by Athan Theoharris
Chapter 5 of Spying on Americans:
Political Surveillance from Hoover to the Huston Plan
Temple University Press, 1978
Having secured authorization to investigate "subversive
activities" and having carefully devised procedures to preclude
disclosure of questionable investigative activities, FBI officials
no longer were principally concerned that politically motivated
investigations could be effectively challenged. They, however,
did not remain satisfied merely to compile extensive files and
indexes on organizations and individuals targeted as threats to
the nation's security. The FBI became a national political force
committed to averting "potential subversion," and in
time devised alternative extralegal measures to safeguard the
For one, their conservatism rendered FBI officials responsive
to using politically information obtained through intensive investigations
to discredit dissident activities. In addition, because much of
this information either had been illegally obtained (whether through
wiretaps, break-ins, or without specific legislative or executive
authority) or involved no criminal activities, FBI officials possessed
quantities of otherwise unusable data.
At first, such FBI political efforts were nonstructured, informal,
and instituted on an ad hoc basis. On one level, the FBI voluntarily
alerted White House officials to the "subversive" background
of dissident groups and individuals. (This political effort is
discussed in greater detail in the succeeding chapter.) FBI officials
simultaneously sought to influence national policy by a conscious
policy of leaks to "friendly" sources in the media,
the Congress, or conservative organizations.
If these efforts dated from the early 1940s, the first attempt
to formalize this response occurred in February 1946. On February
27, D. M. Ladd (head of the FBI's Intelligence Division) wrote
FBI Director Hoover to recommend that the bureau influence "public
opinion" by releasing "educational material" through
"available channels." This effort, Ladd emphasized,
could undermine Communist support in the labor unions, among prominent
religious personalities and "liberal elements," and
demonstrate "the basically Russian nature of the Communist
Party in this country." The Catholic priest Father John Cronin
was one recipient of this FBI informational program; given access
to FBI files, Cronin used them to prepare reports in 1945 for
the American Catholic bishops and in 1946 for the U.S. Chamber
of Commerce. Radio commentator Walter Winchell and other conservative
reporters as well as congressmen were other recipients of similar
FBI leaks. 1
In time, this FBI political effort was further refined. In
addition to maintaining FBI records, the FBI's Crime Records Division
was assigned other, political responsibilities. These included
liaison with "friendly" congressmen, authors, and news
reporters. By the 1960s the bureau developed a formally described
Mass Media Program wherein derogatory information on prominent
radicals was leaked to the news media. The Crime Records Division,
moreover, helped draft speeches and/or letters for members of
Congress and leaked information to conservative authors (like
Don Whitehead) who in turn wrote books and articles either highly
favorable toward the bureau or critical about bureau critics.
Similarly, to further the bureau's liaison role, beginning in
1950 FBI agents were ordered to collect information first on candidates
for Congress and then on prominent state political leaders --
the resultant files included information about the individual's
attitudes toward the bureau and personal background. Earlier,
on his own initiative, FBI Director Hoover approached American
Legion officials to develop a liaison relationship. Hoover proposed
(and a November 1940 Legion conference concurred) that Legion
members furnish confidential information to the FBI. Last, while
not the Crime Records Division's exclusive responsibility, that
division (as well as the bureau division having this assignment)
serviced White House name check requests. 2
These efforts to contain radicalism by leaking derogatory
information about prominent radicals and organizations did not
constitute the sole political activities of FBI officials. They
also sought to reduce the ability of radical organizations to
function effectively or to recruit new members. For a time, with
the intensification of Cold War fears and the rise of McCarthyite
politics, these informal efforts bore fruit. In 1948, for example,
twelve Communist party leaders were indicted under the Smith Act
of 1940. Then, under provisions of the McCarran Internal Security
Act of 1950 and the Communist Control Act of 1954, Communist,
Communist-front, and Communist-action organizations were required
to register as foreign agents with the Subversive Activities Control
Board and to label their publications as Communist propaganda.
Beginning dramatically in 1947 and extending throughout the 1950s,
moreover, through highly publicized hearings, congressional committees
(notably the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the
Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security) relied directly or indirectly
on FBI investigative reports to expose Communist influence in
the federal government, in the entertainment industry, in labor
unions, and in public schools and universities. Last, FBI investigative
reports were employed during the conduct of federal loyalty/ security
programs to raise doubts about the loyalty, and deny employment
to, certain individuals. (The loyalty/security program is discussed
in detail in chapter seven.)
The resultant litigation, loyalty/security program proceedings,
and congressional hearings provided opportunities for effective
utilization of FBI investigative findings. FBI investigative reports
thereby served to popularize the conclusion of bureau officials
that radicals were subversive, to sensitize the American public
to the seriousness of the internal security threat, and concomitantly
to discredit individuals and/or organizations active in radical
politics. By the mid- 1950s, however, and not because of a change
in popular fears or executive branch policy, this political avenue
High-level FBI officials had always been deeply concerned
about prosccuting activities. These concerns increased after 1947
as FBI officials became troubled by the effect of prosecution
on the FBI's intelligence-gathering capabilities. For example,
over one hundred FBI informants had had to be exposed during the
various Smith Act trials and Subversive Activities Control Board
proceedings. Then, in a series of important rulings in 1956 and
1957, the U.S. Supreme Court imposed major restrictions on uses
of FBI reports, challenged the premise that individual liberties
must be sacrificed to safeguard the national security, and thereby
threatened to close what for FBI officials had been an effective
means of propagandizing antiradical fears. The Court's decisions
in effect reduced the scope of the Eisenhower security program,
limited federal loyalty officials' ability to fire summarily individual
employees, struck down state loyalty statutes, undercut the earlier
Dennis ruling so that a Smith Act conviction now required the
government to prove advocacy to commit violence, ordered the Subversive
Activities Control Board* to reconsider its ruling that the U.S.
Communist party must register as a Communist organization because
of the "tainted" evidence on which this ruling had been
based, held that state officials' summary dismissal of employees
who took the Fifth Amendment violated due process, required that
FBI reports on pretrial testimony of government witnesses be made
available to defense attorneys during trial proceedings, and overturned
House Committee on Un-American Activities contempt citations of
a subpoenaed "unfriendly" witness on the ground that
the committee's "question under inquiry" had not been
made clear to the individual. 3
These Court decisions ironically occurred simultaneously with
an increased concern among FBI officials, in the aftermath of
the Successful Montgomery (Alabama) bus boycott of 1955, about
the degree of Communist influence in the more militant civil rights
movement, which threatened to disrupt Southern race relations
and to transform national politics. Reflecting this conservative
concern, FBI Director Hoover sent, in the spring of 1956, a series
of reports to the White House alleging Communist influence and
involvement in the civil rights movement. President Eisenhower
responded by requesting that Hoover brief the Cabinet on the Southern
racial situation. Hoover did so, emphasizing particularly the
Communists' role in lobbying for civil rights objectives and the
NAACP's plans to push for civil rights legislation. Following
up on this effort, in 1957 the FBI prepared and disseminated to
the military intelligence agencies a 137-page report on Communist
influence and strategy toward the NAACP. 4
Sensitive to the restrictions imposed by the Supreme Court's
rulings on the uses of the bureau's investigative findings, still
alarmed over the seriousness of the internal security problem,
in August 1956 FBI officials devised a formal program to provide
alternative means for containing Communists.
Having successfully averted meaningful executive oversight
(whether by the president or the attorney general) either when
formulating the Security Index program or when securing presidential
authorization to investigate "subversive activities,"
FBI officials unilaterally instituted a so-called counterintelligence
program to neutralize the U.S. Communist party -- the first of
a series of programs (captioned COINTELPROs). This COINTELPRO
was initiated without the knowledge or authorization of either
the attorney general or the president. Hoover's 1956 decision
was unique not because the bureau began to "disrupt"
radical organizations -- the FBI had been doing that at least
since 1941 -- but because it initiated a formal program based
on written directives and responsive to the direct supervisory
control of the FBI director. No longer willing simply to prosecute
Communist officials, bureau officials had concluded by 1956 that
more aggressive and extralegal techniques were essential and feasible.
The memorandum formally instituting this program, dated August
28, 1956, sharply outlines the political nature of this decision.
By August 1956 bureau officials no longer considered the Communist
party an actual espionage or sabotage threat. Instead they were
concerned about the Communist party's "influence over the
masses, ability to create controversy leading to confusion and
disunity, penetration of specific channels in American life where
public opinion is molded, and espionage and sabotage potential."
