John (Jack) C. Ryan (born 19 June 1938)
In March of 2003, a few days before the US launched the Iraq War, I joined a group of about 8 people standing in the rain at the corner of the Federal Courthouse in Peoria, Illinois. Jack Ryan spoke. It was the first time I met him but did not know him or his story. Subsequent to my transformation in 2011 we have met many times, he a native of Peoria, Illinois and I living there between 1980 and 2012, he a long time member of Veterans for Peace and me joining in 2012.
Jack is a former police officer and was an FBI agent between 1966 and 1987. He told me that he was right to voice his dissent but it cost him not just his pension but he was on a likely path to a higher paying job in Caterpillar after retiring from the FBI. In my last few weeks at Caterpillar I participated in a high level meeting on securing intellectual assets from China and the man siting next to me was from the FBI and had just joined Caterpillar.
On December 4, 1986, Jack sent a memo to his superiors stating that the acts performed by the Plowshares group and Veterans Fast for Life (see S. Brian Wilson) were “totally nonviolent”, that none of the actions under investigation “fit within the Domestic Security Guidelines.” and he was “not willing to conduct this lead or be involved in this case.” The FBI fired him in September 1987, ten months short of retirement. He took the FBI to court, going all the way to the Supreme Court which refused to overturn the lower court decision affirming his dismissal for disobeying a lawful order.
The following excerpts from “Blood on the Tracks” by S. Brian Wilson describe the context of Jack Ryan’s refusal to investigate them.
Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson
2011 by S. Brian Willson
Many people, of course, didn’t support the fast on philosophical or strategic grounds, including those who were vigorously opposed to Reagan’s policies. The extraordinary nonviolent activist Phil Berrigan, for example, thought the action too death-oriented, too violent. Charlie Clements, who at the time was directing an effort to elect new U.S. senators who would oppose Reagan’s terrorist policies, thought we should work on changing the election system. Allies within the Unitarian Church also believed we should work to effect change within the system.
But we were past that. We believed that the system was the problem and therefore could not be the solution. Just as I had left my Republican upbringing for political liberalism in the late 1960s, now I was leaving liberalism behind. I was becoming what some termed a radical. But being called a radical didn’t feel quite right. I was simply expressing a basic truth about protecting international law and people’s human rights, following my own conscience. I was simply becoming more human.
Signs of Change
A few days before the fast was to begin, a number of people were already protesting on the Capitol steps. Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary joined our assembly to play music in solidarity. After about two weeks of sitting on the front steps of the U.S. Capitol building, we started seeing some interest from the oligarchs who sometimes worked inside the building. On September 15, Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Charles Mathias (R-MD), in separate press releases, brought attention to our “plea for peace” while urging the Reagan administration to “heed the pleas of these veterans.” On September 23, Rep. Robert J. Mrazek (D-NY) in a speech on the House floor lauded the fast, and paid a special tribute to Charlie Liteky’s strength of character for revealing the same courage in confronting U.S. apathy that he had showed in saving lives in Viet Nam. On the twenty-fourth day of the fast, my U.S. senator from Vermont, Patrick Leahy, inserted into the Congressional Record a statement in support of the fast with a news article attached to it.
Not wanting to depend very much on the U.S. oligarchic political process, we traveled to New York on the weekend of September 20 to personally meet in private with the Mexican ambassador to the United Nations. Mexico was a leader in the Central American Contadora peace process, through which several nations were attempting to negotiate a cessation of U.S. aid to the Contras. He was pleasantly surprised because he said the members of his group had been waiting for signs that the U.S. people were prepared to more vigorously oppose the lawless policy.
Senator John Kerry (D-MA) made a strong statement on the Senate floor on September 25 about the fasters, asking other senators “to take note of the depth of their commitment and the concern which they express regarding our policy.” On the same day, Mary McGrory wrote a column in the Washington Post, “Starving for Peace.” On September 29, my Republican congressman from Vermont, James Jeffords, spent forty-five minutes talking to me on the steps about his determined opposition to Contra aid. Senator John Kerry visited with us on the steps several times throughout the fast.
