WAR AT HOME: Covert Action Against U.S. Activists and What We Can Do About It
a book by Brian Glick
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Domestic covert action in US in the 60s
How COINTELPRO Worked
COINTELPRO's Main Targets
How COINTELPRO Helped Destroy the Movements of the 1960s
Domestic covert action in US in the 70s
Domestic Covert Action Did Not End in the 1970s
The Native American Movement:
The Black Movement:
The Chicano and Puerto Rican Movements:
The Women's, Gay, and Lesbian Movements:
The Anti-war and New Left Movements:
The Labor Movement:
Domestic covert action in US in the 80s
Domestic Covert Action Has Persisted Throughout the 1980s
Domestic covert action in US in the 90s
Domestic Covert Action: a Permanent Feature of U.S. Government
Government harassment of U.S. political activists clearly exists today, violating our fundamental democratic rights and creating a climate of fear and distrust which undermines our efforts to challenge official policy. Similar attacks on social justice movements came to light during the 1960s. Only years later did we learn that these had been merely the visible tip of an iceberg. Largely hidden at the time was a vast government program to neutralize domestic political opposition through "covert action" (political repression carried out secretly or under the guise of legitimate law enforcement).
The 1960s program, coordinated by the FBI under the code name "COINTELPRO," was exposed in the 1970s and supposedly stopped. But covert operations against domestic dissidents did not end. They have persisted and become an integral part of government activity. ...
Covert Action Against the Domestic Dissidents of the 1960s
The first concrete evidence of COINTELPRO surfaced in March 1971, when a "Citizens Committee to Investigate the FBI" removed secret files from an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania and released them to the press.' That same year, agents began to resign from the Bureau and to blow the whistle on its covert operations.' These revelations came at a time of enormous social unrest and declining public confidence in government. Publication of the Pentagon Papers in September 1971 exposed years of systematic official lies about the Vietnam War. Soon it was learned that a clandestine squad of White House "plumbers" had broken into Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office in an effort to smear the former Pentagon staffer who had leaked the top-secret papers to the press
The same "plumbers" were caught the following year burglarizing the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee. Nationally televised congressional hearings on Watergate revealed a full-blown program of "dirty tricks" to subvert the anti-war movement as well as the Democratic Party by forging letters, leaking false news items to the press, stealing files, and roughing up demonstrators. Lines of command for these operations were traced to Attorney General Mitchell and the White House, with the FBI implicated in a massive cover-up involving President Nixon and his top staff. By 1971, congressional hearings had already disclosed U.S. Army infiltration of domestic political movements. Similar CIA and local police activity soon came to light, along with ghastly accounts of CIA operations abroad to destabilize democratically elected governments and assassinate heads of state.
This crisis was eventually resolved through what historian Howard Zinn describes as "a complex process of consolidation," based on "the need to satisfy a disillusioned public that the system was criticizing and correcting itself."' In this process, the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOLA) was amended over President Nixon's veto to provide some degree of genuine public access to FBI documents. Lawsuits under the FOLA forced the Bureau to release some COINTELPRO files to major news media. By 1975, both houses of Congress had launched formal inquiries into government "intelligence activities."
The agencies under congressional investigation were allowed to withhold most of their files and to edit the Senate Committee's reports before publication. The House Committee's report, including an account of FBI and CIA obstruction of its inquiry, was suppressed altogether after part was leaked to the press. Still, pressure to promote the appearance of genuine reform was so great that the FBI had to divulge an unprecedented, detailed account of many of its domestic covert operations.
Many important files continue to be withheld, and others have been destroyed. Former operatives report that the most heinous and embarrassing actions were never committed to writing. Officials with broad personal knowledge of COINTELPRO have been silenced, most notably William C. Sullivan, who created the program and ran it throughout the 1960s. Sullivan was killed in an uninvestigated 1977 "hunting accident" shortly after giving extensive information to a grand jury investigating the FBI, but before he could testify publicly. Nevertheless, a great deal has been learned about COINTELPRO.
How COINTELPRO Worked
When congressional investigations, political trials, and other traditional legal modes of repression failed to counter the growing movements, and even helped to fuel them, the FBI and police moved outside the law. They resorted to the secret and systematic use of fraud and force to sabotage constitutionally protected political activity. Their methods ranged far beyond surveillance, amounting to a home front version of the covert action for which the CIA has become infamous throughout the world.
FBI Headquarters secretly instructed its field offices to propose schemes to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" specific individuals and groups. Close coordination with local police and prosecutors was strongly encouraged. Other recommended collaborators included friendly news media, business and foundation executives, and university, church, and trade union officials, as well as such "patriotic" organizations as the American Legion.
Final authority rested with FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Top FBI officials pressed local field offices to step up their activity and demanded regular progress reports. Agents were directed to maintain full secrecy "such that under no circumstances should the existence of the program be made known outside the Bureau and appropriate within-office security should be afforded to sensitive operations and techniques." A total of 2,370 officially approved COINTELPRO actions were admitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee, and thousands more have since been uncovered. Four main methods have been revealed:
1. Infiltration: Agents and informers did not merely spy on political activists. Their main purpose was to discredit and disrupt. Their very presence served to undermine trust and scare off potential supporters. The FBI and police exploited this fear to smear genuine activists as agents.
2. Psychological Warfare From the Outside: The FBI and police used myriad other "dirty tricks" to undermine progressive movements. They planted false media stories and published bogus leaflets and other publications in the name of targeted groups. They forged correspondence, sent anonymous letters, and made anonymous telephone calls. They spread misinformation about meetings and events, set up pseudo movement groups run by government agents, and manipulated or strong-armed parents, employers, landlords, school officials and others to cause trouble for activists.
3. Harassment through the Legal System The FBI and police abused the legal system to harass dissidents and make them appear to be criminals. Officers of the law gave perjured testimony and presented fabricated evidence as a pretext for false arrests and wrongful imprisonment. They discriminatorily enforced tax laws and other government regulations and used conspicuous surveillance, "investigative" inter views, and grand jury subpoenas in an effort to intimidate activists and silence their supporters.
4. Extralegal Force and Violence: The FBI and police threatened, instigated, and themselves conducted break-ins, vandalism, assaults, and beatings. The object was to frighten dissidents and disrupt their movements. In the case of radical Black and Puerto Rican activists (and later Native Americans), these attacks-including political assassinations-were so extensive, vicious, and calculated that they can accurately be termed a form of official "terrorism."
COINTELPRO's Main Targets
Though the name COINTELPRO stands for "Counterintelligence Program," the government's targets were not enemy spies. The Senate Intelligence Committee later found that "Under COINTELPRO certain techniques the Bureau had used against hostile foreign agents were adopted for use against perceived domestic threats to the established political and social order."
