In 1970 Jack Ryan, a 32-year-old special agent for the FBI, was assigned to a stakeout set up to capture two of the nation’s most notorious fugitives: antiwar activist priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan. The Berrigan brothers had gone underground after being sentenced to three years in prison for destroying draft-board records in Catonsville, Maryland. Their mother had been admitted to a hospital in Syracuse, New York, and there was suspicion that her sons might come to visit.
Ryan, a former seminarian, had “funny feelings” about the prospect of apprehending a pair of priests. “But I stereotyped them as not on my side. I thought, they certainly don’t represent my church. The people I knew were in tune with me, including my pastor. I thought that if I did have to arrest them, I would be more respectful of the priesthood than they were.” Ryan didn’t get the chance to find out, because the Berrigans never showed up.
Two decades later, Ryan, now 53, relates this story from the crumbling front porch of a rambling old rectory nestled between an abandoned Catholic church and school in a run-down neighborhood of Peoria. This is the Catholic Worker house, an emergency shelter for homeless women and children where Ryan has worked as a volunteer for the last nine years and lived for the last year and a half. A tall, amiable man with a full crop of silvery hair and a round, unmistakably Irish mug, he speaks in soft, deliberate tones. He chuckles occasionally as he attempts to retrace the unlikely steps that brought his thinking more in line with the beliefs of the Berrigans than those of his erstwhile mentor J. Edgar Hoover.
After a 21-year FBI career in which he earned 55 letters of commendation and appreciation for his skill at cultivating Mafia informants, Ryan has put down his gun and adopted a philosophy of nonviolence. Like the Berrigans before him, he is now vigorously opposed to U.S. foreign policy. But while the Berrigans were once fugitives from justice, Ryan is a pursuer of it.
Five years ago, he challenged the wisdom of an FBI investigation, and since then he’s been paying the price. In 1986 a group of peace activists vandalized military recruiting offices in Chicago to protest U.S. aid to the contras in Nicaragua. The FBI viewed the vandals as terrorists, but Ryan was convinced they were simply pacifists. In September 1987, less than a year before he was eligible to retire with a full pension, Ryan, a father of four, was fired for insubordination and for violating his oath of loyalty to the United States. Although he had put in more than the requisite 20 years of service to earn a full pension, he was nine months short of 50, the minimum retirement age.
Ryan thinks he deserves to be reinstated or at least to receive his pension. He filed a religious-discrimination suit against the Department of Justice, and any day now three federal appeals court judges will decide whether he is right.
In 1956 David Ryan, a Peoria physician, died of a heart attack at the age of 45. He left his wife and 11 children “next to nothing,” according to Jack, his oldest son, who was then a senior at Peoria’s Spalding High School, home of the Spalding Irish. “He had a monstrous practice, a 23-hour day, but a lot of people couldn’t pay their bills. He did a lot of service in the South End, treating blacks and the Chinese community.” Although he describes his father as “ideologically very conservative” and “staunchly anticommunist,” Ryan says he was also “a real champion of the underdog. He had a tremendous influence on me. I often wonder where he would be today in his thinking.”
Ryan says he was “shattered” but not angry about his father’s death. “I just saw it in the grand plan of things that this is the way it’s supposed to be. There was no question he had gone to heaven, so I knew I should be happy. In fact, I felt bad that I didn’t feel happy.” A few days after the funeral, Ryan made an announcement to his mother and ten younger brothers and sisters. “I felt bad I hadn’t said anything sooner. I wished I had told my dad.” It was an announcement that would have pleased him immensely. After graduation, Ryan planned to enter the seminary.
Four years later, after completing his undergraduate degree, Ryan came to the painful conclusion that he wasn’t cut out for the priesthood. “It was 1959, before Vatican II. Looking back, it might just as well have been 1859 or 1759, because the same things were taught. Plus the celibacy thing was a big part of it.” Ryan returned home, feeling like “a real failure.” If his mother, who had begun working “dozens of jobs” to support the family, was disappointed in him, she didn’t show it. “She’s always been supportive of everything her kids do. She’s also very good at any kind of denial.”
Ryan says he didn’t question the teachings of the church, only the strength of his own faith. He soon redeemed himself by getting a job with the Peoria Police Department. Over the next seven years he worked as a cop with an interruption for military service guarding nuclear missile sites in upstate New York. “Those were two dead, useless years,” he says, but during that period he read books about Senator Joseph McCarthy, who had been a hero to his father, and solidified his conservative political and religious beliefs.
Ryan made an effort to keep in touch with friends from the seminary, but doing so proved to be difficult. “Gradually a rift appeared. This was the early 60s, when the whole church ripped in half. I was in the old half without knowing it. Although I had latched onto the progressive faction when I was in the seminary, after I left I got frozen in time. My own sister married an ex-priest. I thought that was scandalous. I still considered myself progressive, but it scared the hell out of me when I saw what some of my friends were doing–getting involved in the civil rights movement, labor issues, and then the peace movement. The ones who remained in the priesthood, who were locked into the old church, were the ones I didn’t admire. My old friends, the ones I looked up to, were becoming leftists.” Ryan now believes that had he stayed in the seminary, “I would have been one of them.” Instead he became “a dyed-in-the-wool Barry Goldwater conservative. I more or less wore my religion on my sleeve.”
In the mid-60s a priest told Ryan that his background made him an ideal candidate for the FBI. Ryan was surprised, because he believed the notion long fostered by J. Edgar Hoover that FBI agents had to be lawyers or accountants. He applied and was accepted. On February 28, 1966, Ryan became an FBI agent. It was, he says, “a dream fulfilled.”
The dream of being an FBI agent quickly collided with the reality. Just as Ryan’s time in the seminary preceded Vatican II, his first six years at the FBI coincided with Hoover’s last days, when women were still prohibited from being agents and less than one-half of one percent of all agents were black. Ryan quickly became aware of Hoover’s obsession with compiling dubious crime statistics, often at the expense of meaningful investigations. “All the bureau seemed to do when I came in was chase stolen cars. We had these menial crimes we chased after to justify our existence.” He encountered an impenetrable bureaucracy with “ungodly job titles like ‘the number-one assistant to the number-two man,'” and a dizzying blizzard of procedures and regulations, right down to having to account for every photocopy he made. For someone who had joined the nation’s most elite law enforcement organization eager to fight crime, it could have been disillusioning.
