Robert Ellis Smith, 1940-2018

Robert Ellis Smith
Robert Ellis Smith

Robert Ellis Smith, who died unexpectedly July 25, was an independent journalist whose influence on our understanding of privacy – indeed, on the definition of the term – cannot be overstated. We didn’t know each other well, but I would see him perform in plays – I reviewed him in The Man From Earth – and we would chat when running into each other in Wayland Square coffee shops and that sort of thing. Just as I knew him as a privacy expert who dabbled in theater, he seemed to know me as an internet expert who dabbled in theater criticism.

A few months ago, Smith self-published a short 86-page book, Faces I Have Known: Encounters with Famous Persons, that collected disconnected vignettes but with a theme of assessing personal character from limited observation. For example, he always remembered that the motorcade of Adlai Stevenson, running for president, drove past the then-12-year-old Smith standing and watching all alone on a bridge, and that Stevenson made the effort to wave to him particularly; Stevenson didn’t have to do that but the fact that he did, Smith suggests, reveals something about him as a person. Sitting in the “green room” waiting to be interviewed for a taped segment on “Good Morning America,” Smith relates how he was in a hurry because he had to testify before a Congressional committee, and the other guest politely offered to let him go ahead of him; it was Charlton Heston, there to promote his movie.

As a reporter, Smith was assigned to spend a full day on the campaign trail with Robert F. Kennedy who was considering an early intra-party challenge, even before Eugene McCarthy demonstrated the political vulnerability of incumbent Lyndon Johnson and forced him to withdraw. Bobby Kennedy by no means shared the political temperament of his brothers, Smith learned. “It was obvious, between stops, that Kennedy would have rather been somewhere else. I had been wondering all day whether there was any fun in appearing before ecstatic crowds like this. And so I asked him. We were alone in the rear seats on the 20-minute flight to Islip. The sky over us was now beginning to darken. I had learned that Kennedy often allowed endless moments go by before responding to a question. He simply stared, then looked away, out of the window. I simply waited. After what seemed like 90 seconds or so, I thought that he had dismissed my question and was not going to answer. ‘I don’t know,’ he said finally. ‘I suppose I’m like anyone else. I’d rather be home with my family. How about you?’”


Like many natives of Providence, Smith was friendly with its legendary and longest-serving mayor, Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci, Jr., but after Cianci was twice removed from office in consequence of criminal convictions, Smith made an effort to avoid him. When a chance meeting occurred outside City Hall, Cianci asked him for a favor: figuring out how to set up a criminal-defense fund. Smith writes, “He had me. I knew immediately whom to call. I reached the lawyer for Bill Clinton. I told him only that I represented a New England politician who needed to set up a defense fund legally. His response: ‘We have been wondering when someone would be calling us about Cianci.’”

Some of the vignettes have a far more serious, even sinister, tone. Bill Moyers, who had served as press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson, was afterward publisher of Newsday where he hired Smith as his protégé. Smith relates a series of hush-hush discussions among senior administration officials who had come to the conclusion that Johnson was mentally ill. Smith writes that Moyers told him he “and Richard Goodwin, also an assistant to Johnson in 1964 and 1965 (and to Kennedy before the assassination) called Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara together to discuss their fears. They decided to draft a memo attesting to Johnson’s severe paranoia and to lock it in a safe deposit box. Why? To be able to say later, ‘We told you so?’ I don’t know what other purpose their action would have had. I never asked Moyers.”

Smith had an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time. One of his classmates at Harvard was Ted Kaczynski, later to become the UNABOMber. “He had in fact been coerced into participating in drug experimentation by a Harvard psychologist… He was the only super famous member of my college class. Most Harvard classes have a half dozen or more. All of them with positive reputations,” Smith writes.

As a staff writer for The Harvard Crimson, he happened to be seated next to Prof. Henry Kissinger the night the disastrous American invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs became known. “‘Well, were you involved in this decision to invade?’ I asked. As soon as the words had left my mouth, I had a dread that I had asked the wrong question. I didn’t have to wait for the look of disdain on the professor’s face. ‘Do you think I would be involved in this debacle? They never listen to me. They go ahead with an ill-planned scheme and, as we are seeing tonight, it looks bad,’ he said in his grave, accented tones.” Smith, journalistic instincts intact, realized that Kissinger had not denied involvement, and in fact had not even answered his question.