These officials' extreme anti-radicalism and elitism, in short,
made them fearful that without effective counteraction the public
might be unduly receptive to radical appeals. In a memorandum
to FBI official L. V. Boardman, Alan Belmont (the head of the
FBI's Internal Security Section) further highlighted these political
objectives. The FBI had traditionally attempted to "foster
factionalism" within the Communist party, Belmont wrote.
Internal Communist party divisions resulting from developments
at the Twentieth Party Congress of the Soviet Communist party
and the disruptive impact of Smith Act prosecutions and Subversive
Activities Control Board proceedings, however, provided an unparalleled
opportunity for the bureau to "initiate on a broader scale
than heretofore attempted, a counterintelligence program against
the CP." Belmont then enumerated recommended FBI-initiated
"disruptive" efforts and concluded: "The Internal
Security Section is giving this program continuous thought and
attention and we are remaining alert for situations which might
afford additional opportunities for further disruption of the
CP, USA." This COINTELPRO-Communist party was expanded in
March 1960 and then in October 1963 to prevent Communist infiltration
of mass organizations varying from the NAACP to Boy Scout troops.
Significantly, under this expansion the program's focus shifted
from party members to non-Communist groups or individuals whom
FBI officials suspected might be susceptible to Communist influence.
The highly political nature of COINTELPRO activities as well
as the fact that this program had been initiated without the knowledge
of responsible administration officials necessitated procedures
to ensure against public knowledge and, in addition, to control
whatever information high-level administration officials received
about this program. Prior to instituting a COINTELPRO-activity,
FBI agents were required to secure advance approval (whether from
FBI Director Hoover directly, FBI Assistant Director Clyde Tolson,
or the head of the Intelligence Division) and to specify proposed
safeguards that would preclude public knowledge of the FBI's involvement
in these approved activities. A memorandum authorizing the initiation
of a later COINTELPRO pointedly articulated this concern: "Under
no circumstance 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 considered
under the program." Such control procedures (similar to 1942
Do Not File procedures for break-ins and the 1940-44 pink slip/blue
slip procedure used by FBI officials for "sensitive"
information forwarded to FBI Director Hoover) indicate the FBI
officials' sole concern: not illegality but political embarrassment
and/or political harm. 7
On May 8, 1958, FBI Director Hoover ostensibly informed Eisenhower
administration officials of this COINTELPRO Communist party. Having
precluded independent knowledge of this program outside the bureau,
Hoover could volunteer whatever information he deemed appropriate.
Hoover's May 8, 1958, letters advising Attorney General William
Rogers and Special Assistant to the President Robert Cutler that
in August 1956 the FBI had initiated a program "designed
to promote disruption within the ranks of the Community Party,"
carefully confined administration knowledge about this COINTELPRO.
Specific FBI activities were listed, including the use of informants
to provoke "acrimonious debates" and anonymous mailings
to ensure "disillusionment and defection" and increase
"factionalism" among party members. Beyond citing the
use of informants and mailings, however, Hoover had not fully
informed the Eisenhower White House about other more questionable
FBI COINTELPRO activities. 8
Neither Rogers nor Cutler pressed Hoover for further details
about this program. In addition, Hoover, on November 8, 1958,
briefed the Eisenhower Cabinet about the FBI's COINTELPRO-Communist
party. (We do not know why Hoover had been invited to do so. The
considerable time lag between the FBI director's May letters and
this November briefing suggests that the two were not related.
Hoover's briefing and the booklet he distributed at the November
Cabinet meeting that focused on Soviet espionage activities further
suggest that the catalyst stemmed from administration concerns
about Soviet activities.) The briefing did not accurately portray
the nature and thrust of FBI officials' objectives. The "top
secret" booklet (which was collected at the end of the meeting)
was intended to illustrate his remarks (in the words of the Cabinet
minutes) "regarding Russian intentions, intelligence techniques
and our counterintelligence activities." Hoover's oral remarks
specifically cited double agents, scientific developments such
as micro-dots, and the increased number of passport requests by
"known Communist supporters." Seven FBI programs were
described in the thirty-six-page booklet, identified as being
"part of [FBI] counterintelligence operations" and "specific
answers to specific problems which have arisen within the FBI's
investigative jurisdiction." The first six programs related
directly to espionage; the seventh described the FBI's COINTELPRO:
To counteract a resurgence of Communist Party influence in
the United States, we have a seventh program designed to intensify
any confusion and dissatisfaction among its members. During the
past few years, this program has been most effective. Selective
informants were briefed and trained to raise controversial issues
within the Party. In the process, many were able to advance themselves
to higher positions. The Internal Revenue Service was furnished
the names and addresses of Party functionaries who had been active
in the underground apparatus. Based on this information, investigations
were instituted in 262 possible income tax evasion cases. Anticommunist
literature and simulated Party documents were mailed anonymously
to carefully chosen members. 9
Although the briefing book accurately conveyed some of the
FBI's COINTELPRO activities, Hoover had ostensibly informed the
administration without having in fact done so. First, the FBI
director had introduced this COINTELPRO in the context of counterespionage
activities. Both Hoover's oral report and the FBI booklet only
briefly cited the COINTELPRO and directly tied it with espionage
programs. Moreover, Cabinet officials had not had the opportunity
to read the booklet carefully in advance of the meeting and thereby
appreciate this seventh program's distinctiveness. Although Hoover
had technically briefed the Cabinet, what he understood and what
Cabinet officials were led to understand about this program would
remain widely divergent. The Cabinet minutes, if brief (as were
all Eisenhower Cabinet minutes), are eloquent testimony to this
fact. Significantly, there is no record that Hoover was queried
about this program's authority -- whether legislative or executive
-- and whether the identified activities were legal or permissible.
This does not confirm necessarily that the Cabinet had neither
read nor understood pages 35-36 of the FBI booklet constitutional
and legal questions might simply not have troubled the conservative
By identical January 10, 1961, letters to Secretary of State-designate
Dean Rusk, Attorney General-designate Robert Kennedy, and Deputy
Attorney General-designate Byron White, FBI Director Hoover similarly
informed high-level Kennedy administration officials about the
ongoing COINTELPRO-Communist party. Hoover appended a memorandum
to these letters outlining Communist party activities and the
FBI's internal security responsibilities "and our counterattack
against the CPUSA."
Hoover began by bleakly depicting the U.S. Communist party's
subversive goals and the gravity of communism's "threat to
the internal security of the United States." After outlining
FBI investigative responsibilities and authority, the FBI director
enumerated the FBI's "many-pronged" "counterattack"
against the party and some of the FBI's "more effective programs":
penetration of the Party at all levels with security informants;
use of various techniques to keep the Party off balance and disillusion
individual communists concerning communist ideology; investigation
of every known member of the CPUSA in order to determine whether
he should be detained in the event of a national emergency; and
gathering evidence to be used in prosecutions of communists and
communist organizations. (Emphasis added)
The FBI director more precisely reported:
As an adjunct to our regular investigative operations, we
carry on a carefully planned program of counterattack against
the CPUSA which keeps it off balance. Our primary purpose is to
bring about disillusionment on the part of individual members
which is carried on from both inside and outside the Party organizations.
. . .
In certain instances we have been successful in preventing
communists from seizing control of legitimate mass organizations
and have discredited others who were secretly operating inside
such organizations."' (Emphasis added)
Hoover's memorandum apprised the attorney general-designate
of the FBI's COINTELPRO-Communist party. To the individual currently
knowledgeable about the COINTELPROs, the emphasized language can
be interpreted as fully informative. Can we conclude, however,
that Robert Kennedy understood what the FBI was doing? Hoover's
language is both vague and cryptic; his references to what clearly
constituted harassment were insufliciently descriptive and imprecise
and were enveloped by more specific language either alarmingly
describing Communist subversion or enumerating the FBI's legal
authority and responsibilities. As in 1958, FBI Director Hoover
technically informed his superiors about this COINTELPRO without
having provided the information essential for an independent judgment.