But Ryan was not disillusioned. Although he regarded Hoover as “a petty thief,” he found solace in the fact that “everyone made fun of him except the real hard core and the former clerks,” a loyal breed of homebred agents who rise slowly through the bureaucracy to hold the majority of FBI management positions. For nine of his first ten years, Ryan was assigned to the Albany Division, working out of a “resident agency” in Utica. The FBI has 55 divisions, which oversee some 500 low-security resident agencies, usually staffed by a handful of agents who operate with little direct supervision and report to the special agent in charge (SAC) of the division or his assistant (ASAC). After handling general criminal matters his first two years, Ryan was assigned almost exclusively to organized crime, which for the FBI under Hoover had a decidedly low priority.
He says he loved the work, despite the frustrations of being pulled off mob investigations to handle what he considered trivial cases, including tracking down draft resisters. “I hated doing that. Not because I had any sympathy for them but because it was crummy work.” Any reservations he had about the job were more than compensated for by the sense of power that comes with being an FBI agent. He and his wife, Peggy, bought a house in Utica and started a family. They socialized with other agents and their wives. Ryan dutifully attended mass and became president of his parish men’s club.
In March 1971, on the night of the first Ali-Frazier fight, a group of people calling itself the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into a resident agency in Media, Pennsylvania, and stole about 1,000 pages of files. The burglary amounted to a knockout blow for Hoover, who died a year later, and at least a temporary knockdown for the FBI. Over the next two months, the Media documents were sent piecemeal to the Washington Post and New York Times, both of which published them over the objections of Hoover and Attorney General John Mitchell. They provided unassailable evidence of what many people had long suspected: the FBI was conducting unwarranted surveillance of ordinary citizens. The papers also showed that the bureau was targeting black student organizations.
Evidence uncovered later in the 70s proved that the FBI, through its clandestine COINTELPRO and BLACKPRO campaigns, had conducted throughout the 60s a variety of illegal activities, including burglary, illegal wiretapping, false arrests, forgery, disinformation, fabrication of evidence, and creation of bogus political groups, to undermine the civil rights movement and stifle political dissent. Using paid informants with shady credentials to infiltrate groups and act as provocateurs, the FBI effectively neutralized groups such as the Socialist Workers Party. They decimated the Black Panther Party, even attempting to dupe rising Chicago gang leader Jeff Fort into killing Illinois Panther chairman Fred Hampton. (That effort failed, of course, but the job was later carried out by a special unit of the Chicago Police, working with a floor plan of Hampton’s apartment provided by a paid FBI informant who infiltrated the Panthers and became Hampton’s bodyguard.)
Although the Media-papers revelations were tame compared with subsequent disclosures of FBI malfeasance, they generated widespread outrage. Ryan was similarly outraged, but for entirely different reasons.
“My first reaction [to the burglary] was shock and anger that someone had invaded our space.” His next reaction was fear that someone outside the FBI might see his files. Not because they were top secret, but because much of the information in them simply wasn’t true.
Ryan and other agents in Utica regularly fabricated information, sometimes inventing fictional informants. “At that time every agent had to have a paid ghetto informant. So you’d get the first black person you could find. You’d get his birth date, address, license number and sign him up. I’m sure the janitor in that office building in Media was listed as an informant, because the janitor in our building certainly was, even though he didn’t know it.”
Intelligence obtained through illegal wiretaps was sometimes attributed to these fictitious informants. But in many cases, Ryan says, “There was nothing sinister about it. All we were trying to do was fool our inspectors.” He explains at considerable length the constraints under which FBI agents operate, describing a Kafka-esque system wherein agents, pressured by their supervisors–who in turn are pressured by their supervisors–must temporarily suspend their investigations to write case reports.
“You’d find yourself in a bind every month of your career. In Utica, we used to laugh about our ‘magic typewriter.’ We’d all fight for it. You’d put the paper in, type the case heading, then close your eyes. Something would always come out. That would get you something on file or a lead to send to some other office.” With agents at other offices busy writing their own reports, presumably replete with more flights of fancy, it might take two or three months to get a response. “The whole FBI was just flooded with this stuff,” Ryan says. “It had nothing to do with anything.”
Although Ryan sometimes became exasperated with the bureau, his misgivings had nothing to do with ideology or FBI tactics. “I had no problem with illegal wiretaps. We had illegal wiretaps galore. The lying didn’t bother me, the spying didn’t bother me. The whole Watergate thing didn’t bother me–just the fact that they got caught.”
The only thing that did bother him was “the games you had to play to justify your existence.” These games, he says, limited the time he could spend doing the work he enjoyed–hanging out with hoodlums to build cases against loan sharks and racketeers.
Ryan is not given to boasting about his work fighting the Mafia, except to say he thinks he did “good work” and had “a good reputation.” But in response to a question about one of his commendations, he mentions having cultivated the informant who enabled the FBI to solve the gangland murder of New York mob boss Joe Gallo, immortalized in the Bob Dylan song “Crazy Joe.”
When FBI assistant director Edwin Sharp recommended that Ryan be fired, Ryan wrote a letter saying “I am very proud of my career in the FBI and feel one aspect especially worthy of note. In spite of its small population, Utica, New York, has figured prominently in Organized Crime in our country. I was able to develop an intelligence base there that ultimately led to the decimation of Organized Crime in the area. I personally developed and operated nine Top Echelon Informants, including a key functionary with the Colombo LCN [La Cosa Nostra] group in New York City and a ‘made’ member of the Magaddino LCN group. Former SAC Edgar Best, while inspecting the Albany Division, told me that after reviewing informant files around the Bureau for about a year, he felt I had the best overall informant coverage of any agent in the Bureau.”
Ryan’s appeal fell on deaf ears. Six weeks later, he was ordered terminated.
Ryan has difficulty pinpointing when his change of heart about his work for the FBI occurred. “In a way, never,” he says. “I just went along with things for so long, looking the other way. When you’re in it so deep, how do you get out without tipping over the whole thing and all your friends? I passed through a lot of stages.” But it’s clear that the seeds of his doubts were planted in 1976, after he transferred to the Springfield division, which oversees southern Illinois.
