COINTELPRO in the 90s
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: 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
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"
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
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