COINTELPRO in the 80s
excerpted from the book
WAR AT HOME
by Brian Glick
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
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.
excerpted from the book
War at Home
by Brian Glick
South End Press
116 Saint Botolph Street, Boston, MA 02115