The FBI COINTELPRO Operations
Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that...the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.
-Final Report of the Church Committee
Introduction to COINTELPRO by Noam Chomsky - Public Eye Magazine 1978
Overview of COINTELPRO by Mark Ryter - Public Eye Magazine 1978
The FBI and the Media by Chip Berlet
Hunt for Red Menace by Chip Berlet
W. Mark Felt, "Deep Throat", and COINTELPRO
What Was COINTELPRO?
A Short Overview
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover initiated COINTELPRO, the acronym given the FBI's Counterintelligence Program, in August 1956.
COINTELPRO was designed to "increase factionalism, cause disruption and win defections" inside the Communist Party U.S.A. The FBI program was later enlarged to include disruption of the Socialist Workers Party (1961), the Ku Klux Klan (1964), Black nationalist groups such as the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam (1967), and the entire New Left, including community and religious groups (1968).
According to the Church Committee:
- While the declared purposes of these programs were to protect the "national security" or prevent violence, Bureau witnesses admit that many of the targets were nonviolent and most had no connections with a foreign power. Indeed, nonviolent organizations and individuals were targeted because the Bureau believed they represented a "potential" for violence -- and nonviolent citizens who were against the war in Vietnam were targeted because they gave "aid and comfort" to violent demonstrators by lending respectability to their cause.
- The imprecision of the targeting is demonstrated by the inability of the Bureau to define the subjects of the programs. The Black Nationalist program, according to its supervisor, included "a great number of organizations that you might not today characterize as black nationalist but which were in fact primarily black." Thus, the nonviolent Southern Christian Leadership Conference was labeled as a Black Nationalist-"Hate Group."
- Furthermore, the actual targets were chosen from a far broader group than the titles of the programs would imply. The CPUSA program targeted not only Communist Party members but also sponsors of the National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee and civil rights leaders allegedly under Communist influence or not deemed to be "anti-Communist". The Socialist Workers Party program included non-SWP sponsors of antiwar demonstrations which were cosponsored by the SWP or the Young Socialist Alliance, its youth group. The Black Nationalist program targeted a range of organizations from the Panthers to SNCC to the peaceful Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and included every Black Student Union and many other black student groups. New Left targets ranged from the SDS to the InterUniversity Committee for Debate on Foreign Policy, from Antioch College ("vanguard of the New Left") to the New Mexico Free University and other "alternate" schools, and from underground newspapers to students' protesting university censorship of a student publication by carrying signs with four-letter words on them.
According to attorney Brian Glick in his book War at Home, the FBI used four main methods during COINTELPRO:
- 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" interviews, 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."
David Kaplan of California's Center for Investigative Reporting called COINTELPRO "the largest known program yet in domestic suverillance." Kaplan observed that "between 1965 and 1975, the FBI opened more than 500,000 intelligence files on more than one million Americans, according to a Congressional report....Among the Bureau's targets: Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, anti-Vietnam War Groups, and the underground press."
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