On October 7, the thirty-seventh day of the fast, thirteen U.S. senators and seventy-five members of the House of Representatives issued a joint public statement saying they were “moved” by our “courage and sincerity” while reiterating their strong opposition to Contra aid. John Kerry urged us to end our “hunger strike” before we died. A number of senators and representatives had joined us on the steps on October 3 for a conversation, including Senators Kerry, Don Riegle of Michigan, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York. Soon after, we were visited by experienced faster Dick Gregory, Martin Luther King III, and Bishop Walter Francis Sullivan from Roanoke, Virginia.
Just two days before, on the thirty-fifth day of the fast, a politically explosive event had occurred when a plane dropping illegal arms to the Contras in southern Nicaragua was shot down. One crew member succeeded in parachuting to safety—Eugene Hasenfus, an arms kicker who had formerly done the same job for the CIA in Laos during the Viet Nam War. The CIA and Reagan of course denied any connection to Hasenfus, but the downing of the aircraft and Hasenfus’s confession exposed what would become known as the Iran-Contra scandal. Eventually, it would be revealed that the United States had engaged in a doubly illegal covert action—illegally trading arms to Iran for U.S. hostages in Lebanon while using the cash gained from Iran to provide weapons to the Contras in Nicaragua in violation of congressional prohibitions.
The Reagan administration and its allies went into high gear to try to distract the public. On the forty-first day of the fast, six days after the Hasenfus incident, Senator Warren Rudman (R-NH), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, made the shocking accusation that we fasting veterans were the equivalent to Middle Eastern terrorists. Very soon thereafter, a Plowshares group in Chicago chose to jam the locks on military recruiters’ offices with gum, and left leaflets saying the action was done in solidarity with our fast. In response, the Chicago office of the FBI issued a priority communiqué to all its offices to investigate both the Plowshares group and the Veterans Fast for Life as terrorist suspects! This was something we didn’t learn about for another year, when it made us wonder: was there a connection between Rudman’s statement, confidential Senate Intelligence Committee discussions, and the FBI’s rush to investigate us as domestic terrorist suspects?
The accusation issued by government officials toward us seemed not only ridiculous, but also very ominous. It demonstrated how frightened our supposedly democratic government is of free speech and of real resistance to its policies, even nonviolent resistance. The FBI was actually quite serious about the threat we posed. One agent from Peoria, Illinois, named Jack Ryan wrote a letter to his supervisors saying that because we were “totally nonviolent” he was “not willing to conduct this lead or be involved in this case.” He was fired. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which refused to overturn the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals decision affirming his dismissal for disobeying a lawful order of a paramilitary organization such as the FBI. Apparently, government workers aren’t allowed to tell the truth.
On October 31, 1986, the FBI officially declared members of the Veterans Fast for Life “domestic terrorist suspects.” That included, of course, Duncan and me. The October FBI memo from the Chicago office was sent to all FBI offices indicating that the Plowshares group and the Veterans Fast for Life group were both part of “an organized conspiracy to use force/violence to coerce the United States Government into modifying its direction” [emphasis added].
Jack Ryan, a veteran of more than twenty-one years of documented exemplary FBI service, wrote a response on December 4, 1986, to his superiors, refusing to take part in the investigation. Ryan, who subsequently has become a close friend, concluded that the acts performed by the Plowshares group and Veterans Fast for Life were “totally non-violent,” and that none of the actions under investigation “fit within the Domestic Security Guidelines.” Interestingly, Ryan, whose sincerity was never questioned by the FBI, was fired for writing that memo—as it turned out, while I was recovering in the hospital. He appealed his firing all the way up to the Supreme Court, where he lost. According to federal court records, “never in the history of the FBI had an agent flatly refused to carry out an investigation” of an “unsolved federal offense.” Ryan was the first, and hopefully not the last. The court ruled that “obedience is a high value” in a paramilitary organization such as the FBI.
Jack has said repeatedly that the origin of the FBI investigation into the two groups that included Duncan and I as members, was suspicious for two reasons: (1) the national investigation officially was triggered by acts of local, minor vandalism—apparently the “terrorist act” of gumming locks at Chicago military recruiting offices; (2) the locally initiated October 31, 1986 national FBI communication already possessed a code name, extraordinarily unusual, suggesting a preconceived “terrorist” investigation already in the works.