The most intense COINTELPRO operations were directed against the Black movement, particularly the Black Panther Party. This was to some extent a function of the racism of the FBI and police, as well as the vulnerability of the Black community (due to its lack of ties to political and economic elites and the tendency of the media-and whites in general-to ignore or tolerate attacks on Black groups). At a deeper level, the choice of targets reflects government and corporate fear of a militant, broad-based Black movement. Such a movement is dangerous because of its historic capacity to galvanize widespread rebellion at home and its repercussions for the U.S. image abroad. Moreover, Black people's location in major urban centers and primary industries gives them the potential to disrupt the base of the U.S. economy.
COINTELPRO's targets were not, however, limited to Black militants. Many other activists who wanted to end U.S. intervention abroad or institute racial, gender, and class justice at home also came under attack. Cesar Chavez, Fathers Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, Rev. Jesse Jackson, David Dellinger, officials of the American Friends Service Committee and the National Council of Churches, and other leading pacifists were high on the list, as were projects directly protected by the First Amendment, such as anti-war teach-ins, progressive bookstores, independent filmmakers, and alternative newspapers and news services. Martin Luther King, Jr., world-renowned prophet of non violence, was the object of sustained FBI assault. King was marked, barely a month before his murder, for elimination as a potential "messiah" who could "unify and electrify" the Black movement.
Ultimately, FBI documents disclosed six major official counterintelligence programs (as well as non-COINTELPRO covert operations against Native American, Asian-American, Arab-American, Iranian, and other activists):
1) "Communist Party-USA" (1956-71): This was the first and largest program, which contributed to the Party's decline in the late 1950s and was used in the early and mid-1960s mainly against civil rights, civil liberties, and peace activists. Its targets during the latter period included Martin Luther King, Jr., the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the NAACP, the National Lawyers Guild, the National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee, Women's Strike for Peace, the American Friends Service Committee, and the National Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy.
2) "Groups Seeking Independence for Puerto Rico" (1960-71): Initially hidden from congressional investigators, and still one of the least well known, this program functioned to disrupt, discredit, and factionalize the island's main centers of anti-colonial resistance, especially the Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PSP) and Socialist League (LSP). It also appears to have targeted groups fighting for human rights for Puerto Ricans living in the United States, such as the Young Lords Party.
3) "Border Coverage Program" (1960-71): This program of covert operations against radical Mexican organizations was similarly concealed from Congress. The few documents released to date do not indicate how much the FBI used it against 1960s Chicano activists such as the Brown Berets, the Crusade for Justice (Colorado), La Alianza (New Mexico), and the Chicano Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam (Los Angeles), which are known to have been infiltrated and repressed by other government agencies.
4) "Socialist Workers Party" (1961-69): In addition to ongoing attacks on the SWP and its youth group, the Young Socialist Alliance, this program operated against whomever those groups supported or worked with, especially Malcolm X and the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.
5) "Black Nationalist Hate Groups" (1967-71): This was the vehicle for the Bureau's all-out assault on Martin Luther King, Jr. (in the late 1960s), the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam ("Black Muslims"), the National Welfare Rights Organization, the League of Black Revolutionary Workers, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), the Republic of New Afrika (RNA), the Congress of African People, Black student unions, and many local Black churches and community organizations struggling for decent living conditions, justice, equality, and empowerment.
6) "New Left" (1968-71): A program to destroy Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Peace and Freedom Party, the Institute for Policy Studies, and a broad range of anti-war, anti-racist, student, GI, veteran, feminist, lesbian, gay, environmental, Marxist, and anarchist groups, as well as the network of food co-ops, health clinics, child care centers, schools, bookstores, newspapers, community centers, street theaters, rock groups, and communes that formed the infrastructure of the counter-culture.
7) "White Hate Groups" (1964-71): This unique "program" functioned largely as a component of the FBI's operations against the progressive activists who were COINTELPRO's main targets. Under the cover of being even-handed and going after violent right-wing groups, the FBI actually gave covert aid to the Ku Klux Klan, Minutemen, Nazis, and other racist vigilantes. These groups received substantial funds, information, and protection-and suffered only token FBI harassment-so long as they directed their violence against COINTELPRO targets. They were not subjected to serious disruption unless they breached this tacit under standing and attacked established business and political leaders.
How COINTELPRO Helped Destroy the Movements of the 1960s
Since COINTELPRO was used mainly against the progressive movements of the 1960s, its impact can be grasped only in the context of the momentous social upheaval which shook the country during those years.
All across the United States, Black communities came alive with renewed political struggle. Most major cities experienced sustained, disciplined Black protest and massive ghetto uprisings. Black activists galvanized multi-racial rebellion among GIs, welfare mothers, students, and prisoners. College campuses and high schools erupted in militant protest against the Vietnam War. A predominantly white New Left, inspired by the Black movement, fought for an end to U.S. intervention abroad and a more humane and cooperative way of life at home. By the late 1960s, deep-rooted resistance had revived among Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans. A second wave of broad-based struggle for women's liberation had also emerged, along with significant efforts by lesbians, gay men, and disabled people.
Millions of people in the United States began to reject the dominant ideology and culture. Thousands challenged basic U.S. political and economic institutions. For a brief moment, "the crucial mixture of people's confidence in the government and lack of confidence in themselves which allows the government to govern, the ruling class to rule. . .threatened to break down."
By the mid-1970s, this upheaval had largely subsided. Important progressive activity persisted, mainly on a local level, and much continued to be learned and won, but the massive, militant Black and New Left movements were gone. The sense of infinite possibility and of our collective power to shape the future had been lost. Progressive momentum dissipated. Radicals found themselves on the defensive as right-wing extremists gained major government positions and defined the contours of accepted political debate.
Many factors besides COINTELPRO contributed to this change. Important progress was made toward achieving movement goals such as Black civil rights, an end to the Vietnam War, and university reform. The mass media, owned by big business and cowed by government and right-wing attack, helped to bury radical activism by ceasing to cover it. Television, popular magazines, and daily papers stereotyped Blacks as hardened criminals and welfare chiselers or as the supposedly affluent beneficiaries of reverse "discrimination." White youth were portrayed first as hedonistic hippies and mindless terrorists, later as an apolitical, self-indulgent "me generation." Both were scapegoated as threats to "decent, hard-working Middle America."
During the severe economic recession of the early- to mid- 1970s, former student activists began entering the job market, some taking on responsibility for children. Many were scared by brutal government and right-wing attacks culminating in the murder of rank-and-file activists as well as prominent leaders. Some were strung out on the hard drugs that had become increasingly available in Black and Latin communities and among white youth. Others were disillusioned by mistreatment in movements ravaged by the very social sicknesses they sought to eradicate, including racism, sexism, homophobia, class bias and competition.
