FBI COINTELPRO Media Operations
The Alternative Press
The FBI, COINTELPRO, and the Alternative Press
by Chip Berlet
The FBI in the 1960s and 1970s carried out a large-scale campaign of intelligence gathering and disruption specifically aimed at crippling the alternative and underground press. The FBI targeted what they called “New Left” publications along with old-line Communist periodicals and underground newspapers as part of its COINTELPRO program. These publications were seen by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover as a threat to democracy, so he ordered his agents to violate the First Amendment rights of alternative journalists to suppress their newspapers.
Surveillance of the Underground Press Syndicate was documented through a lawsuit filed by former UPS kingpin the late Tom Forcade, whose files show that the UPS was subjected to mail openings, physical office stakeouts, staff surveillance, and the obtaining and copying of bank records, credit card records, postage meter records, car rental records, telephone call records, traffic ticket records, income tax records, and more. Some of the UPS files which resurfaced in the FBI files include documents that appear to have been obtained through illegal black‑bag jobs.
The Yipster Times file shows the FBI obtained its mailing list and harassed subscribers through interviews and heavy‑handed investigations. At one point certain Times staffers were considered such a threat to national security that their names were added to the FBI’s ADEX (Administrative Index) list of activists slated to be rounded up in case of insurrection. The publisher and a staff member of the L.A. Free Press were also ADEX’d.
Using anonymous letters to increase factionalism among leftist groups was a popular COINTELPRO tactic and the alternative press was no exception. In 1968, Liberation News Service experienced a staff split and Hoover used the occasion to suggest an operation against the news service. “Recent issues of the underground press have carried articles relating to the split which has developed within the Liberation News Service (LNS),” wrote Hoover in a memo to the New York office. “It would seem this is an excellent opportunity to take advantage of the split to further disrupt the underground press and to attack the New Left.”
The New York FBI office promptly invented a letter titled “And Who Got the Cookie Jar?” which ridiculed the situation and criticized the LNS staffers who left the New York office for a farm in Massachusetts. “The letter is written in the jargon of the New Left, necessitating the use of a certain amount of profanity,” admitted the New York FBI office apologetically.
The letter, signed “a former staffer,” was circulated among various progressive groups and alternative newspapers in an attempt to win support for the New York faction. At the time both factions were publishing under the name LNS. “A real kindergarten performance by all concerned,” said the letter, which called one of LNS’s founders, who had moved to Massachusetts, “a bit of a nut.” The letter went on to charge the farm-bound crowd with leaving the “scene of the action in exchange for assorted ducks and sheep,” and turning LNS “from an efficient movement news service into a complete mess.”
When LNS-New York survived the split and continued publishing, the FBI contacted the Internal Revenue Service, which obligingly began auditing LNS for possible tax law violations. The FBI used at least two other federal agencies in its vendetta against the alternative press.
Progressive radio station WBAI in New York came under FBI scrutiny after broadcasting portions of a Communist convention. The FBI began monitoring its bank account and contacted the Federal Communications Commission. The San Diego FBI office requested that postal inspectors be used to harass the San Diego Door and the Teaspoon, along with a newsletter published by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at San Diego State College.
Reports submitted to a Senate committee investigating intelligence abuse have indicated that FBI funds were used to finance paramilitary operations by two right‑wing groups in San Diego. These groups physically attacked the Street Journal, destroying during one assault over $5,000 worth of typesetting and production equipment. After they forced the Journal out of business, the San Diego Door became a target, with equipment vandalized and cars firebombed.
The San Antonio FBI office took credit for coercing a printer into refusing to continue publishing the Rag, in Austin, Texas. Printer cancellations were a constant headache for underground papers, and now it appears they were induced in part by visits from friendly feds.
The New York office tried a more subtle approach to disruption by contacting the shipper who transported bulk copies of the Black Panther Party newspaper into the city. After the contact, the firm raised its rates to the highest legal fee. “This will amount to an increase of around $300 weekly in shipments to New York City alone,” gloated an FBI memo, which accurately noted, “This counterintelligence endeavor ... will definitely have an adverse effect on the amount of incendiary propaganda being published by the BPP…. The group suffers from a constant shortage of funds.”