Kennedy, moreover, had not been informed that this program had
been unilaterally instituted by Hoover without the attorney general's
prior consent. This does not exonerate the attorney general; clearly
he had failed to insist upon additional information about these
activities and their authority. Nonetheless, when the Kennedy
White House formally requested a later briefing on all "internal
security programs," Hoover's July 25, 1961, description of'
the FBI's "investigative programs" did not list the
COINTELPRO's disruptive activities. 11
Hoover's and other high-level FBI officials' concern about
the political activities of another radical organization -- in
this case, the Socialist Workers party (SWP) -- resulted in yet
another COINTELPRO, again initiated without the attorney general's
prior knowledge or authorization. What particularly exercised
Hoover, as his October 12, 1961 letter to all special agents in
charge announcing this new "disruptive program" highlights,
was the SWP's radical politics:
The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) has, over the past several
years, been openly espousing its line on a local and national
basis through running candidates for public office and strongly
directing and/or supporting such causes as Castro's Cuba and integration
problems arising in the South. The SWP has also been in frequent
contact with international Trotskyite groups stopping short of
open and direct contact with these groups.
Outlining this COINTELPRO's "educational" purpose,
Hoover emphasized the need to "alert the public to the fact
that the SWP is not just another socialist group but follows the
revolutionary principles of Marx, Lenin and Engels as interpreted
by Leon Trotsky." This was not to be a crash program; "only
carefully thought-out operations with the widest possible effect
and benefit to the nation should be submitted." After careful
evaluation, this program might subsequently be expanded. 12
While these FBI COINTELPROs (Communist party and Socialist
Workers party) had been unilaterally initiated, the COINTELPRO-White
Hate groups were indirectly responsive to Johnson administration
pressures. Disturbed by the spread of the Ku Klux Klan activities
throughout the South, in early 1964 Attorney General Robert Kennedy
sent a team Of Justice Department lawyers to Mississippi. Based
on this team's report and his own findings, a memorandum prepared
by Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall in June 1964 proposed
that the FBI should be encouraged "to develop its own procedures
for the collection of' intelligence" and
consideration should be given by the Federal Bureau of Investigation
to new procedures for identification of individuals who may be
or have been involved in acts of terrorism, and to the possible
participation in such acts by law enforcement officials or at
least their toleration of terrorist activity . . . .
The unique difficulty . . . is in gathering information on
fundamentally lawless activities which have the sanction of local
law enforcement agencies, political officials and a substantial
segment of the white population. The techniques followed in the
use of specially trained special assignment agents in the infiltration
of Communist groups should be of value. If you [Johnson] approve,
it might be desirable to take up with the Bureau the possibility
of developing a similar effort to meet this problem. 13
Concurrently, President Johnson dispatched former CIA Director
Allen Dulles to investigate the disappearance of three civil rights
workers in Mississippi (involved in a nationally publicized voter
registration project). In his report to the president, Dulles
recommended substantially increasing the number of FBI agents
in Mississippi to help "control the terrorist activities."
Whether because of Dulles's or Marshall's recommendations
(or both), the president subsequently directed Hoover (according
to Don Whitehead's sympathetic study of the FBI) "to put
people after the Klan and study it from one county to the next.
I want the FBI to have the best intelligence possible to check
on the activities of these people." 15
White House and Justice Department officials might have wanted
the FBI to intensify investigations of the Klan; bureau officials
moved beyond this limited effort. In July 1964 Hoover first transferred
supervision of investigations of the Klan and other white supremacist
groups from the General Investigative Division to the Domestic
Intelligence Division. Among the reasons advanced for this transfer
were the Domestic Intelligence Division's "wide experience"
in the penetration of subversive organizations through informants,
anonymous sources, sophisticated microphone and technical surveillance,
interview programs of highly specialized nature, etc." In
addition, the head of the Domestic Intelligence Division argued,
his division "would be in a position to launch a disruptive
counterintelligence program against the Klan and other hate groups
with the same effectiveness that they are now doing insofar as
the Communist Party is concerned." This recommendation was
supported by the head of the FBI's Inspection Division and ultimately
was approved by FBI Director Hoover. 16
Concurrently, on July 30, 1964, Hoover directed the Domestic
Intelligence Division to study whether to initiate a counterintelligence
program aimed at "hate groups." On August 27, 1964,
the Domestic Intelligence Division rccommended the immediate initiation
of "a hard-hitting, closely supervised, coordinated counterintelligence
program to expose, disrupt and otherwise neutralize the Ku Klux
Klan (KKK) and specified other hate groups." Hoover concurred
and, in a letter of September 2, 1964, advised all special agents
The activities of these groups [the Klan and other white supremacist
organizations] must be followed on a continuous basis so we may
take advantage of all opportunities for counterintelligence and
also inspire action in instances where circumstances warrant.
The devious rnaneuvers and duplicity of these groups must be exposed
to public scrutiny through the cooperation of reliable news media
sources, both locally and [in Washington]. We must frustrate any
effort of the groups to consolidate their forces or to recruit
new or youthful adherents. In every instance, consideration should
be given to disrupting the organized activity of these groups
and no opportunity should be missed to capitalize upon organizational
and personal conflicts of their leadership.
Whether Hoover was more sensitive to the illegality of the
FBI's expanded COINTELPRO efforts or concerned about this program's
possible impact upon the bureau's relations with Southern law
enforcement officials and political leaders, in contrast to his
earlier COINTELPRO authorization letters, he pointedly emphasized
the need for secrecy:
In instances where a reliable and cooperative news media representative
or other source outside the Bureau is to be contacted or utilized
in connection with a proposed counterintelligence operation, it
will be incumbent upon the recommending office to furnish assurances
the source will not reveal the Bureau's interest or betray our
... You are cautioned that the nature of this new endeavor
is 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 this sensitive operation. 17
Indirectly responsive to White House and Justice Department
pressures, FBI Director Hoover later independently briefed Attorneys
General Nicholas Katzenbach (in 1965), Ramsey Clark (in 1967),
and John Mitchell (in 1969) and White House aide Marvin Watson
(in 1965) about this COINTELPRO. Having only sought an intensification
of FBI investigations of the Klan, Johnson administration officials
had no independent knowledge of the general nature of the FBI's
COINTELPROs (Mitchell was inadequately briefed about an ongoing
program). Neither the Johnson nor the Nixon administrations apparently
fully appreciated Hoover's briefing memorandums. Hoover's memorandums,
moreover, focused on legitimate and legal FBI investigative activities
and his descriptions of FBI "disruption" tactics were
sketchy and incomplete.
Hoover began his September 2, 1965, memorandum to Attorney
General Nicholas Katzenbach (captioned "Penetration and disruption
of Klan organizations-racial matters"), for example, by recounting
how the FBI's successful high-level "penetration" of
the Klan had helped solve "a number of cases involving racial
violence in the South," contributed to the recovery of stolen
weapons and ammunition, without public knowledge "forestall[ed]
violence in certain racially explosive areas," and FBI informants
and sources were obtaining "up-to-date intelligence data
concerning racial matters." Then, in a glancing reference
to the FBI's COINTELPRO, the FBI director added:
We also are seizing every opportunity to disrupt the activities
of Klan organizations. Typical is the manner in which we exposed
and thwarted a "kick back" scheme a Klan group was using
in one southern state to help finance its activities. One member
of the group was selling insurance to other Klan members and would
deposit a generous portion of the premium refunds in the Klan
treasury. As a result of the action we took, the insurance company
learned of the scheme and cancelled all the policies held by Klan
members, thereby cutting off a sizeable source of revenue which
had been used to finance Klan activities. 18
Hoover's September 2, 1965, memorandum (a copy of which was
sent to Special Assistant to the President Marvin Watson) was
disingenuous. Although recounting one incident of "disruption,"
it was vague as to method and did not cite representative COINTELPRO
activities -- identified activities, moreover, would not elicit
a questioning response from the attorney general. Whether or not
Attorney General Katzenbach read this memorandum carefully and
fully understood the nature and extent of the FBI's anti-Klan
activities, his September 3, 1965, response is at least revealing
of Justice Department supervision of the bureau. Captioning his
memorandum as responding to "Your memorandum of September
2, regarding penetration and disruption of Klan Organizations,"
Katzenbach either had not understood these disruption tactics
or intentionally refused to acknowledge having been briefed about
questionable "disruptive" activities:
I have been aware in a general way of the accomplishments
of the Bureau in the area of Klan penetration, but I appreciate
having the benefit of detailed information on this subject, and
I hope you will continue to keep me up to date on it.