Limited by their upbringing, social position, and isolation from older radical traditions, 1960s activists were unable to make the connections and changes required to build movements strong enough to survive and eventually win structural change in the United States. Middle-class students did not sufficiently ally with working and poor people. Too few white activists accepted third world leadership of multi-racial alliances. Too many men refused to practice genuine gender equality. Originally motivated by goals of quick reforms, 1960s activists were ill-prepared for the long-term struggles in which they found themselves. Overly dependent on media-oriented superstars and one-shot dramatic actions, they failed to develop stable organizations, accountable leader ship, and strategic perspective. Creatures of the culture they so despised, they often lacked the patience to sustain tedious grassroots work and painstaking analysis of actual social conditions. They found it hard to accept the slow, uneven pace of personal and political change.
This combination of circumstances, however, did not by itself guarantee political collapse. The achievements of the 1960s movements could have inspired optimism and provided a sense of the power to win other important struggles. The rightward shift of the major media could have enabled alternative newspapers, magazines, theater, film, and video to attract a broader audience and stable funding. The economic downtum of the early 1970s could have united Black militants, New Leftists, and workers in common struggle. Police brutality and government collusion in drug trafficking could have been exposed in ways that undermined support for the authorities and broadened the movements' backing.
By the close of the decade, many of the movements' internal weaknesses were starting to be addressed. Black-led multi-racial alliances, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign and the Black Panthers' Rainbow Coalition, were forming. The movements' class base was broadening through Black "revolutionary unions" in auto and other industries, King's increasing focus on economic issues, the New Left's spread to community colleges, and the return of working-class GIs radicalized by their experience in Vietnam. At the same time, the women's movement was confronting the deep sexism which permeated 1960s activism, along with its corollaries: homophobia, sexual violence, militarism, competitiveness, and top-down decision-making.
While the problems of the 1960s movements were enormous, their strengths might have enabled them to overcome their weaknesses had the upsurge not been stifled before activists could learn from their mistakes. Much of the movements' inability to transcend their initial limitations and overcome adversity can be traced to COINTELPRO.
It was through COINTELPRO that the public image of Blacks and New Leftists was distorted to legitimize their arrest and imprisonment and scapegoat them as the cause of working people's problems. The FBI and police instigated violence and fabricated movement horrors. Dissidents were deliberately "criminalized" through false charges, frame-ups, and offensive, bogus leaflets and other materials published in their name.
COINTELPRO enabled the FBI and police to exacerbate the movements' internal stresses until beleaguered activists turned on one another. Whites were pitted against Blacks, Blacks against Chicanos and Puerto Ricans, students against workers, workers against people on welfare, men against women, religious activists against atheists, Christians against Jews, Jews against Muslims. "Anonymous" accusations of infidelity ripped couples apart. Backers of women's and gay liberation were attacked as "dykes" or "faggots." Money was repeatedly stolen and precious equipment sabotaged to intensify pressure and sow suspicion and mistrust.
Otherwise manageable disagreements were inflamed by COINTELPRO until they erupted into hostile splits that shattered alliances, tore groups apart, and drove dedicated activists out of the movement. Government documents implicate the FBI and police in the bitter breakup of such pivotal groups as the Black Panther Party, SDS, and the Liberation News Service, and in the collapse of repeated efforts to form long-term coalitions across racial, class, and regional lines. While genuine political issues were often involved in these disputes, the outcome could have been different if government agencies had not covertly intervened to subvert compromise and fuel hostility and competition.
Finally, it was COINTELPRO that enabled the FBI and police to eliminate the leaders of mass movements without undermining the image of the United States as a democracy, complete with free speech and the rule of law. Charismatic orators and dynamic organizers were covertly attacked and "neutralized" before their skills could be transferred to others and stable structures established to carry on their work. Malcolm X was killed in a "factional dispute" which the FBI took credit for having "developed" in the Nation of Islam. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the target of an elaborate FBI plot to drive him to suicide and replace him "in his role of the leadership of the Negro people" with conservative Black lawyer Samuel Pierce (later named to Reagan's cabinet). Many have come to view King's eventual assassination (and Malcolm's as well) as itself a domestic covert operation.
Other prominent radicals faced similar attack when they began to develop broad followings and express anti-capitalist ideas. Some were portrayed as crooks, thugs, philanderers, or government agents, while others were physically threatened or assaulted until they abandoned their work. Still others were murdered under phony pretexts, such as "shootouts" in which the only shots were fired by the police.
To help bring down a major target, the FBI often combined these approaches in strategic sequence. Take the case of the "underground press, " a network of some 400 radical weeklies and several national news services, which once boasted a combined readership of close to 30 million. In the late 1960s, government agents raided the offices of alternative newspapers across the country in purported pursuit of drugs and fugitives. In the process, they destroyed typewriters, cameras, printing presses, layout equipment, business records, and research files, and roughed up and jailed staffers on bogus charges. Meanwhile, the FBI was persuading record companies to withdraw lucrative advertising and arranging for printers, suppliers, and distributors to drop underground press accounts. With their already shaky operations in disarray, the papers and news services were easy targets for a final phase of COINTELPRO disruption. Forged correspondence, anonymous accusations, and infiltrators' manipulation provoked a flurry of wild charges and counter-charges that played a major role in bringing many of these promising endeavors to a premature end.
A similar pattern can be discerned from the history of the Black Panther Party. Brutal government attacks initially elicited broad support for this new, militant, highly visible national organization and its popular ten-point socialist program for Black self-determination. But the FBI's repressive onslaught severely weakened the Party, making it vulnerable to sophisticated FBI psychological warfare which so discredited and shattered it that few people today have any notion of the power and potential that the Panthers once represented.
What proved most devastating in all of this was the effective manipulation of the victims of COINTELPRO into blaming themselves. Since the FBI and police operated covertly, the horrors they engineered appeared to emanate from within the movements. Activists' trust in one another and in their collective power was subverted, and the hopes of a generation died, leaving a legacy of cynicism and despair which continues to haunt us today.
Domestic covert action in US in the 70s
Domestic Covert Action Did Not End in the 1970s
... While domestic covert operations were scaled down once the 1960s upsurge had subsided (thanks in part to the success of COINTELPRO), they did not stop. In its April 27, 1971 directives disbanding COINTELPRO, the FBI provided for future covert action to continue "with tight procedures to ensure absolute security." The results are apparent in the record of 1970s covert operations which have so far come to light:
The Native American Movement:
1970s FBI attacks on resurgent Native American resistance have been well documented by Ward Churchill and others. In 1973, the Bureau led a paramilitary invasion of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota as American Indian Movement (AIM) activists gathered there for symbolic protests at Wounded Knee, the site of an earlier U.S. massacre of Native Americans. The FBI directed the entire 71-day siege, deploying federal marshals, U.S. Army personnel, Bureau of Indian Affairs police, local GOONs (Guardians of the Oglala Nation, an armed tribal vigilante force), and a vast array of heavy weaponry.
