The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ernie Lazar, who quietly amassed huge FBI archive, dies at 77

A rare portrait of researcher Ernie Lazar from a California State College at Hayward yearbook, 1968. The researcher was reclusive and rarely photographed. (Cal State East Bay University Archives)
7 min

His first request for U.S. government records was drafted on a portable typewriter in the 1970s. Then over more than four decades — and 9,000-plus letters — the archive built by a reclusive former California civil servant, 1970s disco maven and tireless document sleuth named Ernie Lazar grew to over 600,000 pages from the FBI and other agencies.

The world of Mr. Lazar’s trove is full of suspicions, double-dealings and opportunists. There are references to informants and surveillance, groups on watch lists and Americans viewed as “un-American,” far-right propagandists and suspected leftist “rabble rousers” in an FBI dossier.

Bit by bit, Mr. Lazar also helped shed light on some fundamental questions — essentially who was doing what to whom — including much of the decades of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI spanning the 1950s Cold War paranoia, the civil rights showdowns and the rise of nativist groups such as the John Birch Society.

Mr. Lazar, who died Nov. 1 at his home in Palm Springs, Calif., at 77, was not booked on shows as a historical pundit. He did not write his own manuscripts or articles. His name, if noticed at all, was tucked into acknowledgments in books such as Christopher Elias’s “Gossip Men” (2021) on the “Red Scare” era and Thomas Konda’s “Conspiracies of Conspiracies: How Delusions Have Overrun America” (2019).

But to a generation of authors, researchers, academics and others, Mr. Lazar was a figure of heroic proportions. Through sheer perseverance and patience, Mr. Lazar became a kind of Zen master of the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, a provision enacted in 1967 that allowed the public a centralized way to request unclassified government material.

Mr. Lazar estimated that more than 3 million people had accessed his digital archive, helping inform hundreds of works from books to doctoral theses.

He also kept journalists, scholars and others abreast of his FOIA requests and acquisitions on his simple and old-school webpages and an email distribution list, still using his AOL account from the 1990s. He occasionally wrote letters to the editor asking readers for possible leads on research, giving only a post office box address.

In recent years, he rarely ventured out into public forums, fearing he could be targeted by far-right thugs upset by his work.

“He was not at all known to the broader world,” said Kel McClanahan, executive director of National Security Counselors, a group pressing for greater public openness by officials on military and intelligence decisions. “Within his world, though, he was a giant.”

McClanahan said he liked to imagine “there’s a dart board in government offices” with images of Mr. Lazar and other FOIA aficionados he inspired, such as animal rights activist and FBI researcher Ryan Shapiro.

“[Mr. Lazar] made enemies of everyone in power who is opposed to more transparency,” McClanahan said. “That should be on his tombstone.”

In an autobiographical sketch, Mr. Lazar said his interests in original source material began as a teenager in Hayward, Calif., after reading a comment by Hoover in a monthly FBI publication that went to his uncle, a policeman. The FBI director was quoted as rejecting a conspiracy theory by the John Birch Society, a right-wing and pro-White political group, about a supposed communist and Black alliance in the South.

The John Birch-stoked claim had been published in the local newspaper in a letter to the editor. The young Mr. Lazar wrote his own letter to the paper citing Hoover and other sources rebutting the Birchers.

After Mr. Lazar’s letter was published, he said he received hostile phone calls. A John Birch supporter wrote a screed against Mr. Lazar in verse: “Is it just coincidence that Ernie’s words so arty/sound just like the Communist Party?”

“And thus began my lifelong interest in right-wing conspiracy theories and their adherents,” he wrote.

A large portion of Mr. Lazar’s archive delves into the far right, including compiling lists of arrests and prosecutions of Proud Boys followers and other supporters of President Donald Trump who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Mr. Lazar’s documents were cited by an emeritus professor of history at the City University of New York, Ronald Radosh, for a 2020 story in the Daily Beast linking anti-feminist firebrand Phyllis Schlafly to the John Birch Society. Schlafly, who died in 2016, had denied she was a member.

In a 2009 segment of the “Rachel Maddow Show” on the John Birch Society connections to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Maddow cited a “freelance researcher named Ernie Lazar” for digging up the minutes from the first John Birch Society meeting in 1960.

“He’s put together a pretty amazing archive of the group’s history,” she said.

Mr. Lazar released a raft of documents on the FBI’s tracking of one of its own former special agents, Willard Cleon Skousen, a far-right Mormon leader and conspiracy monger.

Mr. Lazar dug into the Hoover FBI’s obsessions with the left, too. Among the revelations was a 1967 document noting the creation of a “rabble rouser index” (later changed to an “agitator index”) that including Yippies founder Jerry Rubin and Harlem-area Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D).

Mr. Lazar built a full dossier on FBI reports and surveillance of Whittaker Chambers, a disaffected communist whose testimony helped convict U.S. official Alger Hiss of perjury after he denied being a Soviet spy in the 1930s. The documents include agents describing what Chambers bought at newsstands — as it turned out, he was mostly getting copies of Time magazine, where he worked as a correspondent.

Disco years

Mr. Lazar was born Ernest Clayton Jammes on April 16, 1945, in Minneapolis. He said his biological mother gave him for adoption in Chicago when he was 3 to the Lazar family, whose daughter had been his babysitter.

Mr. Lazar studied at the California State College at Hayward (now California State University at East Bay) and received top grades but did not graduate.

During the 1970s, he drifted into the music business — as a record promoter and owner of a San Francisco store specializing in disco. He told an interviewer in 1979 that dance clubs were a “relief from the repression of the world outside.”

That same year, he scored his biggest music business success by helping promote Patrick Hernandez’s “Born to Be Alive,” which reached No. 1 on the Billboard disco chart. As disco faded, Mr. Lazar made a change onto the public payroll in California with jobs over 22 years that included those with the Board of Registered Nursing and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Mr. Lazar posted no photos of himself on the internet beyond thumbnail-size images that mostly hid his identity. Still, he was not shy about being in the public debate with letters to the editor.

In 1986, he railed against California’s new seat belt law. He later floated the concept of “exile” for habitual criminals and favored “three-strikes” laws for harsh sentences. In a 1995 letter to the Los Angeles Times, he complained about bloated budgets and bureaucracy at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

He apparently had no immediate family, and full details about survivors were not immediately available. His death was confirmed by the Coroner’s Bureau of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.

In September, Mr. Lazar posted an 11-point message that began with him saying he was facing “end-stage renal disease.” He then went through a random run of thoughts.

He mentioned a bit about his childhood, appealed for donations to help digitize some of his archives, and made a reference to the gold record he received helping with the disco hit.

He urged everyone to vote in the midterms: “The stakes for our democracy are very high.”

Point 11 ends, “Most of all, please keep up the fight to make our country live up to its ideals!”