felt was eventually criminally charged in connection with the black bag jobs. Unrepentant, this is what Felt said on Face the Nation:

I think this is justified and I'd do it again tomorrow…To not take action against these people and know of a bombing in advance would simply be to stick your fingers in your ears and protect your eardrums when the explosion went off and then start the investigation.


I was shocked that I was indicted. You would be too, if you did what you thought was in the best interests of the country and someone on technical grounds indicted you.

Felt wasn’t alone. Seven hundred FBI agents, retired and active, stood outside the federal courthouse in Washington DC to support Felt and other defendants in the case. 

Nixon also stood by the decision to employ extralegal tactics in dealing with violent revolutionary groups like the WU, his insistence on doing so contributing to his image as a right-wing paranoid leader. 

Many on the left attacked the extralegal tactics. Consider what Frank Church, the Democratic head of the Church Committee said about the FBI: 

I don't want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return

Church clearly didn’t see what Felt and Nixon saw: It was the WU that was hell bent on tyranny, not the FBI. Church also seemed unable to see, as Felt, Nixon and, later, Reagan did, that the FBI’s extralegal tactics against the WU were guided by a desire to protect life and the republic. 

And so many WU members never faced a trial. The full magnitude of their crimes was never uncovered. Who knows what might have come out if they were tried? Perhaps the alleged role of Dohrn in the bombing of a San Francisco Police station in 1970 that killed a cop and severely injured several others would have been answered. Did Dohrn, as many FBI agents believe, place the bomb on the window sill of the building? 

If so, perhaps Dohrn would have been convicted and facedan execution. Very possibly she, her husband Bill Ayers and the rest of the group would have obtained long prison sentences for their crimes, including treason. 

But we will never know. 

In part because of the Church Committee reports, the WU began theirtransformation in the public imagination from frothing, violent revolutionaries into victims of police repression. Federal intelligence agencies like the FBI were transformed into monsters willing to undermine the constitution to pursue vendettas against their political enemies. 

That Nixon and FBI members like Felt believed that it was necessary to operate outside the bounds of the constitution because they believed lives and national security were in danger was largely ignored. 

Deep Throat and Watergate

And yet there was one more incredible twist to this tumultuous period of American history.  Mark Felt is famous not only for his role in investigating the WU. After nearly forty years, he would eventually admit that he was the famous “Deep Throat” figure in the Watergate scandal, the man who leaked grand jury information to Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein that led to Nixon’s downfall and resignation. 

Records show that a shocked Nixon was informed in 1972 that Felt was Deep Throat. 

From the New York Times

“We know what’s leaked, and we know who leaked it,” Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, told the president on Oct. 19, 1972, four months after a team of washed-up Central Intelligence Agency personnel hired by the White House was caught trying to wiretap the Democratic Party’s national offices at the Watergate complex.

“Somebody in the F.B.I.?” Nixon asked.

“Yes, sir,” Mr. Haldeman replied. Who? the president asked. “Mark Felt,” Mr. Haldeman said. “Now why the hell would he do that?” the president asked in a wounded tone.

Nixon Backs up Felt

How easy it would have been for Nixon to use the Felt criminal trial as a means of getting back at Felt. How easy it would have been for Nixon to remain silent during Felt’s trial, especially since Felt had betrayed Nixon so badly in the Watergate scandal. But Nixon didn’t. Nixon stood by Felt in the coming years as Felt was indicted for the “black bag jobs” against the WU.

In fact, Nixon even testified on behalf of Felt during Felt’s trial. Nixon pointed out that such tactics in the name of national security had been employed many times.

It was another sign of Nixon’s deep conviction that radicals like the WU posed such an ominous threat to the union that he would stand by Felt. 

From the New York Times:

On October 29, former President Richard M. Nixon appeared as a rebuttal witness for the defense, and testified that Presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt had authorized the Bureau to engage in break-ins while conducting foreign intelligence and counterespionage investigations. It was Nixon's first courtroom appearance since his resignation in 1974.

Nixon also contributed to Felt’s legal fund. That’s how strongly Nixon believed that the extralegal strategies were appropriate.  

But even with Nixon’s testimony, Felt was convicted. He was sentenced to probation and community service. Felt’s supporters turned to Reagan, who issued Felt a pardon in 1981.


During their long careers, Mark Felt…served the Federal Bureau of Investigation and our nation with great distinction. To punish them further—after 3 years of criminal prosecution proceeding—would not serve the ends of justice.

Their convictions in the U.S. District Court, on appeal at the time I signed the pardons, grew out of their good-faith belief that their actions were necessary to preserve the security interests of our country. The record demonstrates that they acted not with criminal intent, but in the belief that they had grants of authority reaching to the highest levels of government.

After Felt was pardoned, Nixon sent him a bottle of Champagne, again, this from a former president who was kicked out of office in large part because of the actions by Felt. 

Radicals Come Home

If the story of Felt’s conviction sounds familiar to anyone in Chicago, it should. For what happened to Felt was one of the first instances of what would become a pattern among the radical left.

