What is noteworthy about the released pages is how Rotolo was caught up in the larger machinations of the FBI, which had been aggressively pursuing Communists in the 1950s and was transitioning to target the New Left in the 1960s. Rotolo’s main reason for sustaining a file was her travel to Cuba. A good amount of the dossier is spent on her trip with the Student Committee for Travel to Cuba in 1964, in defiance of the government’s ban on travel to that country — a matter still with us 55 years later. Not only was Rotolo a passionate spokesperson during the trip, her sin was compounded by the fact that the Maoist-inclined Progressive Labor Party was involved in organizing the visit — thus garnering Rotolo the FBI-subject moniker SM-PL (Security Matter-Progressive Labor). All of this was enough for the Bureau to add her to its Security Index — a list of people marked for detention in the event of a “national emergency.” Rotolo would stay on that list until January 1971, after she had been living in Italy for several years. The FBI removed her “in view of subject’s lack of activity in this country since 1965.”
Perhaps the most significant thing about Rotolo’s file is the mere fact of its existence, and its suggestion of a larger file on Dylan himself: It speaks to the wide span of an agency supposedly focused on a mission to “protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States.” Yet the FBI’s close tracking of Rotolo is consistent with its role throughout the last half of the 20th century, investigating artists ranging from Woody Guthrie, to Leonard Bernstein, to John Lennon. One can only wonder at the full extent of the targeting of other artists beyond what has been pried loose, by an agency and government ever-reticent to give up its secrets. All of this surveillance stands in stark contrast to the U.S.’s fairy-tale proclamations of political and personal freedom — the freedoms that the Bureau’s anti-Communist work was supposedly protecting.
It can be argued that the surveillance of Rotolo and Dylan is merely detritus of the bad old days, and things are different now. But are they? While it would be simple to reduce today’s FBI to that of its past — the protocols and rules it is legally required to follow are today more demanding, the terrain, particularly with the ascent of white nationalist forces, arguably more complex — it would be wrong to lose sight of what the FBI is. It is singular in its role as a national intelligence agency — a domestic political police force, if you will — at the ready to confront threats defined by the ruling authorities.
Trump and Cruz’s statements regarding antifa with the consequences of the FBI ratcheting up its measures against that broadly defined entity, along with its other skewed priorities, is exemplary of that. In that respect, Rotolo’s file is a testament to how such repressive power has been used in the past, and underscores the need for vigilance against its abuse in the future.
Aaron J. Leonard