The BYU Spy Episode, 1966-68 – The Story continues

The BYU Spy Episode, 1966-68 – The Story continues

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The BYU Spy Episode, 1966-68


As we learned later from his March 1967 confession, Russell said he rushed from the hearing to Wilkinson’s office and was told by Wilkinson, “You know of course this is the first I have heard of this group.” Russell was referred back to Bentley who had recruited him to spy for Wilkinson. Wilkinson told Bentley that Russell would have to be the scapegoat. Bentley refused. Then they decided that Russell needed legal counsel. They arranged for ultraconservative Hans Verlan Andersen, BYU professor of accounting and a lawyer, to help Russell draft a response to the committee.

The committee did not like Russell’s written response as it did not answer Hankin’s allegations. Rather, it sought to discredit Hankin as unreliable and the document lectured the committee for not doing its job. The document said Hillam was on trial, not Russell. President Wilkinson was furious when his three vice-presidents told him they believed the Hankin story. He pressed them to focus on Hillam and to bring the hearings to closure.


With the hearings concluded, I tried to return to thinking about my year’s sabbatical to Vietnam. But there were some things yet to do. I felt I should meet with my colleagues who had been monitored and others who rallied to our support. Before leaving for Vietnam I wanted to bring them up to date on what had happened.

Five days after the Russell appearance, Ed Morrell and I invited Stewart Grow, Jesse Reeder, Melvin Mabey, Louis Midgley, Richard Wirthlin, Briant Jacobs, Russell Horiuchi, Larry Wimmer, and others to meet in 370 ELWC. Kenneth Davies was on leave. Larry, who had just returned after a year’s leave, was to play an important role. We chose to meet in the same room where the spy group had received their secret instructions. I knew where the spy group met as I had a copy of the reservation sheet signed by Russell.

We played a tape of Hankin’s detailed confession, which Louis and I taped the day following the Russell hearing. Then Ed and I began to give our account of the spying and the hearings. While I was speaking, Larry Wimmer rushed into the room to say that President Tanner was on the phone and that he wanted to speak with me. It added excitement to the situation. I went out in the hall and picked up the receiver. It was a strange conversation. I thought President Tanner was calling me, so I said, “Hello, President Tanner, did you want to see me?” It was a stupid question. His silence suggested that I was calling him, not he calling me. Recovering from my own silence, I told him I was having some problems at BYU and I asked him if I could visit with him before I left for Vietnam. He agreed to meet with me in his office the next day, September 21, 1966, at 4:00 PM.

I did not clear the appointment with Wilkinson’s office. It had been a long-standing policy, supported by President McKay, that faculty were not to make end runs to the Board or any of the General Authorities. I was making an end run. The policy also applied to the Board and General Authorities. This may explain why President Tanner was reluctant to take the initiative in our telephone conversation when he said “I understand you want to see me.” The next morning of the day I was to meet with President Tanner, I met with the committee to hear its report on Russell’s response. The committee was not pleased because Russell’s report drafted by his attorney, Verlan Andersen, was more an attack on President Sandgren and the committee than on me. At the end of the meeting, I told the committee that a “third party” had become involved. I told them that I had been invited to Salt Lake, which was not quite true. Their response was somber. It was as if they had expected this to happen. They later accused me, with some justification, of not being entirely truthful. I did not set up the meeting but I was responsible for authorizing Larry Wimmer to do so. Larry skillfully managed to get President Tanner and me on the telephone with each thinking the other had initiated the call. I don’t think he planned it that way. Nevertheless, I was embarrassed.

Larry Wimmer saw an appeal to the Board as necessary and desirable. He argued that I was not receiving a fair hearing and that Hankin could embarrass the university with his loose talk about spying. Hankin did just that six months later (see Hankin Goes Public). I did not see the visit as an appeal for intervention, but as informational. Some of us still thought things could be worked out in Provo. With hindsight, Wimmer was entirely correct on both counts. Hankin did embarrass the university and intervention from Salt Lake became a necessity.