The WU and other violent, radical groups from the 1960s were able to diminish the horror of their own crimes by vilifying law enforcement officials, as they did to Felt. As a bonus, this same vilification served to turn them and their fellow criminal activists into folk heroes. 

Dohrn, Ayers, and their companions in a law firm that reportedly had helped them during the years they were setting off bombs and living underground, the People’s Law Office, all came together to the place where their revolution once started—in Chicago during the Days of Rage in 1969. 

Unrepentant about their crimes, these activists pursued their revolutionary agenda in the city, adopting the same strategies that had worked so well against the FBI, Felt and Nixon: They turned the tables on law enforcement and political foes, turning both into defendants, and then criminals. They did so by claiming that the worst criminals in the city were victims of police abuse, just as they claimed the WU bombers were victims of constitutional violations by a malevolent, law-violating Felt, and his FBI brethren, backed by politicians like Nixon. 

At first, few would listen to them, but eventually they succeeded in vilifying the Chicago police by transforming the most vicious killers in the city into victims. Their poster child for this police abuse became former Commander Jon Burge. Often with little or no evidence apart from the claims of a convicted killer, they claimed that Burge and his men had systematically abused African American suspects. Twice they sued Burge in civil court. Twice they failed to convict. 

Vilifying the Chicago police was far easier against the Chicago Police than the FBI. These groups had already engaged in a campaign against the Chicago police from the 1968 riots onward. But what truly made their campaign so successful was the political reality of the city itself. In Chicago’s Democratic political machine there are no checks and balances that were originally built into the larger republic. There is, therefore, no opposing political party. There are no Nixons, no Reagans, no conservatives at all, only a relentless political machine for sale to the highest bidder, or those with the most clout. 

Nevertheless, the connections between Chicago’s wrongful conviction movement and the Felt/Nixon era are almost comical. 

In the early years of manufacturing their mythology that cops are racist monsters, the PLO, for example, went back to strategies from the Nixon/Felt era in a most pedestrian, embarrassing manner. To generate publicity against Burge and the Chicago Police Department, PLO attorney G. Flint Taylor came out with what he claimed were a series of anonymous letters from an unidentified police detective describing abuse by Jon Burge and his men. This informant was eventually dubbed “Deep Badge,” a clear reference to Felt’s role as Deep Throat in the Watergate scandal. 


The anonymous letters to attorney G. Flint Taylor arrived in police department envelopes, and so the mysterious author was dubbed "Deep Badge…”

Taylor was no stranger to unpopular causes. Through the years, his firm -- the People's Law Office -- has represented the Black Panthers, anti-war activists and members of the FALN, the militant Puerto Rican independence group. So taking on the police wasn't a stretch.

But if Deep Badge was to be believed, this case was different. A ring of cops, the unsigned letter said, was torturing criminal suspects.

The letters launched Taylor on a 22-year odyssey from the streets to the courts to death row and into the heart of a scandal that would stain Chicago for decades.

Anonymous letters that arrived in police envelopes, envelopes that thousands of people, police and non-police alike, could access with little or no effort? 

And, incredibly, people, including journalists, actually bought the claim. 

But think about it for just a moment. If a cop wanted the truth to get out about renegade cops abusing people, would he send letters to a law firm that had represented some of the most violent terrorists in the country’s history, that had reportedly worked closely with anti-police radicals like the WU? Wouldn’t this detective instead send the letters to prosecutors or to the feds or even the media? 

It’s been forty years since Dohrn and Ayers got out of their criminal charges and returned to Chicago. In the course of those forty years, they and their PLO pals have steadily attacked the criminal justice system under the guise of what is now known as the wrongful conviction movement. They have formed alliances with other lawyers, academics, and journalists who share their ideological antipathy to the police and what they called in the 1960s “the system.”

The Aftermath

And after these forty years, a chilling vision of the city is emerging, one that gives more legitimacy to the extralegal tactics employed by the FBI and supported by Nixon so many years ago. 

Let’s take a close look:   

The destruction of the criminal justice system. After her return to Chicago, Dohrn eventually ended up teaching at Northwestern University’s Law School, working on wrongful conviction cases. It was a sign that portended the radicalism inherent in the wrongful conviction movement that had begun to permeate universities in the city. For how could one of the most prestigious law schools in the country hire a woman who used to run around setting off bombs, calling for a Marxist revolution and once even praised the murders of the Manson family for their revolutionary zeal? This radicalism—the willingness to do anything to attack the police—became apparent in the most influential wrongful conviction case in the state’s history, the exoneration of Anthony Porter and the conviction of Alstory Simon for the same murders in 1999. 

For more than a decade, Porter’s claims that he was innocent of the murders became orthodox history in the city, an archetype case of police and prosecutorial misconduct. But then a group of lawyers, a journalist, private detectives and cops pressed the evidence that Porter was clearly guilty of the murders and Simon had been coerced into confessing to the crimes.  Based on these claims, the Cook County prosecutor reviewed the case and released Simon in 2014, saying Simon’s constitutional rights had been violated. A judge then declared that Simon was innocent of the murders. 