May I take this opportunity to congratulate you on the development
of your informant system in the Klan organizations and on the
results you have obtained through it. It is unfortunate that the
value of these activities would in most cases be lost if too extensive
publicity were given to them; however, perhaps at some point it
may be possible to place these achievements on the public record,
so that the Bureau can receive its due credit. 19 (Emphasis added)
During December 3, 1975, testimony before the Senate Select
Committee on Intelligence Activities, the former attorney general
pointedly denied having been briefed by this memorandum. The bureau,
Katzenbach maintained, frequently "used terms of art, or
euphemisms, without informing the Attorney General that they were
terms of art." 20
Katzenbach's December 1975 testimony cannot, however, be dismissed
as a self-serving attempt to escape responsibility. Annual FBI
reports of 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, and 1968, which Hoover forwarded
to the White House and to the attorney general, contain a lengthy
section detailing the FBI's specifically designated "counterintelligence"
programs. These reports described legitimate criminal investigations
and did not even slightly hint that the FBI sought to "expose,
disrupt and otherwise neutralize" organizations as diverse
as the Communist party, the Socialist Workers party, or the Klan
(and, after 1967 and 1968, Black Nationalist and New Left organizations).
The annual reports conveyed a narrow, literal definition of counterintelligence.
In addition, when Klan leaders complained to FBI and Post Office
officials in 1967 about a possible mail fraud involving a faked
letter actually prepared by the bureau under this COINTELPRO,
FBI officials approached the Chief Postal Inspector's office in
Washington to ascertain contemplated action on this complaint.
Informed that the matter had been referred to the Justice Department's
Criminal Division, FBI officials did not brief Justice or Post
Office officials that FBI agents authored this faked letter. When
the Criminal Division concluded that no investigation was warranted,
Washington bureau officials then directed the local FBI field
office to prepare a second phony letter. 21
FBI Director Hoover's briefing of Attorney General Ramsey
Clark paralleled that of Katzenbach. Hoover advised the attorney
general on December 19, 1967, that the lengthy attached memorandum
(with a copy to Deputy Attorney General Warren Christopher) captioned
"Ku Klux Klan investigations FBI accomplishments" had
been prepared in response to Clark's conversation with FBI Assistant
Director Cartha De Loach "concerning FBI coverage and penetration"
of the Klan. Much of this information was already a matter of
public record, the FBI director conceded; his memorandum also
cited "matters dealing with extremely sensitive operations
of this Bureau and it is suggested that this be handled on a strict
need-to-know basis." The memorandum summarized the Klan's
history and present status, outlined FBI investigative authority,
detailed FBI investigations of the more important Klan cases,
and described the FBI informant program and what Hoover captioned
as "special projects." This "special projects"
section vaguely described the FBI's COINTELPRO.
Hoover specifically recounted a number of COINTELPRO projects.
These included efforts to remove Klan officials: disseminating
information within Klan units to discredit the leadership, provoke
scandal, and reduce the Klan's effectiveness; disseminating information
to local police officials to ensure prosecution of Klan officials
under local law; identifying those state troopers who were Klan
members to state authorities; and selectively interviewing Klan
members to "cause disillusionment of the members and disruption
of the organization." Hoover's references might have been
lengthy and descriptive. Nonetheless, they did have distinct law
enforcement purposes, and no single incident had been cited wherein
the FBI had disseminated information to the media, attempted to
deny Klan members private employment, or tried to break up marriages.
Hoover's description, for example, of the FBI's "special
projects" in Virginia specified:
In the fall of 1965 the United Klans of America began an intensive
organizational effort in the State of Virginia. We immediately
began an all-out effort to penetrate the Virginia Klan, contain
its growth, and deter violence. Working closely with local and
state authorities we were able to disseminate information on contemplated
cross burnings. Several arrests were made. . . .
. . . We provided the Governor [in December 1966] with information
regarding Klan activities in his state. As a result, Governor
[Mills] Godwin pressed for more effective enforcements of Virginia
cross burning laws, and publically [sic] repudiated the Ku Klux
Klan. . . .
In May, 1966, we learned of Klan plans to "arrange an
accident" for [name deleted] a civil rights worker working
in the State of Virginia. We advised [deleted] and local authorities
of the plot against her life and alerted our informants to follow
the plot closely. To this date, the Klan has taken no action against
[deleted]. This is just one of many examples of our notifying
authorities and intended victims of racial violence in order that
they could take appropriate protective measures. 22
During his December 3, 1975, testimony before the Senate Select
Committee on Intelligence Activities, Clark also denied knowledge
of the existence, scope, or purpose of the COINTELPRO-White Hate
groups. When pressed as to his response to the December 19, 1967,
memorandum, in a frank admission of the carelessness of the Justice
Department's oversight of the FBI, the former attorney general
affirmed: "Did they [the words describing the "special
projects"] put me on notice? No. Why? I either did not read
them, or if I read them, didn't read them carefully. . . . So
I guess I think I didn't read this. I think perhaps I had asked
for it for someone else, and either bucked it on to them or I
never saw it." 23
FBI Director Hoover also briefed Attorney General John Mitchell
on September 17, 1969 (with copies to the deputy attorney general,
and the assistant attorneys general in charge of the Criminal,
Internal Security, and Civil Rights Divisions). In his one-page
letter captioned "Investigation of Klan organizations-Racial
Matters (Klan)," Hoover recounted the "Significant progress
we have recently made in our investigation of the Ku Klux Klan."
"During the last several months [implying quite recent efforts
although the COINTELPRO-White Hate groups had been initiated in
1964]," the FBI director reported, "while various national
and state leaders of the United Klan of America remain in prison,
we have attempted to negate the activities of the temporary leaders
of the Ku Klux Klan." The only "negation" activity
Hoover cited was the "careful use and instruction of selected
racial informants" to "initiate a split within the United
Klans of America.The FBI director then promised to devote "full
attention to our responsibilities in an effort to accomplish the
maximum possible neutralization of the Klan." 24
In 1967 the COINTELPRO-White Hate groups investigations were
expanded to obtain "details concerning [Klan or other white
supremacist organizations'] rallies [and] demonstrations"
and in 1968 to include information about groups "known to
sponsor demonstrations against integration and . . bussing."
In 1969 FBI coverage was broadened to include "full details
concerning the speeches made at the rallies or demonstrations,
as well as the identities of the speakers." Beginning in
1971, not only were persons with a "potential for violence"
investigated but anyone "who in judgment of SAC should be
subject of investigation due to extremist activities." This
reporting requirement virtually granted special agents in charge
of FBI field offices unlimited discretion to investigate dissident
Simultaneously, FBI investigations of civil rights and black
nationalist organizations intensified in 1964, partly in response
to White House pressure. Following the outbreak of the first urban
racial riots during the summer of 1964, President Johnson directed
the FBI to investigate their origins and extent. As civil rights
organizations became more active and militant, and as racial riots
recurred in 1965 in other urban centers, the FBI in early 1965
and again in 1966 intensified investigations of "General
Racial Matters." FBI investigations then focused on "black
nationalist groups," "hate-type organizations"
with a "propensity for violence and civil disorder,"
and "militant- black leaders and personalities active in
planning demonstrations, rallies, or marches in the North or the
South. At the same time, in June 1964, earlier FBI investigative
efforts were refined and a "special desk" in the Domestic
Intelligence Division was established to supervise an "intensifiication
of the investigation of communist influence in racial matters."
When these FBI investigations could not confirm either Communist
control of and direction to civil rights activities or militant
black leaders' violations of federal law, in August 25, 1967,
FBI Director Hoover ordered twenty-three special agents in charge
to institute another COINTELPRO-Black Nationalist-Hate groups.
Again, this COINTELPRO's purpose was clearly political: "to
expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize
the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and
groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters,
and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder."