In the following years, the FBI and its allies waged all-out war on AIM and the Native people. From 1973-76, they killed 69 residents of the tiny Pine Ridge reservation, a rate of political murder comparable to the first years of the Pinochet regime in Chile. To justify such a reign of terror and undercut public protest against it, the Bureau launched a complementary program of psychological warfare.
Central to this effort was a carefully orchestrated campaign to reinforce the already deeply ingrained myth of the "Indian savage." In one operation, the FBI fabricated reports that AIM "Dog Soldiers" planned widespread "sniping at tourists" and "burning of farmers" in South Dakota. The son of liberal U.S. Senator (and Arab-American activist) James Abourezk, was named as a "gunrunner," and the Bureau issued a nationwide alert picked up by media across the country.
To the same end, FBI undercover operatives framed AIM members Paul "Skyhorse" Durant and Richard "Mohawk" Billings for the brutal murder of a Los Angeles taxi driver. A bogus AIM note taking credit for the killing was found pinned to a signpost near the murder site, along with a bundle of hair said to be the victim's "scalp. " Newspaper headlines screamed of "ritual murder" by "radical Indians." By the time the defendants were finally cleared of the spurious charges, many of AIM's main financial backers had been scared away and its work among a major urban concentration of Native people was in ruin.
In March 1975, a central perpetrator of this hoax, AIM's national security chief Doug Durham, was unmasked as an undercover operative for the FBI. As AIM's liaison with the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee during the trials of Dennis Banks and other Native American leaders, Durham had routinely participated in confidential strategy sessions. He confessed to stealing organizational funds during his two years with AIM, and to setting up the arrest of AIM militants for actions he had organized. It was Durham who authored the AIM documents that the FBI consistently cited to demonstrate the group's supposed violent tendencies.
Prompted by Durham's revelations, the Senate Intelligence Committee announced on June 23, 1975 that it would hold public hearings on FBI operations against AIM. Three days later, armed FBI agents assaulted an AIM house on the Pine Ridge reservation. When the smoke cleared, AIM activist Joe Stuntz Killsright and two FBI agents lay dead. The media, barred from the scene "to preserve the evidence," broadcast the Bureau's false accounts of a bloody "Indian ambush," and the congressional hearings were quietly canceled.
The FBI was then free to crush AIM and clear out the last pockets of resistance at Pine Ridge. It launched what the Chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission described as "a full-scale military-type invasion of the reservation" complete with M-16s, Huey helicopters, tracking dogs, and armored personnel carriers. Eventually AIM leader Leonard Peltier was tried for the agents' deaths before a right-wing judge who met secretly with the FBI. AIM member Anna Mae Aquash was found murdered after FBI agents threatened to kill her unless she helped them to frame Peltier. Peltier's conviction, based on perjured testimony and falsified FBI ballistics evidence, was upheld on appeal. (The panel of federal judges included William Webster until the very day of his official appointment as Director of the FBI.) Despite mounting evidence of impropriety in Peltier's trial, and Amnesty International's call for a review of his case, the Native American leader remains in maximum security prison.
The Black Movement:
Government covert action against Black activists also continued in the 1970s. Targets ranged from community based groups to the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika and the surviving remnants of the Black Panther Party.
In Mississippi, federal and state agents attempted to discredit and disrupt the United League of Marshall County, a broad-based grassroots civil rights group struggling to stop Klan violence. In California, a notorious paid operative for the FBI, Darthard Perry, code-named "Othello," infiltrated and disrupted local Black groups and took personal credit for the fire that razed the Watts Writers Workshop's multi-million dollar cultural center in Los Angeles in 1973. The Los Angeles Police Department later admitted infiltrating at least seven 1970s community groups, including the Black-led Coalition Against Police Abuse.
In the mid-1970s, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) conspired with the Wilmington, North Carolina police to frame nine local civil rights workers and the Rev. Ben Chavis, field organizer for the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ. Chavis had been sent to North Carolina to help Black communities respond to escalating racist violence against school desegregation. Instead of arresting Klansmen, the ATF and police coerced three young Black prisoners into falsely accusing Chavis and the others of burning white-owned property. Although all three prisoners later admitted they had lied in response to official threats and bribes, the FBI found no impropriety. The courts repeatedly refused to reopen the case and the Wilmington Ten served many years in prison before pressure from international religious and human rights groups won their release.
As the Republic of New Afrika (RNA) began to build autonomous Black economic and political institutions in the deep South, the Bureau repeatedly disrupted its meetings and blocked its attempts to buy land. On August 18, 1971, four months after the supposed end of COINTELPRO, the FBI and police launched an armed pre-dawn assault on national RNA offices in Jackson, Mississippi. Carrying a warrant for a fugitive who had been brought to RNA Headquarters by FBI informer Thomas Spells, the attackers concentrated their fire where the informer's floor plan indicated that RNA President Imari Obadele slept. Though Obadele was away at the time of the raid, the Bureau had him arrested and imprisoned on charges of conspiracy to assault a government agent.
The COINTELPRO-triggered collapse of the Black Panthers' organization and support in the winter of 1971 left them defenseless as the government moved to prevent them from regrouping. On August 21, 1971, national Party officer George Jackson, world-renowned author of the political autobiography Soledad Brother, was murdered by San Quentin prison authorities on the pretext of an attempted jailbreak. In July 1972, Southern California Panther leader Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt was successfully framed for a senseless $70 robbery-murder committed while he was hundreds of miles away in Oakland, California, attending Black Panther meetings for which the FBI managed to "lose" all of its surveillance records. Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act later revealed that at least two FBI agents had infiltrated Pratt's defense committee. They also indicated that the state's main witness, Julio Butler, was a paid informer who had worked in the Party under the direction of the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department. For many years, FBI Director Webster publicly denied that Pratt had ever been a COINTELPRO target, despite the documentary proof in his own agency's records.
Also targeted well into the 1970s were former Panthers assigned to form an underground to defend against armed government attack on the Party. It was they who had regrouped as the Black Liberation Army (BLA) when the Party was destroyed. FBI files show that, within a month of the close of COINTELPRO, further Bureau operations against the BLA were mapped out in secret meetings convened by presidential aide John Ehrlichman and attended by President Nixon and Attorney General Mitchell. In the following years, many former Panther leaders were murdered by the police in supposed "shoot-outs" with the BLA. Others, such as Sundiata Acoli, Assata Shakur, Dhoruba Al-Mujahid Bin Wahad (formerly Richard Moore), and the New York 3 (Herman Bell, Anthony "Jalil" Bottom, and Albert "Nuh" Washington) were sentenced to long prison terms after rigged trials.