Ten weeks after Fidel Castro successfully took over Cuba in 1959, he toured the Eastern United States looking for support. Because Castro visited Harvard on a Saturday before exams, The Crimson had difficulty finding someone to interview him, and Smith volunteered. About 10,000 attended Castro’s public speech, and the press went with the motorcade to Boston’s Parker House hotel. The professional press left around 11pm, but Smith and six or seven other student journalists decided to hang around because he thought “something might happen.” Sure enough, Castro came down to speak with them, still wearing army fatigues. “Castro appeared wounded actually that the Department of State had rejected him. ‘I love America,’ he said in acceptable English phrasings. ‘This is not my first time here. We love your cars in Cuba. I love baseball.’ Years before, he had spent a three-month honeymoon in New York City, sponsored by his affluent in-laws. ‘No, now I have to go to Moscow to see what the Soviet Union can do,’ Castro continued in the hotel lobby. ‘My people are not thriving. We need assistance right away. I have very little in common with Eastern Europe. I am driven to seek help there because America has said that it will not help.’” Smith was hardly alone in concluding that the United States decision to rebuff overtures from Castro proved to be a costly mistake. “As with other leaders I have encountered over the years, I did not ignore the treacheries of the Castro years in Cuba, but I felt that the man had attempted to be friendly with the United States from the beginning and had been spurned. American government operatives had sought to kill him… My experience when Castro visited the Boston area exemplifies how my generation views its own government. We who came of age in the Fifties and Sixties seem not to bear the same animus for Castro that both the generation before us and the generations after us did. Up close I saw the beginnings of Castro’s alienation from the United States, just as my contemporaries in the late Fifties saw it from afar. We all sensed that Castro did not begin as a tyrant and that our own nation inhibited Cuba’s prosperity during his reign.”

The small book evokes the experience of sitting and talking with Smith, a natural raconteur. As editor of The Harvard Crimson, his staff included Michael Crichton, Andrew Weil, and Anthony Hiss. The latter, son of Alger Hiss, became a writer for The New Yorker whose May 30, 1977, profile of Smith first brought him to widespread notice as an authority on privacy. That article is summarized in the magazine’s index: “Talk story about ‘Privacy Journal’, an 8-page newsletter published in Washington, by Robert Smith. It has a circulation of 1500 – editorial writers, federal officials on the Assistant Secretary level who are responsible for some of the government’s computer systems, editors of the computer-industry trade press[,] speech writers for govt. men and business leaders, civil-liberties lawyers, and, in Smith’s phrase, ‘the hard-core privacy community.’ The ‘Journal’ carries no ads and supports itself entirely on subscriptions – $15 a year for private citizens, $45 for officials & institutions.”

I first met Smith at an ACLU dinner where he was the keynote speaker and I was a young college undergraduate. He had fairly recently begun publishing Privacy Journal, a one-man newsletter devoted to a subject that, in the 1970s, was something of a journalistic backwater. In those days, “privacy” to most people meant worrying about multiplying uses for Social Security numbers and shoddy practices on credit reports. Smith repeatedly cited the story of a Midwesterner who was turned down for loans because a neighbor told a credit investigator that he had “hippie tendencies,” meaning that he drove a Volkswagen bus; the Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1970 outlawed such practices by lenders.

Smith was among the first to frame the main threat to privacy as the increasing interconnection of databases. In an appearance on the “Dick Cavett Show” in the late 1970s, Smith memorably sketched a chart of interconnected boxes representing the widely disparate collectors of information, both directly and indirectly, and the invasive potential from aggregating these pieces to assemble a jigsaw puzzle. Smith reused that chart, refined and redrawn, for the next several decades.

The tiny journalistic enterprise has a long tradition and is the ancestor of the alternative press, of which Motif is an example. Smith’s Privacy Journal was often compared to the far more well-known I.F. Stone’s Weekly that broke major stories, such as that the Tonkin Gulf incident that started the Vietnam War may never have actually happened. In Fact, published by George Seldes, during the 1940s broke numerous major stories, notably that medical studies proving cigarette smoking was deadly had been suppressed since the 1930s with the connivance of the mainstream press because of their dependence upon revenue from cigarette advertising.

Smith, in Faces, modestly credits others with conceiving of the loss of privacy as being ensnared in a web of connections, quoting Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1960s novel Cancer Ward in which the Soviet Union riddled with gulags and corruption is analogized to a patient dying from tumors: “As every man goes through life he fills in a number of forms for the record, each containing a number of questions. There are thus hundreds of little threads radiating from each man, millions of threads in all. If these threads were suddenly to become visible, the whole sky would look like a spider’s web. They are not visible, but every man is constantly aware of their existence. Each man naturally develops a respect for the people who manipulate the threads.”