CORTE MADERA, Calif. - The boxes of confidential FBI documents lie scattered about author Gerald Nicosia's kitchen like so many unopened prizes. Twelve feet high when stacked, they are a monument, he says, to democracy gone wrong. They are also his cross to bear.
For weeks now, the documents have created havoc in the historian's staid suburban life. Instead of shepherding the kids between school and baseball games while he works on his newest project - a book about racism and the death penalty - Nicosia has been pulled into the mystery surrounding the U.S. government's spying on its citizens more than a generation ago.
Twenty thousand pages in all, detailing FBI surveillance of Vietnam War protesters in the 1970s, the files were obtained by Nicosia in 1998 after an 11-year battle with the agency over their release. Nicosia had sought the documents during the research for his 2002 book, Home to War, a chronicle of the anti-war movement, including the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War. But the FBI released the files too late for Nicosia's use in his book.
So the 54-year-old historian, poet and fiction writer stored them away in his garage, largely unopened, and moved on to other projects.
Until recently that is, when Sen. John Kerry, a former VVAW leader whose name appears frequently in the files, emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.
Nicosia suddenly realized that he was sitting on a historical treasure trove that told the story of how a presidential candidate became the subject of a government monitoring campaign as a young protester. Long before he became a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, Kerry was considered a possible threat to national security by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI for his outspoken protests against the war.
Not only did Nicosia possess evidence of a time warp of sorts - a snapshot of an early chapter in the life of an emerging politician - but the documents also offered hints about a nation under siege both abroad and at home. They were files that Kerry himself had never seen.
While he had barely perused the papers, Nicosia recently allowed a Los Angeles Times reporter to review a portion of them for an article on Kerry's past. That's when Nicosia's life went haywire.
Television camera crews materialized, clogging up his quiet dead-end street. His phone rang constantly with interview requests from newspapers and TV and radio talk shows. He got crank phone calls and mysterious hang-ups.
Then came an even stranger turn: Nicosia discovered last week that three of the boxes were missing. He had returned home to find several inside doors ajar and other valuables, including a camera, left untouched. He reported the burglary to police, who say they are investigating the case as a break-in.
Now neither Nicosia nor his family sleeps well at night. He suspects the intruders wanted more than the three file boxes but were interrupted, perhaps scared off by a neighbor's barking dog.
And he worries the burglars might come back.
A Christian pacifist
Though he never fought in Vietnam, Nicosia has nonetheless been reliving the war for more than three decades. Back then, the Berwyn, Ill., native considered himself a Christian pacifist prepared to flee to Canada rather than face the draft.
But he recalls that his convictions made him feel like an outcast. Then in April 1971, he saw a speech delivered before Congress by a young Kerry, a decorated war hero who returned to protest what he called an unjust war. For Nicosia, the speech was a validation: "I said, `My God, these are supposedly the good guys, the ones who went to battle, and they're saying the war is wrong.'"
But the ghosts of the war he never fought continued to pursue him. While Nicosia taught a writing course at the University of Illinois in the early 1970s, a student wrote an essay about the haunting memory of killing a Viet Cong soldier at point-blank range. "It was a piece you couldn't begin to grade - the guy had bared his soul," Nicosia recalled. "He later told me, `Mr. Nicosia, you're the first person who's ever been willing to listen to this story.'"
Nicosia met other Vietnam veterans during that period. Many encouraged Nicosia to write a book on their battles.
From its very start in 1988, the book project met resistance. Nicosia went through four publishers and a host of editors who either didn't understand the book or were replaced in mid-draft. One told Nicosia the project was too critical of the government and ordered him to change the tone or lose the book contract. Nicosia chose the latter.
`Getting the runaround'
At the same time, he was fighting the FBI over the release of agency documents. After Nicosia filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the files, the FBI came back with excuse after excuse: There were too many files to copy; many were lost or not properly categorized; they didn't have the manpower to fill his request.