In the case of the New York 3, FBI ballistics reports withheld during their mid-1970s trials show that bullets from an alleged murder weapon did not match those found at the site of the killings for which they are still serving life terms. The star witness against them has publicly recanted his testimony, swearing that he lied after being tortured by police (who repeatedly jammed an electric cattle prod into his testicles) and secretly threatened by the prosecutor and judge. The same judge later dismissed petitions to reopen the case, refusing to hold any hearing or to disqualify himself, even though his misconduct is a major issue. As the NY3 continued to press for a new trial, their evidence was ignored by the news media while their former prosecutor's one-sided, racist "docudrama" on the case, Badge of the Assassin, aired on national television.
The Chicano and Puerto Rican Movements:
From 1972-1974, La Raza Unida Party of Texas was plagued with repeated, unsolved COINTELPRO-style political break-ins. Former government operative Eustacio "Frank" Martinez has admitted that after the close of COINTELPRO, the U. S . Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) paid him to help destroy La Casa de Carnalisimo, a Chicano community anti-drug program in Los Angeles. Martinez, who had previously infiltrated the Brown Berets and the Chicano Moratorium, stated that the ATF directed him to provoke bombings and plant a drug pusher in La Casa.
In 1973, Chicano activist and lawyer Francisco "Kiko" Martinez was indicted in Colorado on trumped-up bombing charges and suspended from the bar. He was forced to leave the United States for fear of assassination by police directed to shoot him "on sight." When Martinez was eventually brought to trial in the 1980s, many of the charges against him were dropped for insufficient evidence and local juries acquitted him of others. One case ended in a mistrial when it was found that the judge had met secretly with prosecutors, police, and government witnesses to plan perjured testimony, and had conspired with the FBI to conceal video cameras in the courtroom.
Starting in 1976, the FBI manipulated the grand jury process to assault both the Chicano and Puerto Rican movements. Under the guise of investigating Las Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion National Puertorriqueno (FALN) and other Puerto Rican urban guerrillas, the Bureau harassed and disrupted a cultural center, an alternative high school, and other promising community organizing efforts in Chicago's Puerto Rican barrio and in the Chicano communities of Denver and northern New Mexico. It subpoenaed radical Puerto Rican trade union leader Federico Cintron Fiallo and key staff of the National Commission on Hispanic Affairs of the U.S. Episcopal Church to appear before federal grand juries and jailed them for refusing to cooperate. The independent labor movement in Puerto Rico and the Commission's important work in support of Puerto Rican and Chicano organizing were effectively discredited.
On July 25, 1978, an undercover agent lured two young Puerto Rican independence activists, Carlos Soto Arrivi and Arnaldo Dario Rosado, to their deaths in a police ambush at Cerro Maravilla, Puerto Rico. The agent, Alejandro Gonzalez Malave, worked under the direct supervision of the FBI-trained intelligence chief of the island's police force. The FBI refused to investigate when the police claimed they were merely returning gunfire initiated by the activists. Later it was proved that Soto and Dario had surrendered and were then beaten and shot dead while on their knees. Though a number of officers were found guilty of perjury in the cover-up and one was sentenced for the murder, the officials who set up the operation remain free. Gonzalez has been promoted.
On November 11, 1979, Angel Rodriguez Cristobal, popular socialist leader of the movement to stop U.S. Navy bombing practice on the inhabited Puerto Rican island of Vieques, was murdered in the U.S. penitentiary in Tallahassee, Florida. Though U.S. authorities claimed 'suicide," Rodriguez Cristobal, in the second month of a six-month term for civil disobedience, had been in good spirits when seen by his lawyer hours before his death. He had been subjected to continuous threats and harassment, including forced drugging and isolation, during his confinement. Though he was said to have been found hanging by a bed sheet, there was a large gash on his forehead and blood on the floor of his cell.
The Women's, Gay, and Lesbian Movements:
FBI documents show that the women's liberation movement remained a major target of covert operations throughout the 1970s. Long after the official end of COINTELPRO, the Bureau continued to infiltrate and disrupt feminist organizations, publications, and projects. Its view of the women's movement is revealed by a 1973 report listing the national women's newspaper 'Off Our Backs' as "armed and dangerous -- extremist".
Covert operations also continued against lesbian and gay organizing. One former FBI informer, Earl Robert "Butch" Merritt, revealed that from October 1971 through June 1972 he received a weekly stipend to infiltrate gay publications and organizations in the District of Columbia. He was ordered to conduct break-ins, spread false rumors that certain gay activists were actually police or FBI informants, and create racial dissension between and within groups . One assignment involved calling Black groups to tell them they would not be welcome at Gay Activists Alliance and Gay Liberation Front meetings.
As in the case of the Puerto Rican and Chicano movements, criminal investigations provided a convenient pretext for escalated FBI attacks on lesbian and feminist activists in the mid-1970s. In purported pursuit of anti-war fugitives Susan Saxe and Kathy Powers, FBI agents flooded the women's communities of Boston, Philadelphia, Lexington (Kentucky), Hartford and New Haven. Their conspicuous interrogation of hundreds of politically active women, followed by highly publicized grand jury subpoenas and jailings, wreaked havoc in health collectives and other vital projects. Activists and potential supporters were scared off, and fear spread across the country, hampering women's and lesbian organizing nationally.
The Anti-war and New Left Movements:
Government covert action against the New Left and anti-war movements also persisted, especially as activists mobilized to protest the 1972 Republican and Democratic Party conventions. In San Diego, where the Republicans initially planned to convene, this campaign culminated in the January 6, 1972 attempt on the life of anti-convention organizer Peter Bohmer by a "Secret Army Organization" of ex-Minutemen formed, subsidized, armed, and protected by the FBI.
Movement organizing and government sabotage continued when the Republican convention was moved to Miami Beach, Florida. In May 1972, Bill Lemmer, Southern Regional Coordinator of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (WAW), a key group in the convention protest coalition, surfaced as an undercover FBI operative. Lemmer's false testimony enabled the Bureau to haul the WAW's national leadership before a grand jury hundreds of miles away during the week of the convention.
FBI efforts to put the WAW "out of business" were later confirmed by another ex-operative, Joe Burton of Tampa, Florida, told the New York Times "that between 1972 and 1974 he worked as a paid FBI operative assigned to infiltrate and disrupt various radical groups in this country and Canada." Burton described how specialists were flown in from FBI Headquarters to help him forge bogus documents and "establish a 'sham' political group, 'the Red Star Cadre,' for disruptive purposes."