Most alternative publications were operated on a shoestring budget in the 1960s and early 1970s, and there is little doubt that the added expense caused by FBI‑inspired tax audits, postal hassles, price hikes, evictions, and arrests forced many publications into insolvency. Distribution hassles were frequent among underground newspapers and the FBI played its part by encouraging local authorities to enforce vague and usually unconstitutional ordinances concerning pornography, obscenity, and hawking without a license. Details of this type of FBI role are incomplete but one incident in Milwaukee shows how the FBI succeeded in tipping the scales against two undergrounds.
“On 12/6/68, a copy of Kaleidoscope and a copy of The Open Door were anonymously mailed to Miss Lauren Dixon, Principal of Homestead High School, with certain objectionable statements and pictures indicated in red pencil,” reports an FBI memo. A few weeks later Homestead High instituted a new dress code which forbade pupils from distributing “newspapers, magazines and pamphlets without permission from the administration,” according to a news story that quoted the principal saying both underground publications could possibly have a bad effect on students.
One suggestion for disruption that was apparently turned down by Hoover was to spray alternative newspapers with a chemical stench. “A very small amount of this chemical disburses a most offensive odor,” wrote the Newark FBI office, “and its potency is such that a large amount of papers could be treated in a matter of seconds. It could be prepared by the FBI laboratory for use in an aerosol‑type dispenser.”
If You Can’t Beat Them ...
On several occasions the FBI used alternative publications for counterintelligence operations by placing advertisements or submitting ersatz letters to the editor. In Los Angeles, for instance, the local FBI office concocted a byzantine plan to use the Los Angeles Free Press in an attempt to cause friction within the Communist Party USA. This escapade characterizes the zany and sophomoric side of COINTELPRO.
In 1966, the chairperson of the southern California branch of the Communist Party, Dorothy Healey, prepared a report that was “critical of CPUSA leadership,” according to FBI documents. The “Healey Report” was allegedly suppressed by CPUSA officials and the FBI decided to print up copies of the supposedly secret report and distribute them. By circulating the report, the FBI hoped to embarrass the CPUSA leadership and cause dissension in the ranks.
The Los Angeles bureau was authorized to place the following advertisement in the personal classified section of the L.A. Free Press:
Banned by the Communist Party National Secretariat. Get your copy of Dorothy Healey’s controversial report. Send $.15 in stamps to cover mailing costs to Ivanova care of Free Press.
The FBI chose the Free Press to reach its target audience of leftists because it was ultra-liberal and its classifieds already contained unusual notices. As the FBI observed in a memo: “A good portion of the paper is devoted to a ‘personal’ section of classified advertisements. The wording of these ‘personals’ is quite uninhibited and ranges from invitations to sex orgies and LSD parties to guitar lessons.”
The dubious contention was that such ads were read by Communists and others who would be interested in the Healey report. There was more, however, to the operation than just distribution.
The ad was signed “Ivanova” because the FBI wanted Communist officials to believe that the report was being circulated by “disgruntled comrades.” To enhance this aspect of the operation the ad was placed by a “Russian speaking agent and an experienced, older female clerk with a heavy Russian accent” who were instructed to converse in Russian while placing the ad. Free Press ad takers were supposed to immediately assume the ad placers were dissident members of the CPUSA.
The FBI figured that Communist Party officials would contact the Free Press and ask who placed the ad. The Free Press would then tell them about the Russian‑speaking duo. The Communist officials would suspect unhappy party members, and this would “cause consternation among local comrades ... cause further internal dissension within the Party and possibly have internal ramifications,” predicted an FBI memo.
Now, you have to be pretty dumb to think American Communists speak with a “heavy Russian accent,” or that the Freep staff would care who placed a particular advertisement, especially when the weirdest casualties of the hip scene frequently flowed into the Freep offices to place improbable sex ads. Nonetheless, J. Edgar Hoover was delighted with the plan, saying, “This suggestion by Los Angeles appears most imaginative and should have disruptive results.”
The ads appeared in the 2/17/67 and 2/24/67 issues of the Free Press. There is no indication whether or not “Ivanova” got any requests for the suppressed report from disgruntled Communists, fellow travelers, or sex-cult fetishists who misunderstood the ad.
Signed: A Friend
The FBI sent phony letters to the editor to commercial and college newspapers, as well as underground publications. The letters generally revealed embarrassing information or made false charges against progressives. The letters were usually signed with aliases or phrases such as “A True Progressive.”