Hoover directed the agents to investigate these organizations
on "a continuous basis"; to exploit "all opportunities
for counterintelligence" "enthusiastic[ally] and imaginative[ly],"
and specifically ordered:
The pernicious background of such groups, their duplicity,
and devious maneuvers must be exposed to public scrutiny where
such publicity will have a neutralizing effect. Efforts of the
various groups to consolidate their forces or to recruit new or
youthful adherents must be frustrated. 27
Concerned about the "tremendous increase in black nationalist
activity, and the approach of the summer," on February 29,
1968, FBI official George Moore recommended extending this COINTELPRO
to all forty-one FBI field offices (and not simply the twenty-three
offices then conducting the program). Such an expansion was needed
"to prevent the coalition of militant black nationalist groups,
prevent the rise of a leader who might unify and electrify these
violence-prone elements, prevent these militants from gaining
respectability and prevent the growth of these groups among America's
youth." On March 4, 1968, FBI Director Hoover concurred in
this recommendation. He directed special agents to develop procedures,
report back how they were handling this assignment, and submit
a progress letter every ninety days "summarizing counterintelligence
operations proposed during the period, operations effected, and
tangible results." Once again the FBI director emphasized:
"Each operation must be designed to protect the Bureau's
interest so that there is no possibility of embarrassment to the
Bureau. Beyond this the Bureau will give every possible consideration
to your proposals." 28
Black organizations not formerly prominent in civil rights
activities or only recently organized had not been specifically
cited under the August 25, 1967, or March 4, 1968, authorization
letters. Individuals already on the FBI's list of Key Black Extremists
(which included leaders of the Black Panther party) were, however,
targeted. Soon concerned about the dramatic rise and appeal of
the Black Panthers during the late 1960s, on November 25, 1968,
Hoover ordered "imaginative and hard-hitting intelligence
measures aimed at crippling" the Black Panther party and,
on January 30, 1969, directed additional FBI field offices to
expand this aim. 29
Quite independently of these FBI efforts to discredit and
limit the appeal of black civil rights organizations, the Department
of Justice solicited additional information on black organizations
or leaders who might have been conspiring to "plan, promote
or aggravate riot activity." This intensified investigative
effort was formally authorized on September 14, 1967, by Attorney
General Ramsey Clark and was based on specific statutory authority.
To refine this effort and to utilize effectively the obtained
intelligence, the attorney general on December 18, 1967, specifically
created an interdivision intelligence unit within the Department
of Justice having the limited responsibility "for reviewing
and reducing to quickly retrievable form all information that
may come to this Department relating to organizations and individuals
throughout the country who may play a role, whether purposefully
or not, either in instigating or spreading civil disorders, or
in preventing or checking them." 30 If Clark's purpose was
prosecutive and not political, his authorization nonetheless provided
cover for an already ongoing unilateral FBI program.
The 1960s was a decade of protest. College students as well
as civil rights organizations were in the forefront of this protest.
Beginning first by challenging arbitrary university requirements,
college students soon moved to support civil rights objectives
and then to radical politics, in reaction to the Vietnam War.
Amorphous and nonideological, the student left (the so-called
New Left) had limited connections and associations with traditional
radical organizations. The appeal of the New Left, moreover, was
not necessarily radical, deriving as well from moral convictions,
an activist opposition to an increasingly unpopular war, and the
policies and style of President Lyndon Johnson. Not surprisingly,
FBI investigations of the New Left began by seeking whether to
ascertain Communist or subversive influence and then whether to
include student activists on the Security Index. As early as April
28, 1965, Hoover directed FBI officials to prepare a memorandum
"with emphasis upon the communist influence" within
the antiwar movement "so that it can be used publicly by
prominent officials of the Administration whom the President intends
to send in [sic] various parts of the country to speak on the
Vietnam situation." Ultimately, the bureau's inability to
confirm Communist control over the New Left, thereby discrediting
campus radicalism, provided the impetus to establish the COINTELPRO-New
The specific catalyst for this decision was a demonstration
led by radical students on the Columbia University campus. FBI
officials viewed this demonstration, like others on college campuses,
as "a direct challenge to law and order and a substantial
threat to the stability of society in general." Appalled
by university officials' refusal to call in the local police,
thereby effectively "tying the hands of law enforcement officials,"
and alarmed by the "era of disruption and violence"
sweeping the nation "caused to a large extent" by the
New Left, Domestic Intelligence Division officials Charles Brennan
and William Sullivan on May 9, 1968, recommended the "immediate
enactment" of a COINTELPRO "to neutralize the New Left
and Key Activists . . . who are the driving forces behind the
New Left." Brennan affirmed: "The purpose of this program
is to expose, disrupt and otherwise neutralize the activities
of this group and persons connected with it. It is hoped that
with this new program their violent and illegal activities may
be reduced if not curtailed."
FBI Director Hoover formally concurred on May 10, 1968, and
solicited suggestions from all FBI field offices for "counterintelligence
action against the New Left." After analyzing these replies,
on October 28, 1968, Hoover authorized the COINTELPRO-New Left.
Particular projects to be initiated included drafting anonymous
letters and disseminating derogatory information to cooperative
press contacts and "friendly news media." "Be alert
for opportunities to confuse and disrupt New Left activities by
misinformation. . . ." FBI officials were again urged: "You
are reminded that no counterintelligence action is to be taken
without Bureau approval. Insure that this program is assigned
to an Agent with an excellent knowledge of both New Left groups
and individuals. It must be approached with imagination and enthusiasm
if it is to be successful." 31
Lacking external authorization (either in law, executive orders,
or presidential directives) and clearly political, Hoover required
his or a designated representative's advance approval for each
proposed COINTELPRO project and further emphasized the need to
forestall public knowledge of the project's existence and the
bureau's involvement, and established a centralized reviewing
system. Ironically, these carefully devised safeguards, particularly
the requirement that proposed projects be submitted and receive
formal authorization in writing, rendered the COINTELPRO vulnerable
should the sanctity of FBI files be compromised.
On March 8, 1971, an activist antiwar group (the Citizens'
Commission to Investigate the FBI) broke into the FBI's Media
(Pennsylvania) resident agency office and stole approximately
one thousand FBI documents. In subsequent weeks, this group selectively
released carefully screened documents to members of Congress,
individual journalists, and organizations identified in the pilfered
documents as having been targeted by the FBI. These documents
partially revealed investigative techniques, priorities, and the
scope of the FBI's secret police activities. These included: surveillance
of anti-war and black activist groups on college campuses, intelligence-gathering
in black neighborhoods, and attempts to harass New Left activists.
More important, one of the fourteen FBI documents released to
the Washington Post was captioned COINTELPRO-New Left. This September
16, 1970, document recommended intensified FBI interviewing of'
dissidents so that this "will enhance the paranoia endemic
in these circles and will further serve to get the point across
there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox." 32 Release of
these documents threatened to imperil COINTELPRO's continuance:
should additional documents be pilfered front FBI offices revealing
the scope and political nature of FBI COINTELPRO activities the
integrity and authority of the FBI and its director could be severely
undermined. (Hoover had reached mandatory retirement age in 1965
but had been allowed to continue as FBI director by an executive
order of President Johnson.)
Although the Media documents confirmed the political biases
of FBI investigations and hinted at COINTELPRO's existence (the
captioned September 16, 1970, document), neither the Nixon White
House nor Attorney General John Mitchell advocated an investigation
of bureau practices and their legality. To the contrary. On March
23, 1971, Attorney General Mitchell warned that publication of
these documents (which other Justice Department sources certified
had been stolen front the FBI's Media office) could endanger national
security and the lives of some federal agents. Before issuing
this plea, Mitchell admitted to having considered seeking a court
order restraining publication. The next day, however, Justice
Department officials assumed the offensive and charged that the
by-then released fourteen documents were among one thousand which
had been stolen from the FBI office and that those responsible
for this raid and dissemination had carefully selected documents
to create an unwarranted impression of FBI illegality and irresponsibility.
"Actually," one Department of Justice official affirmed,
"a full examination of the stolen documents reveals the FBI
showed restraint rather than overzealousness."
The next month (on April 14, 1971), Senators Gaylord Nelson
and Edmund Muskie released copies of still other FBI reports disclosing
FBI surveillance of Earth Day activities. Senator Nelson, moreover,
demanded creation of a special commission to investigate domestic
intelligence-gathering and surveillance activities. The Nixon
White House responded by dismissing these charges as unfounded,
"blatantly political," and intended to create the false
impression that the FBI was spying on law-abiding citizens. Not
Earth Day activities but persons known to foment violence had
been under surveillance, Mitchell claimed. "One reason the
FBI is the most respected investigative agency in the world,"
the attorney general affirmed, "is that it has steadfastly
remained apart from politics and political activity, and has concerned
itself solely with threats against national security and violations
of federal law." The administration, moreover, was not the
bureau's sole defender. Democratic Senate majority leader Mike
Mansfield similarly dismissed criticisms of the FBI as "more
noise than substance"; Mansfield strongly implied that he
opposed a congressional investigation of the FBI. 33
Although the Nixon administration and the congressional leadership
might have disdained to investigate FBI practices, release of
the Media documents precipitated two internal FBI decisions. Within
four months of the raid, FBI Director Hoover ordered the closing
of 103 of the FBI's resident agencies; rules governing which papers
and files would be kept in residence agencies were tightened and
more strictly enforced. In addition, intricate alarm systems were
installed in resident agencies not housed in well-guarded and
secure buildings. Second, various COINTELPROs were formally terminated
on April 28, 1971.