The same article reported that "two other former FBI operatives, Harry E. Schafer, 3d, and his wife, Jill, told of similar disruptive activity they undertook at the bureau's direction during the same period." Working out of "a similar bogus New Orleans front group, termed the 'Red Collective,"' the Schafers boasted of diverting substantial funds which had been raised to support the American Indian Movement.
The Labor Movement:
One of agent-provocateur Joe Burton's main targets was the United Electrical Workers Union (UE). The FBI falsified records to get Burton into UE Tampa Local 1201 soon after its successful 1973 organizing drive upset the Westinghouse Corporation's plan to develop a chain of non-union plants in the South. Burton's attacks on genuine activists repeatedly disrupted UE meetings. His ultra-left proclamations in the union's name antagonized newly organized workers and gave credibility to the company's red-baiting. Burton also helped the FBI move against the United Farm Workers and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
In the mid-1970s, the FBI was instrumental in covering up the murder of labor activist Karen Silkwood and the theft of her files documenting the radioactive contamination of workers at the Kerr McGee nuclear fuel plant near Oklahoma City. Silkwood, elected to the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers local bargaining committee, had amassed proof that the company was falsifying safety reports to hide widespread exposure to dangerous levels of highly carcinogenic plutonium. She was killed when her car crashed into a concrete embankment enroute to a November 13, 1974 meeting with New York Times reporter David Burnham. Her files were never recovered from the wreck. While prominent independent experts concluded that Silkwood's car was bumped from behind and forced off the road, the FBI found that she fell asleep at the wheel after overdosing on Quaaludes and that she never had any files. It quickly closed the case, and helped Kerr-McGee sabotage congressional investigations and posthumously slander Silkwood as a mentally unstable drug addict. Key to the smear campaign were articles and testimony by Jacque Srouji, a Tennessee journalist secretly in the employ of the FBI, who later confessed to having served in a long string of 1960s COINTELPRO operations.
In 1979, government operatives played key roles in the massacre of communist labor organizers during a multi-racial anti-Klan march in Greensboro, North Carolina. Heading the KKK/Nazi death squad was Ed Dawson, a long-time paid FBI/police informer in the Klan. Leading the local American Nazi Party branch into Dawson's "United Racist Front" was U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms undercover agent Bemard Butkovich. Though their controlling agencies were fully warned of the Front's murderous plans, they did nothing to protect the demonstrators. Instead, the police gave Dawson a copy of the march route and withdrew as his caravan moved in for the kill. Dawson's sharpshooters carefully picked off key cadre of the Communist Workers Party (CWP), including the president and president-elect of two Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union locals, an organizer at a third local mill, and a leader of AFSCME's organizing drive at a nearby medical center. In the aftermath, the FBI attempted to cover up the government's role and to put the blame on the CWP.
At the turn of the decade, the Bureau joined with Naval Intelligence and the San Diego Police to neutralize a militant multi-racial union at the shipyards of the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company, a major U.S. naval contractor. The Bureau paid Ramon Barton to infiltrate Iron workers Local 627 when it elected leftist officers and began to publicly protest dangerous working conditions. After an explosion from a gas leak killed two workers, Barton lured three others into helping him build a bomb and transport it in his van, where they were arrested. Though the workers entrapped by Barton were not union officials and were acquitted of most charges by a San Diego jury, the Ironworkers International used their trial as a pretext for placing the local in trusteeship and expelling its elected officers.
Domestic covert action in US in the 80s
Domestic Covert Action Has Persisted Throughout the 1980s
The 1980s ... [were] marked by the rise of right-wing political power and new forms of popular opposition to reactionary government policy. Under these conditions, the danger of domestic covert action is greater than ever.
Since the vast majority of COINTELPRO-type operations stay hidden until long after the damage has been done, those we are already aware of represent only the tip of the iceberg. Far more is sure to lurk beneath the surface. - Most of today's domestic covert action can be kept concealed because full government secrecy has been restored. The Freedom of Information Act, a source of major disclosures about COINTELPRO, was drastically narrowed in the 1980s through administrative and judicial reinterpretation as well as legislative amendment. Thousands of government files were shielded from public scrutiny under presidential directives that vastly expand the range of information classified "top-secret." Government employees now face censorship even after they retire, and new laws make it a federal crime to disclose "any information that identifies an individual as a covert agent."
While restoring full secrecy, the Reagan administration invested covert action with a new legitimacy. In the past, such operations were acknowledged to be improper and illegal. The Senate Intelligence Committee condemned COINTELPRO as "a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association." From its inception, the CLA was barred by law from performing "internal security functions." Top government officials took care to insulate themselves so they could deny involvement if an unseemly operation came to light. These conditions established a kind of speed limit, a set of restrictions which the agencies felt free to exceed, but only by a certain margin.
In the 1980s even this ceiling was lifted. Reagan and his cohorts openly embraced the use of covert operations at home and abroad. They endorsed such action, legalized it, sponsored it, and raised it to the level of patriotic virtue.
Within months of taking office, Reagan pardoned W. Mark Felt and Edward S. Miller, the only FBI officials convicted of COINTELPRO crimes. His congressional allies publicly honored these criminals and praised their work. The President continually revived the tired old Red Scare, adding a new "terrorist" bogeyman, while Attorney General Meese campaigned to narrow the scope of the Bill of Rights and limit judicial review of the constitutionality of government action.
From the National Security Council's offices in the White House basement, Lt. Col. Oliver North proudly funded and orchestrated break ins and other "dirty tricks" to defeat congressional critics of U.S. policy in Central America and neutralize grassroots protest. He ran elaborate networks of paper organizations set up by former government covert operatives who regrouped to do the same work for more money in the "private sector. " Special Prosecutor Walsh found evidence that North and Retired Air Force Gen. Richard Secord (architect of 1960s U.S. covert action in Cambodia) used Iran-Contra funds to harass the Christic Institute, a church-funded public interest law group which specializes in exposing government misconduct. North also helped Reagan's cronies at the Federal Emergency Management Administration develop contingency plans for suspending the Constitution, establishing martial law, and holding political dissidents in concentration camps in the event of "national opposition against a U.S. military invasion abroad."
Much of what was done outside the law under COINTELPRO has since been legalized by Executive Order No. 12333 (December 4, 1981) and new Attorney General's "Guidelines on General Crimes, Racketeering Enterprise and Domestic Security/Terrorism Investigations" (March 7, 1983). For the first time in U.S. history, government infiltration "for the purpose of influencing the activity of domestic political organizations has received official sanction (E.0.12333, §2.9). This prerogative is now extended to the FBI and anyone acting on its behalf. It provided a legal pretext for the Bureau's attacks on CISPES and other opponents of U.S. policy in Central America.