Ryan and his wife had always hoped to return home. After about ten years, the usual time required before an agent can request a placement, Ryan asked to be assigned to Peoria. Due to his expertise in organized crime, however, he was assigned to work in East Saint Louis, hardly an attractive post for a ten-year veteran with nine consecutive job performance ratings of “excellent.” Ryan says he was devastated about not being granted his office of preference and bitter when he saw other agents “going right where they wanted.” His dissatisfaction was not unusual. A recent survey commissioned by FBI director William Sessions found that almost 70 percent of all FBI employees feel that the bureau does not select the most qualified applicants for promotions and reassignments. Broken down along racial lines, the survey showed dissatisfaction levels of 70 percent among blacks, 69 percent among Hispanics, and 68 percent among all whites, who account for 88 percent of all agents.
Ryan resolved not to become disgruntled. He still believed in the FBI, and regarded Frank Church, who had chaired the previous year’s Senate intelligence committee hearings on FBI misconduct, as “a dirty word.” Nonetheless, changes in his outlook came steadily, if subtly.
“The hypocrisy got under my skin,” he says. “I was quite adept at developing informants. My technique, in most cases, was friendship. I’d befriend hoodlums just to use them, but in doing so I found that I really was befriending some of them. A guy would tell me something because he trusted me, but I was trying to destroy him. I had a hard time reconciling that. One day a hoodlum would be a bad guy, but if he rolled over, the next day he’d suddenly be a good guy. But he hadn’t changed. He was still a hoodlum.
“We were doing illegal things as well. As an example, falsifying a voucher. We falsified vouchers every day. But if we could catch other people doing it, we’d put them in prison without any qualms whatsoever. When you’re working a labor union, the first place you go is their expense vouchers. We know what we do; they do the same thing. That started to weigh on me, though not enough to make me do anything different.”
But Ryan did do something different. His wife had been taking a Scripture class with an instructor who was disputing some of the basic tenets of Catholicism. Ryan decided to enroll with the intention of defending his faith. Instead, however, he found himself listening and discovering a new perspective on the church.
“I found it fascinating. I learned things I hadn’t been told in the seminary. I reacted with a lot of anger. Why hadn’t I heard any of this before? I was amazed at how I had been able to keep a shell around everything I did and not allow myself to see other ways of thinking.”
Ryan began taking night courses in theology at Saint Louis University. He came to see Christ as one in a long line of prophets who had challenged the political leaders of their day. “I saw a lot of poverty. Most of the agents did everything to avoid it. But I really saw it firsthand. I started to see parallels with the prophetic tradition of the Scriptures. I saw a lot of racial problems. And it was apparent what the causes were. The people were suffering from a long system of corruption. The police department had no relationship to crime. No relationship–that’s the only way to describe it. I found it very upsetting.”
Ryan pauses and smiles. “The easy stereotype is that I became a liberal.” In the 1980 presidential election, Ryan cast his ballot for Jimmy Carter. It was the first time he had ever voted for a Democrat.
“He’d changed by the time he arrived on my doorstep,” says Ron Lievens, Ryan’s former seminary roommate, who was pastor of Peoria’s Saint Martin de Porres church in 1981 when Ryan finally got his wish and was transferred to Peoria. Although Lievens had fallen out of touch with Ryan, “I’d heard he was gung-ho FBI, law and order. People told me he was pushing the macho image pretty hard. Next thing I know, he’s in Peoria pushing peace. I was pleasantly surprised.”
Ryan told Lievens of his interest in the Catholic Worker movement, the loosely structured peace and social activist group that operates homeless shelters without the sanction, and sometimes with the disapproval, of the church. Founded by Dorothy Day in the 1920s as an alternative to the Communist Party, the Catholic Worker is based on the premise that Christianity, viewed in a political context, is even more radical than Marxism.
Lievens, who has since left the church and gotten married, says “A lot of Jack’s fight was with church people. I think he was happy that someone out of his past was supportive of his positions.” Ryan was also happy to learn from Lievens that there was a Catholic Worker house right in Peoria.
Possibly because of Ryan’s changing attitude, he did not fit in well with the other agents, who he says were “uneasy that the world would find out what they’re doing. On the book, we were in by 7 AM and nobody ever wanted to know any different. We’d come in at 8:15 and all go out for coffee. It was not a busy office. There was very little to do. You had to invent work to justify your existence.” It was also, Ryan says, “a suit office.” He hadn’t worn a suit for years.
Coming to Peoria meant giving up his work in organized crime. Most of his work involved conducting security checks on government job applicants. He also was Peoria’s primary agent for counterintelligence assignments, which typically involved keeping an eye on foreign visitors and checking telephone records to identify sources and recipients of calls. It was not demanding work, but he enjoyed it; a sign, he says, that he was getting to be “over the hill.”
Ryan started to feel the need to do more with his life. With the knowledge of his superiors, he began commuting to Mundelein College on weekends to complete a master’s in religious studies. He considered becoming a church deacon. After learning about the Catholic Worker shelter from Lievens, he drove past the housing projects in the South End to see the place. When he identified himself as an FBI agent to the manager, he says, “the guy raised his hands like he was under arrest and said, ‘I’m a pacifist.'” Ryan assured him he wasn’t there on official business and managed to convince him that he was volunteering to help. A few days later, the manager called to ask if Ryan could watch the house overnight. Ryan laughs. “I knew he had to be desperate.”
Ryan’s first night at the creaky old house was an uneasy one. Unaccustomed to being in the Peoria ghetto, he was nervous. He was also afraid that when he woke up the next morning, he’d find that his FBI car, which he had parked on the street, would be missing a few vital parts. It wasn’t. Ever since then, he says, “I’ve been having an ongoing affair with the house.”
If the manager of the Catholic Worker house was startled by Ryan, it’s not difficult to imagine how members of the Peoria Peace Network felt when an FBI agent decided to join their group. While Ryan had been “gradually moving toward the peace movement,” his arrival was hastened by the news of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the brutal rape and murder of three Catholic nuns and a lay worker in El Salvador by members of the Salvadoran guardia. But he was hesitant to attend PPN meetings for fear people would think he was spying on them.
“Early on, there were questions about whether he was a plant,” recalls John Greiner, a retired laborer who headed the PPN when Ryan showed up at his first meeting. “He’d been in enough public situations that people were aware of his FBI affiliation. His presence disturbed a couple of members. I didn’t feel it was important whether he was [a plant] or wasn’t. We were and still are a pretty tame organization. I didn’t think we needed to be worried about being chased by the FBI.”