In an April 27, 1971, memorandum to William Sullivan (the
head of the Domestic Intelligence Division), Charles Brennan recommended
discontinuing COINTELPRO in order "to afford additional security
to our sensitive techniques and operations." Brennan never
alluded directly to the Media documents; his concern derived,
however, less from COINTELPRO's illegality than the FBI director's
requirement that all recommended COINTELPRO activities be submitted
and authorized in writing by Washington headquarters. Brennan
These programs involve a variety of sensitive intelligence
techniques and disruptive activities which are afforded close
supervision at the Seat of Government [a bureau phrase for Washington
headquarters]. They have been carefully supervised with all actions
being afforded prior Bureau approval and an effort has been made
to avoid engaging in harassment. Although successful over the
years, it is felt they should now be discontinued for security
reasons because of their sensitivity.
In exceptional instances where counterintelligence action
is warranted, it will be considered on a highly selective individual
basis with tight procedures to insure absolute security.
FBI Director Hoover concurred. On April 28, 1971, he ordered
the immediate discontinuance of the various COINTELPROs but added:
In exceptional instances where it is considered counterintelligence
action is warranted, recommendations should be submitted to the
Bureau under the individual case caption to which it pertains.
These recommendations will be considered on an individual basis.
You are reminded prior Bureau authority is required before
initiating any activity of a counterintelligence nature. 34
The decision to terminate COINTELPRO was not then a decision
to terminate COINTELPRO-type activities. The Media raid had confirmed
that future raids on FBI field offices could compromise FBI investigative
activities. COINTELPRO's Vulnerability, in fact, stemmed from
Hoover's earlier requirements (1) that every proposal be submitted
for his approval and (2) that field offices submit follow-up reports.
In April 1971, Hoover had simply ordered discontinuance of a formal,
and for that reason vulnerable, program. In the future such activities
could still be instituted ad hoc.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Activities investigation
of COINTELPRO, moreover, uncovered at least three COINTELPRO-type
operations conducted after Hoover's April 28, 1971, termination
order. The committee obtained information concerning two of these
operations from the FBI; the third program (which involved the
leaking of derogatory information about Daniel Ellsberg's lawyer
to Ray McHugh, the chief of Copley News Service's Washington bureau)
had been independently uncovered by the committee staff. In the
Senate Select Committee report on COINTELPRO staff counsel Barbara
The Committee has not been able to determine with any greater
precision the extent to which COINTELPRO may be continuing. Any
proposals to initiate COINTELPRO-type action would be filed under
the individual case caption. The Bureau has over 500,000 case
files, and each one would have to be searched. In this context,
it should be noted that a Bureau search of all field office COINTELPRO
files [in 1975] revealed the existence of five operations in addition
to those known to the [Assistant Attorney General Henry] Petersen
committee [which was directed in 1974 to prepare a report on the
FBI's COINTELPRO]. A search of all investigative files might be
similarly productive. 35
The bureau's interest in limiting its vulnerability proved
to be politically astute -- though not because the Nixon administration
or the congressional leadership was willing to investigate the
FBI. (Senator Nelson's 1971 resolution to create a joint congressional
oversight committee died in committee. Reintroduced in 1973, 1974,
and 1975, the resolution was seriously considered only after the
dramatic revelations of the federal intelligence agencies' abuses
of power were publicized in 1975 and 1976 by the Senate Select
Committee on Intelligence Activities. Responding to the impact
of these revelations, in May 1976 the Senate approved a resolution
to establish a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.) Rather,
the FBI's COINTELPROs were uncovered, because of a suit brought
by NBC correspondent Carl Stern.
On March 20, 1972, Stern wrote Attorney General Richard Kleindienst
requesting "any document which (i) authorized the establishment
and maintenance of Cointelpro-New Left, (ii) terminated such program,
and (iii) ordered or authorized any change in the purpose, scope
or nature of such program." On January 13, 1973, the attorney
general denied Stern's request. The NBC reporter then brought
suit under the Freedom of Information Act of 1966 in the U.S.
District Court for the District of Columbia. During the subsequent
trial, the Justice Department (among other responses) contended
that the court "lacks jurisdiction over the subject matter
of the complaint". The department further had the right to
withhold the requested documents by virtue of Freedom of Information
Act exemptions (arguing that release of these documents would
reveal instructions "on the manner in which the FBI conducts
investigations" and would thereby substantially impair the
effective operation of the FBI).
On July 16, 1973, U.S. District Judge Barrington Parker ordered
the government to submit the requested documents to the court
by July 24, 1973, for in camera inspection. The Justice Department
complied. After reviewing the documents, on September 25, 1973,
Judge Parker ordered their release to Stern. The Justice Department
first appealed this ruling on October 20, 1973, reconsidering
this decision, but then, on December 6, 1973, announced it would
not appeal the judge's order.
That same day Acting Attorney General Robert Bork released
two documents to Stern -- one dated May 10, 1968, announcing the
initiation, and the other dated April 28, 1971, the termination,
of the COINTELPRO-New Left. These releases publicly compromised
three other FBI COINTELPROs. On March 7, 1974, the NBC reporter
received seven additional documents concerning FBI COINTELPROs
involving the Socialist Workers party, White Hate groups, and
Black Nationalist-Hate groups (but inexplicably not the COINTELPRO-Communist
Stern's suit had forced Justice Department officials at least
to initiate an investigation of FBI practices and procedures.
The Department of Justice at the time had been reviewing FBI Director
Clarence Kelley's proposal that the president issue an executive
order directing the FBI to "expand by further defining the
FBI's investigative authority to enable it to develop advance
information" about "terrorist and revolutionaries who
seek to overthrow or destroy the Government." 37 In December
1973, however, Acting Attorney General Robert Bork convinced Attorney
General designate William Saxbe to delay action on Kelley's proposal
and instead to investigate the FBI's COINTELPRO practices. Saxbe
concurred and Assistant Attorney General Henry Petersen was assigned
responsibility to conduct this inquiry. When informed of this
committee's formation, FBI Director Kelley urged Bork to exclude
the FBI's "extremely sensitive foreign intelligence collection
techniques" from the department's review. These, Kelley warned,
were handled within the bureau "on a strictly need-to-know
basis" and should not be included in a study "which
will be beyond the control of the FBI." 38
Still unwilling to exercise administrative responsibility
over the FBI, the Department of Justice concurred in Kelley's
suggestion. In addition, Petersen at first demurred to accept
responsibility to conduct the investigation. FBI Director Kelley,
the Assistant Attorney General instead suggested, should "undertake
this responsibility." Replying that Kelley was extremely
busy and did not "know what was going on over there either,"
Saxbe requested that Petersen conduct this inquiry "for both
of us." Claiming ignorance as to where information could
be obtained, Petersen accordingly requested the FBI to prepare
summaries; these would be "spot checked" for "accuracy"
by representatives from the Justice Department's Criminal Division.
These FBI summaries were brief and rather bland. By not seeking
direct access to the bureau's raw files, moreover, the Petersen
committee could not learn either the reasons why agents had proposed
and FBI Director Hoover had approved particular projects, or how
these particular activities had been implemented.
The Senate Select Committee investigation into the raw files
eventually disclosed the extremely misleading nature of these
FBI summaries when contrasting one FBI summary with the approved
FBI COINTELPRO project. The FBI summary reported: "It was
recommended that an anonymous letter be mailed to the leader of
the Blackstone Rangers, a black extremist organization in Chicago.
The letter would hopefully drive a wedge between the Blackstone
Rangers and the Black Panther Party. The anonymous letter would
indicate that the Black Panther Party in Chicago blamed the leader
of the Blackstone Rangers for blocking their programs." In
fact, the proposed project was more ambitious and far less incidental.
The recommendation emphasized that the Blackstone Rangers were
prone to "violent type activity, shouting, and the like"
and accordingly that an anonymous letter should be sent to a Blackstone
Rangers leader stating that "the Panthers blame you for blocking
their thing and there's supposed to be a hit out for you."