The new executive order asserts the President's right to authorize CIA "special activities" (the official euphemism for covert operations) redefined to include activity anywhere "in support of national foreign policy objectives abroad" (§1.8(e), §3.4(h)). It legalizes "counterintelligence activities...within the United States" on the part of the FBI and the CLA, Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines (§1 .8(c), §1.1 2(d)). "Specialized equipment, technical knowledge, or assistance of expert personnel" may be provided by any of these agencies "to support local law enforcement" (§2.6c). All are free to mount electronic and mail surveillance without a warrant, and the FBI may also conduct warrantless "unconsented physical searches" (break-ins) if the Attorney General finds probable cause to believe the action is "directed against a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power" (§2.4, §2.5). This signals open season on CISPES, sanctuary churches, anti-apartheid groups, and anyone else who maintains friendly relations with a country or movement opposed by the administration or who dares to organize protest against U.S. foreign policy.
Given how much is at stake, we can hardly afford to ignore these many signs of danger. The FBI and police have now been fully rehabilitated. The CIA and military have assumed an expanded homefront role. Covert action has been legalized and endorsed at the highest levels of government. Official secrecy has been restored. Government harassment of domestic dissidents continues unabated. Evidence of current infiltration and clandestine disruption is surfacing at an alarming rate. Taken together, these developments leave us only one safe assumption: full-scale covert operations are already underway to neutralize today's opposition movements before they can reach the massive level of the 1960s.
Domestic covert action in US in the 90s
Domestic Covert Action: a Permanent Feature of U.S. Government
So long as conservative Republicans remain in power, there is no reason to expect [the threat of covert actions against domestic dissidents ] to subside. But what if liberal Democrats were in control? Recent U.S. history indicates that so far as covert operations are concerned, the difference would be marginal at best.
The record of the past 50 years reveals a pattern of continuous domestic covert action. Its use has been documented in each of the last nine administrations, Democratic as well as Republican. FBI testimony shows "COINTELPRO tactics" already in full swing during the presidencies of Democrats Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman. COINTELPRO itself, while initiated under Eisenhower, grew from one program to six under the Democratic administrations of Kennedy and Johnson. It flourished when an outspoken liberal, Ramsey Clark, was Attorney General (1966-1968). After COINTELPRO was exposed, similar programs continued under other names during the Carter years as well as under Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. They have outlived J. Edgar Hoover and remained in place under all of his successors.
Covert police methods have been used against progressive social movements since the founding of the country. Undercover operatives disrupted the historic efforts of rebel slaves and Native American, Mexican, and Puerto Rican resistance. Dissident journalists, insurgent workers, and rebellious farmers were arrested on false charges and jailed or hung after rigged trials.
Through most of U.S. history, progressive activists faced the blatant brutality of hired thugs and right-wing vigilantes backed by government troops. As the country grew more urban and industrial, newly formed municipal police forces came to play a greater role. By the turn of this century, local police departments were running massive anti-union operations in collaboration with the Pinkertons and other private detective agencies.
With World War I and the increasing national integration of the U.S. political economy, the federal government began to take more responsibility for control of domestic dissent From 1917 on, the Justice Department's Bureau of Investigation, forerunner of the FBI, coordinated its work closely with a 250,000 member right-wing vigilante group, the American Protective League. Together they mounted nation wide raids, arrests, and prosecutions which jailed thousands of draft resisters and labor activists and destroyed the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or "Wobblies").
Following the Russian Revolution, the Bureau helped foment the Red Scare of 1919-20. J. Edgar Hoover took personal responsibility for deporting "Red Emma" Goldman and directing the Palmer Raids in which thousands of progressive immigrants were rounded up, jailed, and brutalized, and hundreds were deported.
Stung by public criticism of these raids, Hoover switched to more covert methods in the early 1920s. His men infiltrated the ranks of striking railway workers and penetrated the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee to steal funds raised to support the indicted anarchists. In an operation that prefigured COINTELPRO, Hoover masterminded the destruction of the main Black movement of the post-World War I period, Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). His agents penetrated the multi-million member UNIA and set up the federal mail fraud conviction that discredited its charismatic leader, leading to Garvey's deportation and the group's collapse. Through the rest of the 1920s, the Bureau kept a low profile as domestic insurgency subsided. In the early years of the Depression, primary responsibility for policing dissent remained in the hands of local law enforcement agencies, private detectives, and right-wing groups such as the American Legion. Meanwhile, Hoover and the FBI rose to national prominence by leading a widely heralded "War on Crime. Their capture of John Dillinger and other notorious desperadoes made head lines across the country. The Bureau was glorified in Hollywood films and an immensely popular radio series. The media portrayed the FBI as invincible and proclaimed J. Edgar Hoover "Public Hero Number One."
This new stature positioned the Bureau to regain its status as the nations political police. In 1936, it won secret authorization to once again target "subversive activities in the United States." In a memo to his subordinates, Hoover attributed this coup to confidential "information" he had presented to President Roosevelt showing that "the Communists...practically controlled" at least one key industrial union and were moving to "get control of" others.
The FBI vastly expanded its operations during World War II and acquired new covert technology, including the capacity for expert forgery. In the aftermath of the war, as the United States began to exercise hegemonic world power and to identify the Soviet Union as its main enemy, the Bureau firmly established its political role as an accepted institutional reality. The Senate Intelligence Committee later found that it was in this period, well before the start of COINTELPRO, that "the domestic intelligence programs of the FBI ... became permanent features of government."
The Committee attributes the Bureau's ability to consolidate political police powers to the "Cold War fears" which swept the country during the late 1940s and the 1950s, but it skips over the Bureau's central role in fomenting those fears. FBI Director Hoover openly threw his enormous public prestige behind the postwar witchhunts mounted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and Joseph McCarthy's Senate Internal Security Sub-Committee. Directed by law to investigate the loyalty of federal employees, the FBI secretly passed confidential raw files to its congressional allies, especially McCarthy and the rising young star of HUAC, Richard Nixon.
Above all, Hoover and his men set up and orchestrated the pivotal spy trials that made the witchhunts credible. In 1950, former high-ranking State Department official Alger Hiss, President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was found guilty of perjury for denying that he had copied confidential government papers for the Soviet Union in the late 1930s. In 1951, U.S. communists Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and Morton Sobell were convicted, and the Rosenbergs executed, for allegedly passing to the Soviet Union "atomic secrets" that were already general scientific knowledge. In each case, the star witness was an informer whose initial contradictory accounts were meshed into semi-coherent testimony only after months of careful FBI coaching. In each, the supposedly incorruptible FBI vouched for the authenticity of key documentary evidence which activists later learned could easily have been forged.
Subsequent investigation and analysis suggest that both cases may well have been fabricated. At the time, however, their impact was devastating. By appearing to validate the witchhunts, they paved the way for the purge of an entire generation of radicals from U.S. political and cultural life. In this atmosphere of anti-communist hysteria, as in the preceding years of wartime fear of espionage, the FBI was free to move against a broad range of domestic political movements. It took an occasional swipe at the right wing and managed to arrest a few outright Nazi saboteurs. As always, however, the brunt of its attack was directed against those who sought progressive social change.