Greiner says Ryan “attended enough events that people got used to him. They realized the guy wasn’t there as an agent.” He became better acquainted with Ryan in 1984 when the group staged a nuclear freeze march. “I don’t think politics meant that much to him. He put the social aspect of man before the political aspect.” Greiner recalls that Ryan declined to carry a banner during the freeze march. “He didn’t want that kind of open exhibition of his peace feelings made obvious to the FBI.”
Taking part in the freeze march was not the first time Ryan found his personal and professional life in conflict. Two years earlier, a Soviet diplomat had come to Peoria to give a talk at Bradley University. As the counterintelligence agent in his office, Ryan had to follow him around and keep a log of his movements. “It was right after Brezhnev died,” Ryan says. “I figured he couldn’t be too important, because they seemed to have called everybody important back to Moscow. And here he was, still in Peoria.”
Ryan had a copy of the diplomat’s itinerary, which showed that he was scheduled to attend a reception at the home of a Peoria Peace Network member. As a PPN member himself, Ryan “saw some compromise there. I didn’t want to go to the reception as if I were there as a friend when I was actually spying on this guy.” Ryan ended up attending the reception but omitting mention of it from his FBI report.
The following year the American Conference of Bishops issued its pastoral letter on War and Peace, a document that had a profound effect on Ryan. It stated, among other things, that “peacemaking is not an optional commitment. It is a requirement of our faith.” Sensing that his beliefs might pose a conflict with some of his counterintelligence assignments, Ryan decided to discuss his reservations about U.S. policy in Central America with Joseph Ondrula, the SAC in Springfield. Ondrula, who is also Catholic, said he understood Ryan’s concerns. Ondrula told Ryan about the qualms he’d had while investigating the kidnapping by prolife militants of a physician who performed abortions. Ondrula advised Ryan that if a conflict relating to a specific case arose, he should send him a memo.
Three years later one did. But by that time Ondrula had retired.
In 1985 Ryan received a lead to conduct a background check on four South Korean students at Western Illinois University. Three of the students had been arrested in Seoul as part of a 22-member North Korean spy ring, and one was still at large in the U.S. Ryan soon learned that the incident for which the students were arrested had occurred two years earlier, when they had shown newsreel footage of the 1980 student protest riots in Kwangju to students on the WIU campus.
“A few months later,” Ryan says, “some Korean men in suits in an Illinois car, presumably from the Korean mission in Chicago, came to Macomb, taking video of the campus and knocking on doors looking for these four students, who had fled mysteriously sometime before that.” Investigating further, he learned that all of the 70 South Korean students at WIU were privately sponsored except for one graduate student, who was a major in the South Korean army. He had succeeded another grad-student army major, and when he left WIU another army major took his place.
When the three students were arrested as spies, Ryan says, South Korean TV broadcast footage of the WIU campus and identified it as the center of the spy ring. During a sensational trial, one of the three WIU students was sentenced to death and the other two received life sentences. Following intervention by Amnesty International and other groups, the death sentence was reduced to life and the life terms were reduced to 20 years.
“All the students were doing was seeking democratic election of a president and a constitution,” Ryan says. “That’s what the riots had been about. But that was subversive. These were national security offenses. And I realized that I was being used by the FBI as part of the foreign policy of South Korea, which is also part of our foreign policy.” Disturbed at being “an adjunct of the KCIA,” Ryan opened an investigation into the South Korean majors as agents of a foreign country operating in the U.S. without State Department approval. “They had a consecutive succession of watchdogs. I projected that we were doing this all over the place. I’m sure Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, South Africa–countries that have heavy student populations here–usually have their watchdogs in those schools. It’s got to be a federal violation. I didn’t get anywhere and I knew I wouldn’t.”
It turned out to be the last major investigation that Ryan initiated. Before he could delve into it deeply, all of his counterintelligence cases were taken away and reassigned to another agent. By that time, Ryan was on the verge of losing his job.
On the night of October 29, 1986, vandals jammed locks at 11 military recruiting offices in Chicago, leaving behind leaflets protesting U.S. military aid to the contras. If the protesters hoped their acts would create publicity to gain support for their position, they were undoubtedly disappointed. Over the next three days, for example, the Chicago Tribune did not carry a single mention of the vandalism. But the incident did elicit the attention of the FBI, which immediately began investigating.
As part of its inquiry, the Chicago office transmitted by teletype an 11-page “priority” memo to the FBI director and all divisions. In bureau parlance, a memo sent to all offices is called a shotgun lead. Written in a tone that at times reads like Dan Aykroyd parodying Joe Friday, the lead began “DOMESTIC SECURITY/TERRORISM SABOTAGE; 00: CHICAGO.” Some excerpts:
“Throughout the early morning of Thursday, October 30, 1986, the Chicago Division received reports from various military recruiting facilities that they had been the victims of vandal-type attacks during the previous evening October 29-30, 1986. The reports indicated that in many cases, someone had either jammed metal objects into door locks and then broke same off in the lock . . . or had poured some kind of molten metal product into the door lock which fused the locking mechanism solid. At one location, a window . . . was broken . . .
“Immediate investigation conducted by members of the Chicago Terrorist Taskforce verified that the complaints were correct and that the recruiting stations had been the victims of an organized action conducted by a group of at least four conspirators. . . . At [one] station an eyewitness to the action . . . told investigators that on the evening of October 29, 1986 . . . he observed a white male at the door to the station. The man was bent over near the lock. [He] then observed a white female place something white in the door. . . . The couple left in a vehicle with Illinois license JTG 63. There were two white males in the back seat.”
The teletype goes on to identify the car as a 1980 Honda registered to Jean T. Gump of Morton Grove and notes that she, along with four other people whose identities and birth dates are listed, had been arrested seven months earlier at a Minuteman II missile silo site in Missouri for destruction of government property. With Mike Wallace and a 60 Minutes crew looking on, the group, which called itself “Silo Plowshares,” had hung banners with antinuclear slogans and cut electrical cables. The lead failed to note that Gump had been scheduled to start serving an eight-year sentence in federal prison for the Missouri offense six weeks earlier.
Reprinted in the teletype was the text of the group’s “communique,” which began, “Declaration: Business at this facility has been suspended by an act of the people,” and went on to condemn U.S. policy in Central America and express support for four Vietnam vets conducting a protest fast in Washington, D.C.
