18 June 2021
Category Opinion
18 June 2021,

Left: cover page of an FBI report by special agent Paul J Burke on Arthur Brandon Howell, January 17, 1945, describing him as a communist sympathiser who draws cartoons for a trade union newspaper and signs them ‘Pepe’.

Centre: ‘If we all push together, we’ll get out of the mud’ – cartoon on workers unity for Brazos, February 1947.

Right: FBI message sent from New York to Washington and San Juan, reporting that Arthur Brandon Howell had been questioned and searched on arrival back in the United States on March 24 1949, as requested in a ‘look-out’ notice.


In the first part of this four-part series, I told the story of how – as an 18-year-old arriving in the US to start my gap year in 1972 – I was stopped by the FBI and taken to a room to be searched and questioned about my plans. Among other things, I innocently told them that I would be staying with my American father’s oldest friend, Syd Williams, without knowing at the time that he had been – as I describe in part 2 – a high-profile victim of the witch-hunt and was viewed by the FBI as ‘a threat to national security’.

I had no idea back then what had actually triggered the FBI’s interrogation. It was not until my father, Brandon Howell, was terminally ill in 1987 that I discovered the extent of his political activities in Puerto Rico in the 1940s and gained an inkling of the FBI’s interest in him. Even then, however, I did not think he had been sufficiently high profile to warrant being put under surveillance for more than 30 years, most of it after he had decided to exile himself in Britain for fear of being blacklisted in the United States. Here’s the story.


In 2015, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the FBI for files on my father and braced myself for what Seth Rosenfeld, the journalist and author of Subversives, had warned me would be a tortuous process.

The initial response arrived encouragingly quickly saying “records potentially responsive to the FOIA” had been sent to the National Archive and Records (NARA). However, when NARA told me the 320-page file covered the period from 1944 to 1965, I began to wonder if it was complete. I was fairly confident the FBI had started tracking him earlier, and my mother recollected the FBI questioning him in 1970 when the family went to the US for a holiday linked to him taking up a visiting professorship at Berkeley.

I decided to appeal to the Department of Justice, arguing that the FBI had not conducted a full search. A year and several more letters later, my appeal was upheld. Instructed to check its records again, the FBI then came up with a list of a further 13 “potentially responsive” files. By this stage, my case had been referred to the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), which acts as a mediator “to resolve disputes between FOIA requesters and Federal Agencies”.[1]

During the following three years, I got onto first name terms with OGIS and NARA staff who were, to be fair, good humoured in handling my persistent calls and e mails. Files were gradually tracked down, checked by NARA and released to me with informer names and other, purportedly-sensitive content redacted. In the end, eight files or extracts from other people’s files – a total of 453 pages of material – were handed over.

However, during this period, OGIS informed me of something the FBI must have known all along: the San Francisco field office file on my father had been destroyed in 1978. In an email, OGIS said that field office ‘Class 100’ (domestic security) files had originally been deemed temporary and “disposal would have been appropriate and legal at the time”.

Deeming files as temporary had allowed the FBI to shred hundreds of thousands of pages of surveillance information to hide its privacy violations. The cover-up was halted in 1980 after a case brought by the American Friends Service Committee and others, including Daniel Ellsberg, the former CIA researcher who leaked the Pentagon Papers. But that was too late to save the file on my father compiled by the field office nearest to his family home in Berkeley.

I will never know how many pages were destroyed or what they contained. OGIS implied that it would not make much difference because “it was the general practice for field offices to send either copies or summaries of their investigative files to headquarters”. The material I have received is patchy, but the surviving files do cover fairly fully the seven years he lived in Puerto Rico.

My father had been working for an architect in Santiago, Chile for about 18 months when a cable arrived from Rexford Tugwell, the first civilian governor of Puerto Rico, offering him a job with the Planning Board he was in the process of forming. Still only 23, he leapt at the chance to work for one of the architects of the New Deal and by Christmas 1941 was settled in San Juan with his first wife Bea.

His own notes from the period say that he had already begun to take an interest in Marxism, but it was not until midway through 1942 that Jane Speed, an American who ran a left-wing bookstore in San Juan, persuaded him to join the Puerto Rican Communist Party. Speed was the partner of fellow communist Cesar Andreu Iglesias[2], a charismatic advocate of independence, and the three of them soon became a formidable force in the island’s politics.

But the FBI field office in San Juan had so many informers on its payroll it wasn’t long before my father was on their radar. What seems to have bothered them most were cartoons appearing in union and left newspapers under the names Pepe and Diego Munoz. One of their spies had told them that Pepe was my father, and the FBI wanted to establish if cartoons signed Diego Munoz were also by him and, if so, whether the Diego Munoz named as a Puerto Rican Communist Party member on illegally-obtained record cards was him too.

In January 1945, special agent Paul J Burke of the FBI’s San Juan office submitted what would prove to be the first of many reports on my father to FBI Director J Edgar Hoover.[3] After outlining “subversive activities” ranging from visiting Speed’s bookstore to “spreading oral propaganda among friends and acquaintances”, it said the cartoons and samples of my father’s hand-writing, gathered from mail intercepts and official documents, had been sent to the FBI laboratory in Washington for examination.

