She Was Known for Her Decades Long Protest, But FBI Files Tell Another Story
How grief and mental illness fueled a White House vigil.
For more than three decades, Concepcion Picciotto held a vigil at Lafayette Square, in front of the White House. From a makeshift encampment, she peacefully protested wars and nuclear proliferation until her death on January 25, 2016, in what was widely considered the longest political protest in US history.
Known as Connie to her friends, Picciotto immigrated to the United States from Spain in 1960. According to an obituary published in the Washington Post, Picciotto first arrived at the White House in 1979, "after she came to believe that her husband had orchestrated an illegal adoption and arranged to have Ms. Picciotto separated from their child and committed." "She believed she was the target of a web of conspiracies—involving doctors, lawyers and the government—and hoped that elected officials could help get her daughter back."
In a 2013 profile of her, also in the Washington Post, Picciotto said that her daily protest sprang from the need to "stop the world from being destroyed."
Her constant presence around the White House turned her into a tourist attraction of sorts, right up until her death. Picciotto was convinced she was the target of various conspiracies, which are all laid bare in documents I obtained exclusively from the FBI in response to a Freedom of Information Act request that I filed immediately after her death. I believed the government would have kept close tabs on Picciotto and her anti-war activities, but the FBI claims it was only able to locate about 60 pages on her, and the majority of the records pertain to her life leading up to the 1981 vigil she began at the White House.
Sadly, these files strongly suggest that Picciotto suffered from severe mental illness, and her condition may have turned dire after she was prohibited from seeing her adopted daughter.
1. One of the files is a 1978 memorandum sent to the special agent in charge at the FBI's Washington field office memorializing an in-person visit by Picciotto. She told the agent that her ex-husband and his lawyer "are trying to drive her crazy by spraying her with 'mace,' acid and all manners of toxic substances." "Complainant advised that this was being done to take away the baby that she and her husband bought from a midwife in Argentina," the FBI agent wrote.
2. In a three-page letter, typed in all caps, Picciotto, who had been living in New York City, explained that she could not give birth due to medical reasons, and she and her husband decided to adopt a baby girl from Argentina. But according to her letter, they ran into some problems with immigration. Picciotto's letter says that when the case was finally resolved, her husband had her committed, filed for divorce, and refused to allow her to see the baby they adopted.
Another document that appears to be a cable from the US embassy in Buenos Aires is titled "Probable Fraudulent Baby Case," and it notes that the Immigration and Naturalization Service was investigating the citizenship of the baby.
Picciotto found herself roaming the streets of Washington, DC, and her complaints to the FBI continued.
3. In 1978, Picciotto called the FBI's Washington field office to complain that a local police officer violated her civil rights while she was walking near DC's Union Station. She said she was "insulted by a police officer who called her crazy, and after she made attempts to defend herself she experienced a liquefied sensation on the side of the face as if someone had sprayed some type of solution at her."
Picciotto returned a month later to demand more be done about the incident, which is documented in this FBI 302 form. The bureau sent her complaint along to the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, but nothing ever came of it.
4. On April 9, 1981, a couple of months before she began her 35-year vigil outside of the White House, Picciotto wrote a letter to then FBI director William Webster. It was an angry and painful letter that explained how Picciotto launched the anti-war protest that would become her legacy.
"I am not a communist, spy or revolutionary, or engaged in any illegal activities," she wrote. "Why am I being brutally tortured and continuously assaulted with chemical radiation warfare by the U.S. Government officials and C.I.A. who keep me under continuous electronic survellance [sic] and torture? This is the most viscious [sic] perverted barbarism in the U.S. soil. A bloody silent crime." Through the many conspiracies she documented in her letter to Webster, what stands out is Picciotto's pain of not being a mother to her adopted daughter. "Being chased interferes with my daily life, preventing me from making my living, pushing and forcing me into the streets (like the 'gladiators into the arena') without any social assistance, going through horror and terror. Also it forces me to masquerade for my own protection, suffering public humiliation. All this I blame on the corrupted U.S. system!
"By doing so, they also deny and deprive the rights of a child that grows up asking what happened to her mother, the love and tender care of the one she would love to hug and kiss, share her pleasures and dreams as well as her sorrows. All of this has been taken away from both the child and the mother, by the corrupted U.S. political system. What answer will you give to that child?"
5. The rest of the FBI files are news clippings about her vigil and complaints she and her supporters had circulated over the years, alleging the government mistreated her.
6. Among those clippings was a handwritten letter sent to Webster, the FBI director, by a person whose name the bureau redacted. "I am now leaving D.C. permanently," says the May 15, 1986, letter addressed to "Dear William." "Please watch out for my friend Concepcion Picciotto at the Anti-Nuclear signs, directly across from the White House in Lafayette Park. I would hate to see anything else happen to the poor woman. She has already suffered terribly."
See more pages from this FOIA request here