The teletype continued, “Chicago feels that the conspirators involved in the October 30 Chicago vandalism fall within the domestic security guidelines in that they represent an organized conspiracy to use force/violence to coerce the United States government into modifying its direction. The group appears highly organized, has left ‘communiques’ claiming credit for their actions, and has committed violations of federal statue [sic] sufficient to warrant felony prosecution. Although their written material ask [sic] for peaceful non-violent efforts . . . their smashing of a window and vandalism to vehicles hardly could b [sic] described as peaceful non viole [sic] protest. . . . Chicago requests that FBIHQ strongly consider authorizing full domestic security investigation on this matter. . . .The Burea [sic] is requested to search indices to determine if ‘LOCKOUT’ has previously been used as a title. If negative, the Bureau is requested to approve ‘LOCKOUT’ as a title for this case.”
Three weeks later, Jack Ryan and each of the other 54 agents in his division received the teletype along with a cover memo from Springfield agent Bobby Grooms: “Agents receiving this memo are requested to contact logical law enforcement departments and other sources deemed appropriate to determine any similar incidents.”
Ryan read the memo with apprehension and indignation. From reading the Catholic press, he was familiar with both Plowshares activities and the Veterans Fast for Life. He had even met Larry Morlan, a former seminarian cited in the memo for having been arrested with Jean Gump at the Missouri missile site.
“I thought it was a blatant example of reverting to Hoover tactics. I didn’t know we were harassing peace groups again,” Ryan says. “This was a shotgun lead sent to every office in the country, which was very expensive. They were asking for a code name, which is a big deal. Sometimes they spend more time thinking up catchy code names than anything else. But it means it’s something you expect to be working on a lot–a long-haul case.
At issue for Ryan was the classification of the vandalism under domestic security guidelines. Established by the Church committee in 1975 to curb the use of investigation as a tool of harassment, the Church guidelines permitted such investigations only when a federal violation had occurred. But under Reagan attorney general William French Smith, the guidelines were modified to permit investigations to determine if a federal violation had taken place.
Ryan pondered his options. If similar incidents had occurred in Peoria, he would have known about them from his regular contact with local police; he could simply ignore the lead. An FBI attorney stated during a subsequent court hearing that all but two agents in the Springfield division did ignore the request, some no doubt sharing Ryan’s incredulity that these four people posed a threat to national security.
Ryan felt compelled to take a stand. Over the past few years he had been undergoing treatment for hypertension and high blood pressure, which he and his physician attributed in part to stress. With a father who had died at 45, an uncle at 32, and a grandfather at 54, he was acutely aware that heredity made him something of a walking time bomb. He thought that confronting the matter might have a defusing effect. After deliberating for a day, he drafted a memo that stated:
“Because of writer’s personal, religious and human beliefs concerning the issues that appear to be involved, writer is not willing to conduct this lead and feels the FBI is ill-advised to be so involved in this case as a Domestic Security/Terrorism; Sabotage case based on the following reasons:
“1. The acts performed by the ‘PLOWSHARES’ Group, although clearly involving Destruction of Government Property, have been consistently non-violent symbolic statements against violence.
“2. Writer, although having no knowledge re subjects nor their motives, is personally acquainted with LARRY MORLAN, a former religious education instructor at ALLEMAN HIGH SCHOOL in Rock Island, Illinois (mentioned as associate of subject in teletype). Writer is convinced of MORLAN’s sincerity and non-violent orientation.
“3. Writer is likewise convinced of the totally non-violent posture of the VETERANS FAST FOR LIFE Group referred to in the teletype.
“It is writer’s belief that none of the actions of the PLOWSHARES Group and VETERANS FAST FOR LIFE Group fit within the Domestic Security guidelines and that the FBI would hold credibility by distancing itself from such investigation. Writer’s reluctance to be involved in this case does not mean writer disagrees with the FBI’s position re Terrorism or Domestic Security.”
Ryan sent the memo to Tom Jones, the special agent in charge in Springfield. He says he liked and respected Jones, who, as a black SAC in the FBI, might have been more receptive to his reservations about bureau practices than other supervisors. Ryan notes with relish that most ambitious bureau executives had one of two standard-issue pictures of Hoover mounted on their office walls, “probably on the same nails” as their predecessors. Jones, by contrast, had a picture of Martin Luther King. While that made a positive impression on Ryan, it likely didn’t sit well with the other agents in Peoria. There, he says, “The prevalent attitude [about Jones] was, ‘He’s a sharp guy but he’s still a nigger.'”
If Ryan’s comment sounds self-serving, it might be instructive to consider the plight of Donald Rochon, the black agent who, along with his wife, was subjected to a campaign of racial harassment by white agents in the Omaha and Chicago offices from 1983 to 1987, and resigned from the bureau a year ago, after reaching a $1 million settlement. Currently, blacks account for only 4.7 percent of all FBI agents. While that’s a significant increase from the days when Hoover first refused to hire any blacks, then, finally bowing to congressional pressure, declared his personal chauffeurs to be agents, the recent survey ordered by FBI director Sessions revealed a high level of racial animosity within the bureau.
After receiving Ryan’s memo, according to Ryan, Jones called and offered to tear it up and “say you had a bad day.” Ryan declined the offer. On December 17 Jones sent Ryan a two-page memo summarizing their phone conversation and advised, “Perhaps it is time to choose a new vocation.” He ordered Ryan to carry out the investigation and warned, “If a refusal is again forthcoming from you I would like this refusal in writing which would give me no choice but to initiate insubordination proceedings.” Jones gave Ryan until Christmas Eve to respond. On that day Ryan dictated a terse statement to Jones’s secretary: “Writer’s stance remains as set forth in referenced memorandum of 12/4/86.”
Two weeks later, Ryan was summoned to Springfield for an “administrative inquiry” before Jones and assistant special agent in charge James Orr. Ryan regarded Orr as officious but thought Jones was “sympathetic” to his position.
“Sympathetic in terms of what?” asks Jones, who is now FBI inspector general, the highest ranking black official in the bureau. Jones speaks in a cordial if guarded tone, responding to questions with economy and precision.