In the afternoon, Ed Morrell, Richard Wirthlin, and I visited with President Tanner about the spying. It was 4:00 PM in the afternoon in President Tanner’s office. His desk was clear and he looked at us without expression. He seemed cold, stern, and judgmental. He cautioned us that he had only a few minutes. I was intimidated. How could I say what I wanted to say in a few minutes. Then I began to tell him about student spies reporting to President Wilkinson. President Tanner interrupted me and said, “President Wilkinson was around here a few moments ago. Shall we find him?” We did not think that was a good idea. I continued with my story. Then he interrupted again and said, “Just a moment.” He reached for the phone and dialed a number. He said, “Harold, will you join me for a few minutes?” Elder Lee entered the room and said he had only five minutes before another commitment. President Tanner had me start over. We caught their attention. We were there from 4:00 to 5:30 PM. They were both very interested in what we had to say. Elder Lee was with us every step and would, with a sigh, say, “One lie leads to another.”

You could tell that they both believed our story. Then they asked what we wanted them to do. We said, “Nothing, we just want you to know about what is going on.” Ed said, “We fear a coverup at Ray’s expense.” Richard said, “Ray is going to Vietnam for a year and we feel he should have some protection while he is gone.” He explained how Wilkinson tried to fire Dick Poll while he was on leave by holding up his contract. The same could happen to Ray. They seemed relieved that nothing immediate was expected of them. They were not eager to tangle with Wilkinson. Before we left, Elder Lee gave me a blessing. In the blessing he cautioned me not to worry about the political extremists and he spoke of the virtue of political moderation. He counseled me to stay close to the Lord and blessed me that I might return from Vietnam in safety. (Years earlier, Elder Lee had ordained me a High Priest and set me apart as a counselor in the Washington Ward bishopric in Washington D.C.)


Four days later, Saturday, September 24, 1966, I left for Vietnam without knowing the results of the hearing or knowing whether it would be resumed upon my return. The report by the three vice-presidents had not been completed and submitted to President Wilkinson. Apprehension of my colleagues over whether I would be barred from returning continued to fuel the turmoil during my absence. On the United Airlines leg to Seattle, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley and Stephen R. Covey were on the same flight. They were on their way to a stake conference. Steve, who was Wilkinson’s assistant, queried me on the spy hearings. I told Steve that I thought it ironic that my CIA background and desire to serve my country in Vietnam did not seem important to our ultraconservative sunshine patriots at BYU.

Monday evening, September 26, sitting alone in a hot sticky hotel room on a crowded and polluted Saigon street with a noisy air conditioner pushing hot humid air, gechos on the wall snapping at bugs, huge roaches encircling the shower drain, and suffering jetlag, I wondered, “What am I doing here?” I was lonely without my wife and four children. “Was this my just reward?” Yet, I was bolstered by the fact that I was serving my country, church, and university.

Part Two


The Hankin charges and Russell’s activity had serious implications. Presumably, the committee felt the whole thing had to be suppressed. A cover-up to protect the image of the university and the integrity of the president was compelling and seemed logical. The public did not know about the spying and the hearings. We all cooperated by not responding to the press. I refused to talk to the press. We wanted to resolve these difficulties “in house.” However, as time passed the Hankin charges were not being addressed and dissembling to cover themselves became a serious problem, as serious as the spying itself Lou called it “lying for the Lord.” Some justified it as “dissembling for the faith.”

The first indication that a cover-up was in the making took place at a general faculty meeting some days before my departure to Vietnam. In that September 12, 1966, meeting, President Wilkinson ridiculed those who were responsible for rumors about student spying. He said:

I now hear that I have been bugging phones and have instituted an elaborate spy system. This latest rumor is as false as the others. I would pay no attention to them except they are greatly prejudicial and injurious to the school. I have always hesitated to dignify wild conjecture with an answer. But in the spirit of candor with which I speak to you today, may I ask you to get your information from authentic sources rather from those who could not know. I promise you that a sincere inquiry will receive a frank answer, with the limitation that some matters cannot be made public.