This anonymous letter "may intensify the degree of animosity
between the two groups" and "lead to reprisals against
[the Black Panther party] leadership."
In addition, although criticizing "isolated instances"
for practices "abhorrent in a free society" and "a
small number of instances" where programs "involved
what we consider today to be improper activities," the Petersen
committee report nonetheless affirmed that most programs "were
legitimate" and "were entirely proper and appropriate
law enforcement procedures." The report enumerated these
"entirely proper and appropriate" procedures:
notifying other Government authorities of civil and criminal
violations of group members; interviewing such group members;
disseminating public source material on such individuals and groups
to media representatives; encouraging informants to argue against
the use of violence by such groups; and issuing general public
comment on the activities, policies and objectives of such groups
through testimony at legislative hearings and in other formal
Conceding that certain FBI COINTELPRO proposals violated the
law, the Petersen committee nonetheless recommended against a
any decision as to whether prosecution should be undertaken
must also take into account several other important factors which
bear upon the events in question. These factors are: first, the
historical context in which the programs were conceived and executed
by the Bureau in response to public and even Congressional demands
for action to neutralize the self-proclaimed revolutionary aims
and violence prone activities of extremist groups which posed
a threat to the peace and tranquility of our cities in the mid
and late sixties; second, the fact that each of the COINTELPRO
programs were personally approved and supported by the late Director
of the FBI; and third, the fact that the interference with First
Amendment rights resulting from individual implemented program
actions were insubstantial.
Rather than prosecution, the attorney general should publicly
release the committee's report. (Saxbe complied with this recommendation
and during November 20, 1974, testimony before the House Subcommittee
on Civil and Constitutional Rights released the full report --
portions of the report had been made public in April 1974.) The
Petersen committee also recommended issuance of a directive prohibiting
from instituting any counterintelligence program such as COINTELPRO
without [the attorney general's] prior knowledge and approval.
Specifically, this directive should make it unmistakably clear
that no disruptive action should be taken by the FBI in connection
with its investigative responsibilities involving domestic based
organizations, except those which are sanctioned by rule of law,
procedure, or judicially recognized and accepted police practices,
and which are not in violation of state or federal law. 39
Attorney General Saxbe issued no such directive. In November
1975. however, Saxbe's Successor, Edward Levi, established a departmental
committee to develop new FBI "guidelines," This committee
proposed a series of "preventive action" guidelines.
Under one of these, the FBI would have been authorized to take
"nonviolent emergency measures" to "obstruct or
prevent" the use of force or violence upon the attorney general's
specific finding that there was "probable cause to believe
that violence is imminent and cannot be prevented by arrest."
Because of congressional opposition and because of recognition
that this proposal would not have prevented the recurrence of
COINTELPRO-type activities, Attorney General Levi was eventually
forced to abandon this proposal when formally issuing Justice
Department guidelines on March 10, 1976. 40
Justice Department efforts to minimize COINTELPRO activities
-- whether claiming that violations of First Amendment rights
were "insubstantial" or that most projects were legitimate
-- did not accurately reflect their thrust and nature. First,
many of the activities the Petersen committee report listed as
being "entirely proper and appropriate law enforcement procedures"
scarcely warrant this characterization. Second, the FBI's purposes
for leaking derogatory information to the media about targeted
individuals or organizations were purely political. Third, even
when forwarding information to local and state authorities concerning
planned or actual violations of local and state laws, the FBI
had secured this information without prior investigative authority.
Fourth, many of the bureau's contacts with public officials either
constituted harassment or were intended to deny targeted individuals
COINTELPRO activities included sending anonymous, scurrilous,
and false letters to break up marriages, to sow internal dissension
within organizations, or to inform public and private employers
of the political activities and organizational membership of radical
individuals. Other COINTELPRO activities included efforts to provoke
violence, prevent the election of radicals to public office, prevent
dissidents from speaking or holding meetings, and prevent targeted
individuals or organizations from publishing and disseminating
their views. In addition, the Justice Department's own review
of the FBI's COINTELPRO files led Attorney General Edward Levi
to announce on April 1, 1976, the department's decision to send
notification letters to individuals who might have been harmed
by, or who remained ignorant that they had earlier been the target
of, FBI COINTELPRO activities. By July 1977, 282 such notifications
letters had been sent. 41
Neither innocent nor benign, FBI COINTELPRO activities confirmed
the FBI's consciously political efforts to undermine political
movements which bureau officials found abhorrent. The FBI, moreover,
had not merely responded to public, congressional, or executive
pressure. FBI officials had unilaterally initiated the various
COINTELPROs without the prior knowledge and consent of responsible
leaders either in the Congress or the excecutive branch. Furthermore,
elaborate procedures had been devised to ensure against the attorney
general's, the Congress's, and the public's knowledge of those
activities. This program was formally terminated, it should also
be emphasized, only when the COINTELPROs' secrecy was compromised
in 1971. The nature of the activities conducted under the various
COINTELPROs, the quest to ensure secrecy, and the far-reaching
abuses of power confirmed the extent to which the FBI had become
a law unto itself, had successfully precluded meaningful external
oversight, and had based investigations on political considerations.
* The SACB had been created by the McCarran Internal Security
Act of 1950 and had been assigned responsibility to enforce the
act's registration provisions.
1. IARA, pp. 66, 211 n1. SDSRIARA, p. 16. Allen Weinstein,
Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (New York: Knopf, 1978), pp. 9n,
275-276, 280, 358-359, 365-366. John Chabot Smith, "The Debate
of the Century (Con't.)." Harper's (June 1978), pp. 81-85.
Gary Wills, Nixon Agonistes (New York: New American Library, 1971),
pp. 36-37. Peter Irons, "American Business and the Origins
of McCarthyism: The Cold War Crusade of the United States Chamber
of Commerce," in Griffith and Theoharis, eds., The Specter,
pp. 79-82. For other examples of similar pre-COINTELPRO activities,
see Caute, The Great Fear, pp. 169-181, 474, 481-482.
2. HIA, vol. 6, Federal Bureau of Investigation, pp. 88-89,
170-172, 186-188, 486-494, 535-538, 761, 766-784, 817. Memo, Marvin
Watson to President Lyndon Johnson, July 10, 1967, WHCF FG135,
A12, FG135-6, 1/14/67 6/30/68, LBJ. New York Times, June 4, 1978,
p. 6E. Ungar, FBI, pp. 277-278, 283-288, 355-358, 373-386. IARA,
pp. 242-243, 242 n105, 242 n106, 242 n109. Robert Friedman, "FBI:
Manipulating the Media," Rights, 23 (May/June 1977), pp.
13 14. Milwaukee Journal, Nov. 22, 1977, p. 2; Nov. 23, 1977,
pp. 1, 8; Nov. 24, 1977, pp. 1, 9; Dec. 9, 1977, Accent, p. 4;
Dec. 11, 1977, pp. 1, 15. Weinstein, Perjury, pp. 5, 366. Whitehead,
The FBI Story, pp. 252-253. Walter Goodman, "J. Edgar Hoover
and Me," Nation, 226 (Mar. 25, 1978). p. 325. Robert Wall,
"Special Agent for the FBI," New York Review of Books,
13 (Jan. 27, 1972), pp. 140-167.
3. The more important Supreme Court rulings were Communist
Party v. Subversive Activities Control Board (1956). 351 U.S.
115; Pennsylvania v. Nelson (1956), 350 U.S. 497; Peters v. Hobby
(1955), 349 U.S. 331; Service v. Dulles (1957), 354 U.S. 363;
Slochower v. Board of Education (1956), 350 U.S. 551 ; Cole v.
Young (1956), 351 U.S. 536; Watkins v. United States (1957), 354
U.S. 178; Yates, et al. v. United States (1957), 354 U.S. 298;
and Jencks v. United States (1957), 353 U.S. 657. SDSRIARA, pp.
16-17. Belknap, Cold War Political Justice, pp. 156, 175, 190-192,
216-220, 228-230, 236-248, 261, 263, 265.
4. John Elliff, "Aspects of Federal Civil Rights Enforcement:
The Justice Department and the FBI, 1939-1964," Perspectives
in American History, V (1971), pp. 643-647. HIA, vol. 6, Federal
Bureau of Investigation, p. 473. IARA, p. 180. SDSRIARA, pp. 450-451.