“I didn’t address the philosophical standpoint of it. There was a job to be done. He was expected to do it. It was just the fact that I told him to reconsider it before any administrative action was taken.” Asked about Ryan’s distinction between destruction of government property and terrorism, Jones says, “You’re taxing my memory.” Regarding his personal opinion of Ryan, he says, “I’d rather not get into any characterization of Jack.” In response to whether Ryan was a good agent, he says, “He performed his duties satisfactorily, certainly.” Jones confirms that he has a photo of King in his office. “It’s just a small picture with the ‘I have a dream’ speech written underneath it that I got out of the newspaper.” As for whether he’s ever experienced a conflict between his FBI duties and personal conscience, he says, “No. I’ve never had that situation at all.”
At the administrative inquiry, ASAC Orr posed a hypothetical question to Ryan about whether he would be willing to investigate peace demonstrators at the Rock Island arsenal. Ryan said he was not certain what he would do in such a situation. He was directed to compose a sworn statement: he summarized his case, repeating his willingness to investigate the Chicago vandalism as destruction of government property, and elaborated on his beliefs:
“I personally find certain actions and positions presently being taken by our government, in particular relating to Central America, as violent, illegal and immoral. . . . While I do not condone the use of illegal actions . . . I realize such acts are often effective and have a longstanding tradition in our country’s history (e.g., the Boston Tea Party, Civil Rights marches in the South, etc) . . . I believe that in the past members of our government have used the FBI to quell dissent, sometimes where the dissent was warranted. I feel history will judge this to be another such instance.”
Ryan’s interview with Jones and Orr was the last face-to-face review of his conduct. Thereafter the case became a dense memo trail leading up the FBI disciplinary chain of command. It took seven months to reach the FBI’s executive assistant director in charge of the Administrative Services Division (ASD), with stops along the way at two lower levels of ASD management, the Records Management Division (RMD), and the Counterintelligence Division (CID). After 21 years as a participant in the FBI procedural blizzard, Ryan found himself at the center of the storm.
Jones recommended that Ryan be suspended without pay for a minimum of 14 days. This was consistent with other penalties for insubordination. An ASD review showed that seven previous insubordination cases over the last five years had resulted in six suspensions: two for 5 days, two for 7 days, one for 14 days, and one for 21 days. In the latter case an agent had been AWOL for two weeks. But Jones also made a crucial observation: “In addition to the obvious insubordination charge, it is my opinion that a serious question of loyalty has arisen.” He recommended that Ryan’s security clearance be revoked. As a result Ryan’s counterintelligence cases were transferred to another Peoria agent, Dave Hirtz, and Ryan was assigned only to criminal and applicant matters.
Four months later, on May 8, 1987, the case penetrated the first layer of ASD review. In an eight-page, single-spaced memo to Edwin J. Sharp, the assistant director for ASD, Sharp’s assistant David Rarity wrote: “ASD notes that RMD has clearly identified SA Ryan’s behavior as being inconsistent with E.O. 10450 and that his reliability and trustworthiness are in question. Moreover, CID has indicated the case in question was lawful and necessary under the AG guidelines for DS/T investigations. . . . ASD sees no alternative other than to recommend the dismissal of SA John C. Ryan.”
In addition to providing a window into the FBI’s arcane nomenclature, the Rarity memo was notable for its timing: three weeks before it was issued, the FBI had concluded its six-month preliminary investigation into the vandalism in Chicago. Operation Lockout had turned out to be a shutout. Due to insufficient evidence, no charges were filed.
In a letter responding to Assistant Director Sharp’s notification that “strong consideration” was being given to dismissing him, Ryan took equally strong issue with the notion that he had violated his loyalty oath:
“I cringe at the insinuation that I am or have ever been anything but a loyal U.S. citizen. . . . While I maintain a “complete and unswerving loyalty to the United States,’ I do not feel this means I must maintain a blind loyalty to our nation’s elected leadership when I feel this leadership chooses to act in a manner which is illegal, immoral and contrary to the principles upon which our nation’s greatness is based. . . . I am addressing this matter with great openness and honesty. I have not even engaged services of an attorney although I fully realize the severity of these proceedings because of my desire to say exactly why I am taking this stance instead of saying what might be said to cover myself. But I do not want to be fired and denied my pension and I do not feel I deserve that fate.”
It appears that Ryan’s fate had already been decided. After receiving his letter, Sharp sent his recommendation to Executive Assistant Director John Glover, a memo that was little more than a duplicate of the report that had been submitted to Sharp by Rarity three months earlier. On September 11, 1987, Ryan received a letter from Glover that said in part, “The administrative inquiry clearly established that by refusal to conduct a lawfully ordered investigation you in fact violated your oath of office. . . . Accordingly, I have decided to remove you from the rolls of the FBI.” In none of the FBI personnel documents is there an acknowledgment that the “investigation” Ryan refused to conduct would have consisted of making one, maybe two or three phone calls.
As soon as he was fired Ryan released his sworn FBI statement to a reporter for the Peoria Journal Star who had previously expressed interest in writing a feature on Ryan’s involvement with the Catholic Worker house. Because he took that preemptive step, Ryan says, “I was never written off as a nut. That’s what I was really afraid of. Especially with the FBI doing it, because they’re really good at that.” Instead, Ryan says, most of the publicity he received was positive.
Ryan also decided it was time to hire an attorney, and he knew exactly who to get. More than 25 years earlier, when he was a Peoria cop, Ryan and a partner were accused of police brutality by an NAACP member who had witnessed from a distance their arrest of a black suspect. Ryan says the charge was unfounded, that a facial wound he was accused of inflicting had in fact been caused by the suspect’s wife. No complaint was filed, but Ryan was troubled for a while by rumors that the case would be handled by Art Greenberg, a civil rights attorney who had “a real bad name at the police station.” In addition to being “highly competent,” Ryan says, Greenberg is “arrogant, obnoxious, all the qualities you want in a lawyer.”
So far, though, those qualities have not resulted in any significant gains for Ryan. Greenberg initially negotiated with the FBI to get Ryan reinstated, but his efforts were unsuccessful. From there the case went before the Merit Systems Protection Board, where Greenberg did succeed in establishing a crucial point: he got the FBI and MSPB judge T. Christopher Heavrin to stipulate that Ryan’s refusal to investigate the vandalism was motivated by religious, rather than political, beliefs. In labor law, once a prima facie case of religious discrimination is established, the burden of proof shifts to the employer, which must prove that it cannot accommodate an employee’s beliefs without suffering “undue hardship.” Generally speaking, religious-discrimination cases usually involve the adjustment of work schedules to accommodate religious holidays and hours of worship. In Ryan’s case, the FBI’s accommodation would have involved reassigning some of his work to another agent, though even that would only happen in theory, since all the other agents in the Springfield division had received the same shotgun memo.