Here was the central wrongful conviction case ripped apart under renewed scrutiny, an exoneration built upon the false claim that the detectives railroaded Porter and ignored evidence that Simon committed the murders. 

The undermining of the political system. Porter’s exoneration in 1999 generated a tidal wave of similar claims by convicted killers and rapists, who flooded the courts, represented by prominent wrongful conviction attorneys. Hundreds of Chicago cops have been accused of the worst misconduct, including being racist torturers. Prosecutors began rolling over on these cases, unwilling to retry thirty-year-old crimes. Lawyers from the city began settling them, figuring it was cheaper than fighting them in court. 

But it wasn’t just the courts that were devastated by the wrongful conviction movement. 

In 2003, Governor George Ryan, citing the work by Northwestern “investigators” on the Anthony Porter case, released four convicted killers from death row at the behest of the wrongful conviction faction within the city, without any new evidence that the men were innocent. Ryan did so at the very time he himself was facing twenty-one criminal charges for massive corruption in his office when he was Secretary of the State. 

One of the men who was released was Madison Hobley, convicted of setting a fire that killed seven people in 1987. Though prosecutors, cops, and family members of the victims were outraged by Ryan’s decision, Ryan let Hobley out. Supporters of the wrongful conviction movement heralded Ryan’s decision to pardon the offenders and end the death penalty, but as the evidence of corruption in the movement comes to light, Ryan’s decision looks more and more like one of the greatest abuses in the long, sordid history of the state. 

Now that the Porter exoneration has crumbled under the weight of renewed scrutiny, few journalists, and certainly no one among the wrongful conviction crowd, is willing to draw the obvious connections between the Porter scandal and the four pardons by Ryan in 2003. 

The wrongful conviction faction has scored other victories in undermining the political system. Recently, the City Council voted unanimously to grant reparations to alleged victims of police abuse, particularly those arrested by Burge and his men. Now convicted killers can come forward, without any legal process affirming their claims, and get a payout from the city. 

Another key victory was intimidating the state into the creation of an agency, the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission (TIRC), allegedly aimed at reviewing torture allegations against Burge and his men. But in reality, TIRC is an agency with the power to breathe new life into once settled convictions. Mired in scandal and allegations of breaking its own statues, TIRC, largely comprised of fervent wrongful conviction activists and lawyers, has successfully released several inmates from prison. In doing so, TIRC has achieved what many people would consider the unconstitutional undermining of the criminal justice system. 

Could members of the WU and their supporters ever have dreamed of holding such power in a large city back in the 1960s? 

Even mayors are afraid of the power this faction holds in the city. They have intimidated Mayor Emanuel and Mayor Daley before him into paying settlements on ludicrous allegations of police misconduct, turning the wrongful conviction movement into an industry that costs taxpayers millions.

The destruction of the free press.  Journalists in Chicago embraced wrongful conviction narratives with little or no investigation. The Anthony Porter scandal is just one example. Some of the journalists were too naive or too smitten with the frenzy created around these cases to review them carefully. But other journalists acted as if they were in the back pocket of these activists. Now, key media outlets in the city are unwilling to review the evidence of corruption in the movement, apparently terrified that the evidence will come out that the media in Chicago failed on such a grand scale. 

One question haunts the media in Chicago. How many wrongful convictions did the media get wrong? How many killers and rapists were set free?

But in Chicago, the media is no longer willing to ask such basic, crucial questions. 

The undermining of the education system. Ensconcing themselves in higher education, members of the wrongful conviction faction have duped a generation of students who have gone on to careers in journalism, law, and education. Students who were supposed to be learning to become journalists at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, for example, must now live with the evidence that they helped release a cold-blooded killer in Anthony Porter and framed an innocent man. 

But perhaps nothing reveals the damage this movement has unleashed on the city more than the current crisis in violent crime. The poorest people in the city these activists once claimed to represent are more susceptible to crime and violence than ever, living in neighborhoods run by gangs. 

Is this the revolution these 1960s activists fought so desperately and violently to impose? Sadly, it is, for Chicago is moving rapidly toward the hell-hole conditions of so many countries that succumbed to the ideology of Marxist radicals. They are impoverished, violent countries with little or no opportunity for anyone not living within the dictates of the ruling party. There is no real law there, law, that is, based on the notion of liberty. 

What is happening in Chicago harkens back to Nixon and Felt’s decision to attack these groups with extralegal measures so long ago, beginning with the the evidence taken from the townhouse explosion in Greenwich Village. 

Here, in Chicago, what was once termed Nixon’s paranoia has come eerily to life: It is the living, breathing Crooked City.   

Martin Preib is a Chicago Police Officer and writer. His first book, The Wagon and Other Stories From the City, was published by the University of Chicago Press. His second book, Crooked City, which played a critical role in the release of Alstory Simon from prison, is available on Amazon. His articles have appeared in Playboy, The Chicagoan, Virginia Quarterly Review, Tin House, and New City. He is currently working on his third book about former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and the Hobley arson, titled Burn Patterns.

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