He invited faculty to see him if they had any questions. His invitation backfired when Richard Wirthlin appealed to Wilkinson to clear up the spy rumors. Wilkinson’s response was explosive; he became furious, stating that the committee had no business looking into the Hankin matter. Hillam, not Russell, was on trial. Wilkinson threatened Richard by telling him he would open his file for investigation if he persisted. Wirthlin was furious and was henceforth unwilling to serve under Wilkinson’s leadership. By the end of the semester he had left the university. (Years later, Wilkinson attended the Utah State Republican Convention where Ronald Reagan was the featured speaker. Delegate Wilkinson was puzzled to find so-called liberal Richard Wirthlin sitting on the stand next to Reagan. Richard had become Reagan’s pollster and campaign advisor and played a major role in his election as president. Wilkinson worshiped Reagan.)

In my absence, Ed Morrell kept pressing the committee for full accountability. He became a constant source of irritation to the committee and to President Wilkinson. He visited each of the vice-presidents, encouraging them to investigate the Hankin revelations. They refused to do so. Finally, Ed was told not to push the spy charges further and was assured, if there was spying, it would no longer occur.

The committee was wrong. Russell continued spying for President Wilkinson. For instance, Russell was asked to gather information to discredit Richard Poll and to spy on J. Kenneth Davies, who was on a sabbatical in Washington, D.C. Wilkinson had asked Russell to write a friend in Washington who knew Davies to determine if Davies was making any self-incriminating statements. Russell was also asked to encourage Basil Dunn, local leader of the John Birch Society, to testify should there be a hearing on Davies. No hearing was held, but eventually Davies was “fired.” However, his termination was not carried out as it was reversed by a member of the Board of Trustees, Harold B. Lee. Wilkinson also asked Russell to spy on Dean John T. Bernhard. He earlier asked Russell if John Bernhard was someone he had to “worry about.” John, supposedly very close to Wilkinson, had managed his campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1964.

Russell was not without support for his activities. Despite opposition from the Economics faculty, he was awarded an assistantship. According to Russell, he was also sent an airline ticket to attend the hearing. Earlier, he had been nominated by the university to attend the prestigious right-wing Freedom Foundation in the east. He received staff support from President Bentley’s office. Bentley and Wilkinson took care of Russell. Because the Birch Society was not permitted to organize on campus, it might have been the reason Russell let his membership lapse. He realized that some of these campus opportunities would not be available to him if he were a member of the John Birch Society. However, over time, he worked in and out of the Society and was closely associated with Dr. and Mrs. Jack Trunnell, Basil H. Dunn, and other well known extremists.


In Vietnam, October 1966, I received a report of the committee’s findings, and in early November, a reprimand from President Wilkinson. The committee said I was “extremely indiscreet” in “triggering” the talk about accreditation, criticizing the brethren, and not telling the truth about the arrangements that led to my appointment with President Tanner and Elder Lee. I was both depressed and furious. The documents were full of misinformation. It was a cover-up that would live to haunt them and the president.

In his letter, President Wilkinson said he accepted my apology for making statements relative to accreditation and references to him and the General Authorities. When did I criticize General Authorities? When did I apologize? He was silent on my alleged political statements but reminded me that he was not involved in student spying. Such a thing, he said, would be incorrect administrative procedure. He lied.

In Vietnam, January 1967, I received a contract from Wilkinson with a disappointing salary increase. Wilkinson assumed this, together with the committee’s report and his letter, would assure my departure from BYU. Receiving the report and Wilkinson’s letter were low points for me. I did not expect Presidents Lewis and Crockett to be party to such a judgment and cover-up. To my certain knowledge I have never criticized the brethren and I did not “trigger” the talk about accreditation. Nor was I “extremely indiscreet.”

The judgment or verdict was a cover-up. Six months were to pass without any effort to address our charges of a conspiracy and Hankin’s revelations. Wilkinson and the committee thought this would bring closure. It was to drag on another 18 months. The written revision of their findings were finally agreed to and signed by the committee on May 15, 1969, more than three years after the spy group entered our classrooms and offices.