In a 23-page ruling on February 2, 1988, Judge Heavrin upheld Ryan’s dismissal on the basis that accommodating his beliefs would have caused an undue hardship for the FBI–a baffling ruling considering that for eight months leading up to Ryan’s termination, the FBI in effect had already accommodated his beliefs without hardship; it had reassigned all of his counterintelligence cases to another agent. Even more curious perhaps is Heavrin’s summary rejection of the option of demoting Ryan for a few more months so he could retire: “Even if the agency could have put appellant in a non-agent position or relegated him to a ‘bonepile’ where he would have no duties to perform, the efficiency of the service would be impaired.”
Five months later, in July 1988, the MSPB denied Ryan’s petition for review, opening the way for him to file suit against the Department of Justice in federal district court under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Greenberg did so a month later, asking for reinstatement of Ryan to his former position or some other FBI job and/or compensation of approximately $500,000 in lost retirement benefits. The first option seemed highly unlikely in view of Ryan’s admission before the MSPB that his commitment to nonviolence had intensified to such a degree that since his dismissal he was now unwilling to carry a gun. He also testified that although he would not stand by and let a fellow agent be killed, he did not know if he would be able to kill another human being to prevent that from happening.
The case finally came to trial last January before Judge Harold Baker, who relied heavily on the testimony of Assistant Director John Glover in reaching his decision. Baker accepted Glover’s statement that he “agonized” over whether or not to fire Ryan, as well as his contention that he considered five alternatives to dismissing Ryan. These ranged from doing nothing to issuing a letter of censure to demotion. Glover also considered reassigning Ryan to Springfield and giving him “special work”; he rejected that on the grounds that it would undermine the authority of SAC Tom Jones. But undermining Jones’s authority was evidently not a concern when Glover considered and rejected a fifth option: accepting Jones’s recommendation that Ryan be suspended for 14 days.
Although Baker, in his six-page ruling, stated that “Mr. Glover never tried to negotiate with Ryan about accommodating his religious beliefs and didn’t discuss with him the five alternatives to dismissal,” he concluded, “obedience and discipline are the indispensable ingredients for such an organization and to accommodate Mr. Ryan’s refusal to obey would create [undue] hardship for the FBI.”
On January 22, while millions of Americans were watching the Persian Gulf war live on CNN, Baker affirmed the MSPB decision to uphold Ryan’s dismissal. “It was not,” Ryan says, “a good time to be stressing personal conscience in the face of orders.”
In the four years since he was fired, Jack Ryan has completed the unlikely evolution from conservative seminarian to mob-busting G-man to full-fledged peacenik. Initially besieged with media requests and lecture invitations, he began “a reluctant career as a peace activist.” He spoke at rallies and college campuses around the country, sometimes taking his youngest child, Paul, along. At one event in Iowa, he had occasion to meet Daniel Berrigan. He taught a course in nonviolence at Bradley University and for two years served as president of the Peoria Peace Network, in which he is still active. Amid talk of a movie based on his life starring Mike Farrell, Ryan found himself traveling to California to hire an agent. After a while, however, the movie project and the media attention slowly died out.
“Some of it I enjoyed,” Ryan says. “It was very flattering, but it got old quick and it was also very disruptive. I was almost on call to anybody who decided to use me. My marriage broke up for a number of reasons, but this certainly helped it.” After a yearlong separation, Ryan and his wife recently got an uncontested divorce after 26 years of marriage. They share custody of Paul, 12, who lives with his mother but stays with Ryan on some weekends. Their three other children, all college age and older, live away from Peoria.
Ryan admits that his insistence on taking a stance put a strain on them. “They were proud that their dad was an FBI agent. They’ve witnessed a change in me. But I’m certain that they’ve all been edified by it. I think they feel that something good happened. It would have been so much easier to have waited a while longer and gotten a pension. But I’m glad I did what I did.”
For the last 18 months Ryan has lived in a cramped second-floor bedroom at the Catholic Worker house. Except for the books that fill one wall and a spartan wardrobe, Ryan has given away most of his possessions to friends and family members. The other eight bedrooms are used by women and children in need of emergency shelter, and at times by other volunteer workers. In periods of high demand, there have been as many as 30 people living in the house. Although the building is owned by the church, the shelter has little connection with the archdiocese. “They let us use the place because they know that if we weren’t here, it would be vandalized,” Ryan says.
Other than a $50 monthly stipend for expenses, Ryan runs the house as a volunteer–cooking, cleaning, arranging donations of food and clothing, and working with other social service agencies. For purposes of safety, the house is kept locked at all times, and only Ryan or another counselor on duty is allowed to answer the door. Except for a ten o’clock curfew, there is only one rigid rule of behavior: “no violence, including spanking your kids.” Ryan has some reservations about that one. “It’s occurred to me that you’re sometimes taking away the only tool a parent has, good or bad. It’s not really fair unless you give them something else to replace it with. It’s almost a little self-righteous on our part.”
Although he appears to be the deeply religious person he claims to be, Ryan is by no means a Bible thumper. In interviews conducted over several days, he never once cited Scripture or invoked the name of the lord. He makes no attempt to indoctrinate shelter guests, not even requiring grace to be said before meals. He conveys the aura of a man at peace, and he says he is. Although he believes the FBI disciplined him too harshly and insists he is entitled to his pension, most of which he plans to sign over to his ex-wife and children, outwardly he does not seem to harbor much bitterness about his former employer.
Ryan chuckles when he tells about an agent from the Chicago office calling last year to pick his brain about Operation Heavy Metal, a complicated farm-machinery-theft case that he was working on when he was fired. He says he was happy to share with the agent what information he could recall. Although he was certain the agent was aware of his situation, there was no discussion of it during their conversation. Nor has he discussed his case with any of his former colleagues on those uncomfortable occasions when he bumps into them around town.
“It’s funny. I’ve been disowned by the FBI. I have almost no contact with the agents I knew. But I still get calls from a few former informants, out of friendship. The FBI fosters a very definite us-versus-them mentality. I’ve got a new set of allies now.”