Three months later, the hand-writing experts were still baffled: they could not reach a definite conclusion because the samples did not have enough “comparable combinations”. But Washington was determined to solve the mystery and told San Juan to organise “trash coverage” at my father’s apartment to find more specimens of his handwriting.

The FBI’s eagerness to nail my father as the author of the cartoons was, no doubt, mainly because of their hard-hitting socialist themes. There may, however, have been another factor in play: the Tugwell connection. My father’s boss was close to Henry Wallace, who had been Roosevelt’s vice president from 1940 to 1944 but was ousted as too left-wing by the Democrats and replaced by Harry Truman.

Both Wallace and Tugwell were also on Hoover’s hit list. An FOIA request in the 1980s, after Wallace’s death, led to the disclosure of files showing the FBI had started opening his mail, tapping his phone and following him while he was still vice president. In 2003, the FBI released files on Puerto Rico revealing that Tugwell was a target too.

In 1945, at the time of the cartoon investigation, Wallace was still in Roosevelt’s cabinet as commerce secretary. My father, as a member of Tugwell’s staff, was technically an employee of Roosevelt’s Executive Office. Three years later, Wallace stood against Truman for the presidency with Tugwell – by then lecturing at the University of Chicago – as his campaign co-chairman and my father as secretary of the Puerto Rican campaign committee.

Tugwell and Wallace were, in the words of blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, people who “have not felt obliged to repudiate those principles which animated their services to the Roosevelt administration”.[4] If the FBI could nail my father as a communist, they would be able to taint them with guilt by association. As it turned out, my father and Bea left Puerto Rico two months before the 1948 presidential election to study at the London School of Economics, triggering a letter from Hoover to the CIA alerting them to his movements.

My father’s spell at LSE, where he became president of the socialist society and friendly with the left-wing academic Harold Laski[5], lasted only two terms. Having met my mother, Cynthia, he initiated what would be an acrimonious split that meant he and Bea had to return to the US – travelling separately – to obtain a divorce. Arriving in New York on the Marine Marlin on March 24, 1949, my father was stopped, searched and questioned by the FBI. The file says he told them about the divorce and that Bea had gone to her home city of Seattle.

My father then travelled by train to San Francisco where he found temporary work with the city’s redevelopment agency with the intention of earning enough money to bring my mother to the United States. But doubts start to creep in. In one letter to my mother, he describes how paranoid Americans had become about “spies under every bed” and worries that he’d lose his job if his boss knew his views. In another, he talks about Charlie Chaplin, Katherine Hepburn and others being blacklisted and despairs about “what this country is coming to”.

By August, he was actively looking for an escape route. Referring to a possible job, he writes: “I’m quite hopeful that Liverpool will come through and that I’ll be back before Christmas”.

That was indeed how it worked out but, as was the case with Syd Williams, leaving California did not mean that the FBI’s interest in him would diminish. What my father almost certainly did not know but the files reveal is that the following year Bea testified against him and that this prompted another letter to the CIA informing them that he had returned to England.

The final sentence of that letter is redacted in the version released to me. Even after all these years, the FBI won’t divulge what it asked the CIA to do. What we do know, however, is that it had dire consequences for the career of Gordon Stephenson, the professor who had given my father a job at Liverpool University.


Steve Howell


Part 4 to follow – How a Liverpool professor became collateral damage in the FBI’s witch-hunt.


Steve is author of Game Changer, an insider’s account of Labour’s dramatic 2017 election campaign, and two novels – the latest of which is Collateral Damage, the story of a Palestinian woman’s search for the truth about the death of a fellow activist. Follow Steve on Twitter to keep in touch: @fromstevehowell 

Order a paperback copy of Collateral Damage for the special price of £8.00 including UK post and packing. ORDER HERE

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[1] See www.archives.gov/ogis

[2] Cesar Andreu Iglesias (1915 – 1976) was a journalist, novelist and independence leader. In 1959, he co-founded the Spanish-language weekly newspaper, Claridad, which was closely associated with the Puerto Rican Socialist Party and independence movement. That year, HUAC held hearings in San Juan and Iglesias was among 13 people subpoenaed to appear. Claridad is still being published in print and online, making it the longest-running Puerto Rican paper. Iglesias has been honoured in Philadelphia where a community garden is named after him and “serves as a legacy to a great Boricua author and revolutionary”.

[3] A list in one of the files itemises 15 reports produced specifically on my father between January 15, 1945 and August 21, 1950 by 10 different special agents across four field offices.

[4] Dalton Trumbo, Time of the Toad, Echo Point Books, 2017, p59 (first published in 1949).

[5] Laski (1893-1950) was professor of political science at LSE from 1926 and co-founder in 1936 of the Left Book Club. A Labour activist, he was party chairman in 1945-46 but differed with Clement Attlee on foreign policy.