On Tuesday, February 28, 1967, Ron Hankin dropped a bomb. Disillusioned by the suppression of his testimony at the hearing, alienated from his right-wing cohorts, and being harassed by BYU Security, he planned and executed a dramatic and well-orchestrated public expose. He invited the media and the Dean of Students, Elliott Cameron, to a soapbox free forum speech session where students could sound off. He had a friend, Colleen Stone, speak about student spying on faculty. Having no evidence, she was heckled by the audience. Then Hankin stepped forward and in his rich speaking voice told, with conviction, his story. The press was there, with cameras clicking. It was a brilliant set-up. The expose was carried by the national wire service. It was covered by the major television stations and radio talk shows. Colleen and Ron appeared on talk shows and Ron was interviewed by the press. Wilkinson and Cameron told the press that Hankin was misinformed. Wilkinson flew to Los Angeles and was unavailable, leaving Cameron, who had been kept in the dark about the spy ring, to face the press.

When Hankin went public with his story, Russell, according to his testimony, stopped spying and confessed his involvement to Larry Wimmer (his academic advisor), his bishop (Duane Laws) and to President N. Eldon Tanner. He also confronted Wilkinson with his bishop present. His confession verified Hankin’s story. It also had much more to add, such as the extent of his spying. On March 11, 1967, in a memorandum to the faculty, Wilkinson accepted responsibility for spying and, although he had earlier told Ed Morrell it would be wrong to use students, he acknowledged student involvement. However, he covered up his direct involvement. He said:

Since returning to campus this week I have investigated the charges concerning the organized surveillance of faculty by students who were alleged to have received Administrative approval for their activities. Although there is misinformation in the charges, there was such a group, reports were made and the students were under the impression they were acting with sanction of the administration.

As President, I must accept responsibility, and I regret the misunderstanding and uneasiness which has been engendered.

Wilkinson, avoiding the press, took a few days to write the above negotiated response that would be acceptable to himself, his staff, Larry Wimmer, Ed Morrell, the BYU chapter of the AAUP, and the Board of Trustees.

Ray Beckham, my stake president after my return from Vietnam, said the “chickens came home to roost” when Bentley and Wilkinson recruited student spies. Ray was correct. Hankin threatened Wilkinson’s life. Campus Security watched Wilkinson’s home for weeks. Hankin interrupted Wilkinson’s birthday ceremony in the Wilkinson Center when, from the balcony, he quoted a Book of Mormon prophet, accusing Wilkinson of pride and corruption. Wilkinson was reported to have looked up at Hankin and shouted to Security, “get that man.” Wilkinson told me years later that Hankin, a protester at the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami, greeted him as he entered the conference. He had long hair, a beard, and was shirtless. He said, “Hi, President Wilkinson, do you remember me?” From reactionary to radical, Hankin had come full circle politically.

Hankin threatened Russell’s life. Russell scribbled a note to Larry Wimmer saying that Chief Swen Nielsen said Hankin claimed he would murder him. Hankin requested a gun from a friend, stating “he had a job to do.” In April 1967, Hankin was suspended by the University Standards Committee for multiple violations of standards unrelated to the spying.

Russell may have been correct when he said Hankin was neurotic and criminal. Midgley said Hankin shoplifted his meals at the super market. Elliot Cameron, Dean of Students, said he came into his office brandishing a pistol. Russell and Wilkinson, with the help of Verlan Andersen, made a big point of Hankin’s instability as our witness. They were correct, but we reminded the committee that Hankin was Wilkinson’s spy, not ours. He was a “Bircher” and became a spy for Wilkinson and then a turncoat.

Hankin was many things. He was bright, articulate, and spoke with conviction. He was a “true believer” and thought as a spy that he was engaged in a “noble cause.” But he may have been neurotic. However, to the discomfort of Russell and Wilkinson, he was correct about the spying, the noble cause, and all that stuff.


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