Last August the FBI finally announced the disciplinary measures it had decided to impose on eight employees who harassed and made death threats against agent Donald Rochon and his wife. One agent and six managers were given oral reprimands or letters of censure or ordered to undergo cultural awareness training. The most severe penalty handed out was a 21-day suspension to an agent in the Chicago office. Considering that the bureau’s stated rationales for having no option but to fire Ryan were the hypothetical danger his pacifism posed for fellow agents and the impact that accommodation might have on employee morale, the punishment in the Rochon case seems unimaginably inconsistent. While Ryan committed a single act of disobedience that posed no threat to anyone (except himself), the misconduct in the Rochon case was sustained over a period of five years. Beyond that, the settlement with Rochon cost the FBI $1 million.
Less than two months after the penalties in the Rochon case were announced, a three-member panel of judges for the Seventh Circuit Court heard oral arguments in Ryan’s appeal. On the day Alan Dixon unburdened his troubled conscience and announced his support of Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination on the Senate floor, it fell to James A. Lewis, an attorney for the Justice Department, to defend FBI employment practices before Judges Walter Cummings, Frank Easterbrook, and Harlington Wood.
Only moments after Lewis began to speak, Cummings interrupted to pose a question, the first of many interruptions during Lewis’s presentation.
“Wouldn’t it have been easy to accommodate him by having someone else make three phone calls?” Cummings asked.
“Yes and no,” Lewis replied. “Yes, the job could have been given to someone else. But under those circumstances they then would have had to confront the problem of an agent who would not follow orders.”
“Was this really an order, though, Mr. Lewis?” Wood asked.
Lewis said it was, but he then attempted with some difficulty to explain how the other agents who ignored the order were not also guilty of insubordination. In fact, during earlier hearings, the FBI had taken the position that Ryan had not been insubordinate until he refused to comply with SAC Jones’s private directive to investigate.
Asked about accommodation, Lewis was unable to cite any attempts the FBI had made in that regard and instead reminded the panel that both the MSRB and the district court judge had ruled in the FBI’s favor. When Lewis stated that Executive Assistant Director Glover had “agonized” over the decision to fire Ryan, Wood commented, “It seems to me that if Mr. Glover was agonizing so over this extreme decision, one thing he might have done was to invite this agent to come to Washington and sit down with him and talk it over and see if it was really the last resort.”
Then there was this exchange between Easterbrook and Lewis:
Easterbrook: “Does the FBI have any Islamic agents?”
Lewis: “I don’t know.”
Easterbrook: “What would you do with someone who had a firmly fixed religious belief that made it impossible to work on particular days?”
Lewis: “I’m not sure. The only testimony along those lines is Mr. Glover’s to the effect that they seek out a values match when they hire people and they alert them in advance that it’s a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job potentially, and perhaps that weeds out those people who have that particular problem.”
Easterbrook: “I doubt that Islamic people feel themselves as having a problem.”
Lewis: “But if they were FBI employees, they’d have an employment problem.”
Going by the judges’ skeptical queries, it would appear that Ryan may soon be getting some good news. But his attorney, Greenberg, says, “You can never go by that.”
The appellate court’s decision will probably focus on the long-term implications for the FBI. As Easterbrook said during Greenberg’s presentation: “The question is: What is the standard by which we judge accommodation? Is it this one person this one time, or do we have instead to analyze the effect of a system under which other persons with similar beliefs must be similarly accommodated?” This would seem to be one of those all too familiar areas in which the law departs from logic and good sense. Even if a precedent-setting decision favorable to Ryan were rendered, it is hard to imagine many FBI agents raising similar issues. But in the unlikely event that agents did opt out of investigations for reasons of conscience, it would hardly be disastrous. Lost in the stack of documents that forms the narrow legal focus of Ryan’s insubordination is the precipitating factor that prompted it: a preposterous FBI investigation that was at least a subtle attempt at harassment and a colossal waste of resources.
In response to Easterbrook’s question, Greenberg not surprisingly took the position that there was no need for a systemic standard and pointed out that the FBI had made no attempt to accommodate Ryan. He concluded, “To do this to an agent who has been loyal, exemplary, commendatory for all this period of time–frankly, I think it’s outrageous.”
Back at the Catholic Worker house in Peoria, Jack Ryan goes about his work with the knowledge that any time he answers the phone it could be his attorney calling with the judges’ decision. Although the life-style he has chosen is ascetic, it affords Ryan the luxury of being able to muse about a variety of subjects. One that he enjoys discussing is the parallels between the two monolithic institutions that have been a major part of his life: the Catholic church and the FBI.
At the FBI, Ryan says, “You’re talking about an entirely male structure. You’ve got this pinnacle, and then you’ve got support people. The only way to get into the pinnacle is to become an agent. Lab people can develop skills and rise, but to get anywhere they have to become agents. To become an agent you have to have this special ordination.
“[FBI] work is investigation. Clearly, a woman can do that as well as a man. So they redefine the work, emphasizing shoot-outs and that sort of thing, which has very little to do with the job. And we were supposed to be extraordinary men. If a woman could do it, that dilutes what it means to be a man. The church has done this too. It’s hooked on this celibacy thing, which means there’s always a necessity to prove one’s manhood. Because it’s always in question.”
Ryan discounts the notion that he is now doing penance for past sins, saying he has few regrets about the work he did for more than 21 years. “I saw a lot of changes for the good at the FBI,” he says, citing efforts to combat organized crime and undercover investigations of government corruption. But he also suspects that computer technology has enabled the FBI to conduct more sophisticated forms of domestic spying, relying on “inner circles” of carefully screened agents to carry out specific assignments, much as Oliver North did at the National Security Council.
Ryan says he is well aware that his current work has a high burnout rate. “I’m struggling all the time with whether to persevere in what I think is the right course, which is what I think I’m on. I ask myself what I’m doing–not very much. The easy decision would be to leave here and simply get a job.” If he were to “fade off and live the good life,” Ryan says he would probably move out east and go to work as a deck hand on a boat.
Ryan smiles as he muses over the notion that more than 30 years after leaving the seminary he has finally entered a priesthood of his own design.
“Yes,” he says, “I’ve definitely come full circle.” Then he excuses himself. He has to make dinner for 25.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.