5. Not principally concerned over legal restrictions and holding
alarmist "national security" views, FBI officials were
committed simply to obtaining practical results. IARA, pp. 14,
14 n82, 66, 211 n1. SDSRIARA, pp. 3, 10-11, 15, 16 17, 108, 469-470.
HIA, vol. 6, Federal Bureau of Investigation, p. 70.
6. HIA, vol. 6, Federal Bureau of Investigation, pp. 372-376.
IARA, pp. 66-67, 211, 211 n2. SDSRIARA, pp. 5, 17, 110 111. Similar
considerations underlay Bureau efforts to develop a "responsible"
leader for the civil rights movement. Navasky, "The FBI's
Wildest Dream," pp. 716-718.
7. IARA, pp. 146-147, 151, 156, 281. SDSRIARA, pp. 9 n39,
27, 62, 63-64.
8. IARA, p. 281. SDSRIARA, p. 65. HIA, vol. 6, Federal Bureau
of Investigation, pp. 819-820.
9. Minutes of Cabinet Meeting, Nov. 6, 1958, Cabinet Minutes,
DDE. IARA, pp. 281-282. SDSRIARA, pp. 69-70.
10. HIA, vol. 6, Federal Bureau of Investigation, pp. 821-826.
SDSRIARA, p. 66.
11. IARA, p. 282. SDSRIARA, pp. 465-466.
12. HIA, vol. 6, Federal Bureau of Investigation, p. 377.
SDSRIARA, pp. 17-18.
13. Navasky, Kennedy Justice, pp. 105-106.
14. New York Times, June 27, 1964; Washington Post, June 17,
15. Don Whitehead, Attack Against Terror: The FBI Against
the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi (New York: Funk and Wagnalls,
1970), pp. 90-91.
16. SDSRIARA, pp. 18, 471-472.
17. Ibid., pp. 19-20; HIA, vol. 6, Federal Bureau of Investigation,
18. HIA, vol. 6, Federal Bureau of Investigation, pp. 513-514.
19. Ibid., p. 515.
20. Ibid., pp. 202, 206-207, 213-217, 218, 231-232, 243-247.
21. IARA, pp. 151-152. SDSRIARA, p. 64 n261. Annual FBI Reports
of 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, and 1968. Documentary Supplement, Department
of Justice, vol. XIII, FBI, pt. XlXb, LBJ. The FBI's 1966 report
inaccurately identified this counterintelligence program as "designed
to identify foreign intelligence personnel working against the
United States and to determine their objectives so that protective
measures and counter moves can be devised. These investigations
are largely preventive in nature and their effectiveness cannot
be measured on the basis of convictions or other statistics. Also,
by the very nature of the investigations and the information obtained
from them, a detailed outline of accomplishments cannot be publicly
recorded." Ibid., 1966 Report, p. 23. While other annual
reports were neither so specific nor so dishonest, these same
themes were generally reiterated. See also the bland descriptions
of the FBI's "internal security" responsibilities in
Narrative History, Department of Justice, vol. XIX, Federal Bureau
of Investigation, pp. 22-39, LBJ.
22. HIA, vol. 6, Federal Bureau of Investigation, pp. 516-527.
23. Ibid., pp. 221, 224, 232-235, 240-241.
24. SDSRIARA, p. 69.
25. Ibid., pp. 474-475; HIA, vol. 6, Federal Bureau of Investigation,
26. SDSRIARA, pp. 108, 179, 475-483; HIA, vol. 6, Federal
Bureau of Investigation, p. 68 1. See also Navasky, "The
FBI's Wildest Dream," pp. 716-718 for an account of FBI cointelpro-type
activities directed at civil rights leader Martin Luther King,
27. HIA, vol. 6, Federal Bureau of Investigation, pp. 383-385.
SDSRIARA, pp. 20-21. Milwaukee Journal, Mar. 11, 1978, p. 3.
28. HIA, vol. 6, Federal Bureau of Investigation, pp. 386-392.
29. SDSRIARA, pp. 22, 187--188, 528-531.
30. HIA, vol. 6, Federal Bureau of Investigation, pp. 528-534.
IARA, pp. 83-84. SDSRIARA, pp. 487-501.
31. SDSRIARA, pp. 23-27, 483-489. HIA, vol. 6, Federal Bureau
of Investigation, pp. 393-397. Wise, The American Police State,
32. Milwaukee Journal, Mar. 24, 1971, pp. 1, 6. Wise. The
American Police State, pp. 281, 314n. Ungar, FBI, pp. 136 140,
484-492. IARA, p. 127 n635.
33. Milwaukee Journal. March 24, 1971, pp. 1, 6; March 25,
1971, p. 6; Apr. 15, 1971, pp. 1, 2; April 16, 1971, pp. 1, 2.
34. HIA, vol. 6, Federal Bureau of Investigation, pp. 30,
605. IARA, p. 285. Wise, The American Police State, p. 314n. Ungar,
FBI, p. 488. HDIOIS, p. 3832.
35. HIA, vol. 6, Federal Bureau of Investigation, pp. 30,
49, 90, 165, 330-332, 486-488. SDSRIARA, pp. 13-14. IARA, p. 246.
Milwaukee Journal. Mar. 23, 1975, p. 14.
36. SDSRIARA, p. 73. Milwaukee Journal, Dec. 7, 1973, p. 5;
Dec. 9, 1973, p. 18; March 8, 1974, pp. 1, 7. HDIOIS, pp. 3540-3544,
37. HIA, vol. 6. Federal Bureau of Investigation, pp. 540-575.
SDSRIARA, p. 553. The background to FBI Director Kelley's August
7, 1973, proposal and the response are more fully discussed in
38. SDSRIARA, p. 553. U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary,
Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, Hearings on FBI
Counterintelligence Programs, 93rd Cong., 2d sess., 1974, pp.
9-16, 20-23, 44-47.
39. HIA, vol. 6, Federal Bureau of Investigation, pp. 270-272,
430-433: IARA, pp. 130-131, 271 n20; SDSRIARA, pp. 12, 42, 73-76,
195-198, 553-554. U.S. House, Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee
on Civil and Constitutional Rights, Hearings on FBI Counterintelligence
Programs, 93rd Cong., 2d sess., 1974. pp, 9-16, 20-23, 44-47.
Justice Department officials' indifference and willingness to
minimize FBI COINTELPRO activities are also graphically demonstrated
in Deputy Assistant Attorney General Kevin Maroney's April 8,
1974, testimony before the House Committee on Internal Security.
Even though COINTELPRO documents had been released to NBC reporter
Carl Stern in December 1973 and March 1974 and disclosed programs
dating from 1961, Maroney nonetheless testified: "As has
been indicated in the press by virtue of some documents made available
by the Department, it [Cointel] was a program operated for about
3 years and discontinued in 1971." HDIOIS, p. 3533.
40. HIA, vol. 6, Federal Bureau of investigation, pp. 316-320;
IARA, pp. 135, 316-320; SDSRIARA, p. 76 n314. Kansas City Star,
Aug. 13, 1975, p. 1. Milwaukee Journal, April 4. 1975, p. 7; Dec.
11, 1975. p. 18; Feb. 17. 1976, p. 2; Feb. 18, 1976, pp. 1, 2;
Feb. 28. 1976, p. 1: March 12, 1976, Accent, p. 9; April 9, 1976,
Accent, p. 14. New York Times, Dec. 10, 1976, p. 76: March 14,
1976, p. 4E.
41. HIA, vol. 6, Federal Bureau of Investigation, pp. 24-29,
31-34, 42-48, 50-59, 65-80, 83, 88-90, 92-95, 99-101, 103-104,
118, 151, 171, 271-272, 370-371, 398-407, 430-442, 486-494, 535-538,
606-622, 684-685, 689-702, 762-818. IARA, pp. 10-12, 17-18, 93-94,
180, 215-219, 242-248. SDSRIARA, pp. 7-11, 27-61, 95-96, 96 n68,
188-223, 242 n63, 251-252, 850-855, Blackstock, COINTELPRO, pp.
28-192. HJDIIP, pp. 113, 114, 235-236. Milwaukee Journal, Nov.
22, 1977, p. 2; Nov. 23, 1977, pp. 1, 8; Nov. 24, 1977, pp. 1,
9: Nov. 26, 1977, p. 11.