The Senate Intelligence Committee documented long-standing, pre-COINTELPRO FBI infiltration of industrial unions, major Black organizations (including the NAACP and the Nation of Islam), the unemployed movement, the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico, and at least one group of reform Democrats (the Independent Voters of Illinois). Documents later obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal FBI undercover operations in the late 1940s against the third party presidential candidacy of former Vice President Henry Wallace, the pro-Wallace American Labor Party (ALP), and U.S. Congressman Vito Marcantonio (D/ALP-NY). Other Bureau memoranda show the collaboration of Ronald Reagan, "Confidential Informant T-10," in FBI maneuvers to oust leftists from the Screen Actors Guild and the Hollywood film industry. Bureau targets during the late 1940s and early 1950s also included the National Lawyers Guild and the American Friends Service Committee, as well as the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, and other early gay and lesbian rights groups.
From the outset, these groups faced far more than mere surveillance. From 1936-56, the FBI took advantage of wartime fears and postwar hysteria to slip into place the domestic covert operations later consolidated under COINTELPRO. Ex-agents' report that activists' homes and offices were routinely burglarized during these years. As early as 1939, the Bureau began to compile a secret "Security Index" listing subversives to be detained in the event of a "national emergency." William Sullivan, former head of the FBI Intelligence Division, testified that, "We were engaged in COINTELPRO tactics, to divide, confuse, weaken, in diverse ways, an organization. We were engaged in that when I entered the Bureau in 1941." The Senate Intelligence Committee found that by 1946 the Bureau had a "policy" of preparing and disseminating "propaganda" to "discredit" its targets.
Thus, COINTELPRO was not a radical departure. It merely centralized and intensified long-standing FBI policy and practice. The 1956 directive setting up the new program took as its starting point the historic record of Bureau work "to foster factionalism, bring the Communist Party and its leaders into disrepute before the American public, and cause confusion and dissatisfaction among rank-and-file members." It called for a better coordinated, more focused, "all-out disruptive attack" to make up for new judicial restrictions on political prosecutions and to eliminate once and for all a U.S. left already in disarray.
Conceived as a mid-1950s coup degrace against a failing Old Left, COINTELPRO became the cutting edge of the Bureau's attack on the rising struggles of the 1960s. It provided the framework for operations against the resurgent Black movement whose first audible rumblings, in the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, may explain the urgency of the Bureau's drive to do away with what remained of an organized radical presence in the United States. It also formed the FBI's primary response to the student and anti-war protests which swept the country during the 1960s. COINTELPRO grew increasingly important as the traditional modes of repression failed. An undaunted new generation of activists made a laughing stock of HUAC and turned criminal trials into political forums. Although brute force ultimately did contribute to their demise, for most of the decade police beatings served only to stiffen resistance and to help win over the millions who watched on television.
Reviewing the Bureau's experience with domestic covert action as of 1964, J. Edgar Hoover concluded that:
"These ideas will not be increased in number or improved upon from the standpoint of accomplishments merely through the institution of a program such as COINTELPRO which is given another name, and which, in fact, only encompasses everything that has been done in the past or will be done in the future."
True to his words, Hoover did continue domestic covert action under "another name" when he eventually had to shut down COINTELPRO. Fearing public exposure, the FBI reverted to the less centralized, more secure procedures of the previous era, but the basic approach persisted.
Over the past 50 years, clandestine work has become an essential part of the Bureau's mode of operation. Many of its senior agents are now specialists whose professional advancement requires that the government continue to rely on covert action. A similar group of "old hands" has emerged from the covert operations that the United States and its European allies developed in an effort to maintain control of their colonies and neo-colonies in countries such as Algeria, the Congo, India, Northern Ireland, Chile, and Vietnam. With Hoover's death and Webster's ascendancy at the FBI and then the CLA, the two sets of spies came gradually to coordinate and integrate their work. The combined experience of these veteran covert operatives has given rise to a growing literature and theory of counter-insurgency. Their widely circulated texts and manuals restate the basic precepts of COINTELPRO and pound home the necessity for continuous covert operations. The leading treatise, Low-Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency, and Peacekeeping, by Frank Kitson, British commander in Kenya, Malaysia, Cyprus, and Northern Ireland, insists that infiltration and "psychological operations" be mounted against dissident groups in "normal times," before any mass movement can develop.
Careerism, old boy networks, theories, and treatises help to perpetuate domestic covert action. The persistence of such operations can be fully explained, however, only in terms of their value to economic and political elites. Any social order based on inequality of wealth and power depends, to some degree, on political repression to control the disadvantaged majority. Modern U.S. elites have particular need for covert measures because the war at home is primarily the responsibility of the federal government, a government which is under intense pressure to appear to be democratic. The federal government has become the main arm of domestic repression through a series of historic developments. First, internal political conflict has come to focus increasingly on issues of public policy. Second, business and industry, which once played a major role, now rely on the public sector for unprofitable support services-from post offices, airports, roads, and job training to the pacification of workers and markets at home and abroad. They are no longer willing to maintain a large-scale in-house apparatus for repressing societal political dissent or to purchase such services from private agencies. Finally, state and local governments lack the funds and personnel to cope with countrywide dissident movements. Federal coordination and direction is demanded by the national integration of the U.S. economy and culture, with its geographically mobile population and instant communication.
For all these reasons, U.S. domestic political repression is now effectively nationalized. Local police may still be the foot soldiers for many arrests, raids, beatings, and infiltrations; college administrators, corporate security forces, and private right-wing groups may also help out. But when it comes to full-scale strategic, coordinated domestic counter-insurgency, only "the Feds" can do the job.
But the federal government has other imperatives. It strives to maintain U.S. control over world markets and resources in an era when most of Asia, Africa, and Latin America have been legally decolonized. It competes internationally with the Soviet Union, Germany, and Japan. At the same time, it needs patriotic support, or at least passive acquiescence, at home. For all these purposes, it must effectively promote the image of the United States as leader of the "free world," complete with free speech and the rule of law.
If the U.S. government is seen as unduly repressive within its own borders, however, it will have trouble maintaining the allegiance of its citizenry and competing effectively for world influence. It can sustain its legitimacy, while effectively marginalizing or eliminating domestic dissent, if it makes the victims of official violence appear to be the aggressors and provokes dissident movements to tear themselves apart through factionalism and other modes of self-destruction. No wonder covert action is here to stay.
excerpted from the book
War at Home
by Brian Glick
South End Press
116 Saint Botolph Street, Boston, MA 02115