When Angela Davis was arrested with Panther David Poindexter in New York in 1970, the FBI sent letters to the Village Voice and Ebony magazine. The FBI revealed a certain lack of cool by identifying both as “published by and primarily for Negroes, but in any case the letters painted Black Panther Party leader Huey P. Newton as an informer who was paid to rat on Angela by the feds. The letter to the Voice reads
Sister Angela is in jail. Poindexter is free. Huey Newton is free. David P. [Hilliard, a Panther leader] is a dumb‑head and a hop‑head. Forget him. But Huey is smart. Gets along well with the MAN. The question is: Did this cat bank five big bills lately ... a gift from the federal pigs?
The letter is signed “Concerned Brother.” Hoover instructed the agents sending the letters to “Take the usual precautions to insure that action taken cannot be traced to the Bureau.”
Wanna Buy a Paper?
In Charlotte, North Carolina, the FBI published a newsletter distributed in Winston-Salem called the Black Community News Service. The “newssheet” was aimed at disrupting the Black Panther Party and winning readers away from the Panther newspaper. The ostensible publisher of the newsletter was a fictitious FBI front called the “Southern Vanguard Revolutionary Party,” which the FBI hoped would be seen as “a black group at Winston‑Salem of a slightly higher calling than” the Black Panther Party.
New York Press Service, a photo agency that sent photographers to demonstrations and then offered the photos to alternative publications, also sent pictures to the FBI. The photo agency was subsidized by the FBI with $10,000 between 1967 and 1969 before the owner surfaced at the Chicago conspiracy trial as a government witness. Even the staff photographers had not been aware of the FBI connection.
Ever alert for an opportunity, the FBI seized the revelations about New York Press Service that appeared in the New York Post, and used them in a plan to discredit Liberation News Service. An FBI-authored letter signed “Howie” was sent to the Student Mobilization Committee. The letter asked, “How has the Liberation News Service survived these many years?” and supplied the answer: “federal bread constitutes its main support.” The letter pointed out that “LNS is in an ideal position to infiltrate the movement at every level” and ended with a P.S.: “LNS representatives all carry police press cards too.”
The FBI apparently produced bogus editions of Liberation News Service in the FBI laboratory by matching the paper, ink, and format and thus creating releases that contained counterintelligence misinformation in rewritten stories. One such release was used to discredit a leader of the Revolutionary Union in San Francisco. In another incident, the Cincinnati office proposed sending LNS a phony message from the Weather Underground containing retouched photographs showing an activist supposedly passing information to a police agent. The note charged the activist with being a police spy. It is not clear from the FBI files if the plan was carried out.
The San Francisco office proposed printing “bogus copies of the Revolutionary Union (RU) pamphlet, ‘The Red Papers,’ to discredit the organization by changing the content and distributing the new version “to Marxists, Black militants, SDS, left publications, etc. throughout the country.” The Chicago office called the idea “outstanding” and suggested the alterations “distort the political line of the RU and, in fact, turn it into a revisionist line in a subtle manner.”
Avid Readers with Avaricious Appetites
The bureau found the alternative press to be a valuable source of information about progressive activities and subscribed through aliases to many newspapers and news services. It learned about a growing feud between SDS and the Black Panther Party through the Guardian, which it read avidly, and alerted its agents to encourage the split. The San Francisco bureau began its campaign against the Revolutionary Union after reading advertisements placed by RU in TheBlack Panther and the Movement.
A letter to the St. Louis bureau suggests the agent in charge instruct an informant to “review a number of locally available publications of New leftists, Negro militants, underground-type organizations, and other extremists in an effort to develop targets of intelligence interest with whom he may initiate correspondence.”
The FBI maintained a clip file of underground publications and sent clips to commercial newspaper reporters for background, and to parents and school officials to encourage them to take action against activists. Clippings and entire publications were also distributed to various political groups to cause factionalism. When the RU published “The Red Papers” the FBI had its San Francisco office send copies to the political groups whose ideology was criticized in the pamphlet. “San Francisco, for additional disruption, should anonymously forward copies of ‘The Red Papers’ pamphlet to one or several of the addresses listed in PLP (Progressive Labor Party) publication, Progressive Labor. Appropriate sarcastic or warning notes should be included seeking to aggravate as well as alert PLP to the RU attack,” said the memo.