from the book
Break-ins, Death Threats
and the FBI
the covert war against the Central America movement
by Ross Gelbspan
South End Press, 1991
... he FBI [i]s a national political police force. The Bureau
should be in the business of catching criminals. It should be
removed, once and forever, from the business of monitoring citizens'
political beliefs. As a federal police force engaged in the pursuit
of inter-state crime, drug trafficking, fraud and violence, the
FBI is a significant element in the defense of society. As a political
police, mobilized to protect the interests of any political establishment,
it is an affront to the basic rights of free speech and association
and an insult to the letter and the spirit of the Constitution.
Perhaps the most troubling legacy of the administration's war
on citizen activists was the embrace by the FBI, CIA, National
Security Council and State Department of a doctrine called "active
measures," under which political dissenters can be labeled
as "communist proxies" and investigated as "terrorists"
simply because some of their opinions may conform to some positions
held by the Soviet Union or another government which is considered
hostile to the United States.
While elements of the FBI's probe of domestic political groups
in the 1980s may have been discredited by subsequent revelations,
the doctrine of "active measures" remains in force as
a justification for investigating citizens-whose activities are
not only legal but are specifically protected by the First Amendment
to the Constitution-as terrorists. So categorized, an individual
can become subjected to governmental surveillance, harassment
and intimidation which is legitimized by an array of arcane regulations
governing the federal law enforcement and intelligence apparatus;
may become an instant suspect in the event of an outbreak of violence
in the United States; can be denied any public- or private-sector
job requiring a security clearance and can at any time, find his
or her reputation in shambles. During the 1980s, the FBI's terrorism
files swelled by more than 100,000 names, a large portion of whom
were law-abiding activists who participated in demonstrations,
contributed to political groups or subscribed to publications
critical of Administration policies.
At the same time the Reagan White House was using the nation's
intelligence and police powers to "neutralize" adversarial
points of view it was also, under cover of secrecy, pumping a
stream of propaganda through the nation's libraries, universities
and communications media into the public consciousness through
writers and speakers who posed as "independent" experts,
but who were, in fact, acting covertly on behalf of the governing
Even before Ronald Reagan took office, it was apparent that the
refinement of democracy through the free play of ideas was not
a priority of his administration. Between his election and his
inauguration, a transition team headed by his campaign manager,
William Casey, was laying the groundwork for a massive domestic
operation to stifle dissent and engineer the terms of the national
debate over U.S. foreign policies.
In the summer of 1982 the FBI dramatically upped the stakes in
its campaign against political activists. In its initial investigation
of CISPES for violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act,
the FBI sought tangible evidence that the group was directly linked
to the FMLN. But CISPES was not being paid by the FDR, was not
helping provide weapons to the FMLN and was not taking its political
direction from any "foreign principal," according to
a memo from FBI headquarters to the Justice Department in early
The following year , however, the Bureau determined
that it no longer needed such specific evidence of tangible links
between a U.S. group and an international adversary in order to
investigate the group. Henceforth, the FBI declared, it would
be enough for dissenters inside the United States to publicly
espouse positions which conformed to those of, say, the Soviet
Union, the Sandinista government of Nicaragua or the Salvadoran
FMLN rebels. That, alone, would provide the necessary evidence
that the group was, in intelligence parlance, an "active
measures front"-and, as such, a legitimate target for an
FBI terrorism investigation.
... Shortly after [William Casey] assumed the directorship of
the Central Intelligence Agency in 1981, Casey ordered two internal
studies done for him by agency personnel. The Qrst was to develop
mechanisms for improving coordination between the CIA, on one
hand, and the FBI and other elements of the intelligence community,
on the other.
The second internal study involved a CIA report on "Soviet
Active Measures"-a broad term that included "soft"
covert activities designed to influence the political process
in other countries. These so-called "active measures"
included activities such as propaganda, disinformation, manipulation
of news media, the cultivation of foreign opinion leaders and
the use of "front" groups by the Soviets or their political
clients to promote Moscow's line on particular issues. Significantly,
the early CIA study identified CISPES as one such "active
measures front," even while the group was barely becoming
an organized political entity. Domestically, the political meaning
of the '`active measures" concept- minus the mystifying jargon
of intelligence specialists-was enunciated in a hearing of the
Denton committee just a month before a presentation in the summer
of 1982 by FBI and CIA officials to the House Intelligence Panel.
In a statement which opened the subcommittee's hearings on
the FBI's guidelines, Denton noted that: "...In the reordering
of priorities and the restructuring of the entities within the
Bureau which deal with substantive foreign counter-intelligence
and domestic security, an important aspect of the Bureau's work
may have fallen through the cracks. . . What seems to be missing.
. . is attention to organizations and individuals that cannot
be shown to be controlled by a foreign power and which have not
yet committed a terrorist or subversive act, but which, nevertheless,
may represent a substantial threat to the safety of Americans
and, ultimately, to the security of the country. " s J Despite
the FBI's own pronouncements that domestic terrorist events had
been declining for the previous three years, Denton continued:
"At this time of ever increasing terrorist activity, I believe
the American people need an organization that has the ability,
the desire, and the understanding of the threat to see through
propaganda and false ~ colors so that American people can be informed
of the threat represented by organizations committed to the destruction
of our freedoms. When I speak of a threat, I do not just mean
that an organization is, or is about to be, engaged in violent
criminal activity. I believe many share the view that the support
groups that produce propaganda, disinformation or legal assistance
may be even more dangerous than those who actually throw the bombs."
Michael Ratner, Margaret Ratner, Chip Berlet and Dr. Ann Mari
Buitrago saw it coming from the beginning. The only problem was
that for the longest time they couldn't tell which direction it
was coming from.
The Ratners worked at the Center for Constitutional Rights,
a public interest group of liberal and left-wing lawyers based
in lower Manhattan. For them, as well as for Berlet, a political
researcher who had been involved in cases involving the FBI and
the Chicago Red Squad, and Buitrago, one of the country's foremost
experts in the use of the Freedom of Information Act, the election
of Ronald Reagan began to raise alarms as early as the winter
"What you're up against when you take on the FBI, the CIA,
the undercover informants who feed the governmental apparatus,
is a self-selected group of people who have a messianic vision
of themselves. It keeps rising up over and over again. Trying
to protect civil liberties is like Sisyphus. It is an unceasing
battle. All governments want more power. It makes them more efficient.
But democracy, on the other hand, implies inefficiency. So there's
always the need to fight back. The battle over domestic civil
liberties will never be won. It just has to keep being fought."
Dr. Ann Mari Buitrago, a longtime movement activist and one of
the country's pre-eminent experts in understanding and deciphering
"The Freedom of Information Act is a wonderful tell-tale.
If you see an administration that sets out to attack it, gut it,
get rid of that act, that means it is intending to do something
it thinks the public will not approve of. It is setting out with
something to hide, and repression will follow. You don't have
to know what precisely they're up to. If you just watch what they
do to freedom of information, you can figure out where to start
"It was an absolute rule that every single name in the newspaper,
everyone quoted as saying things against the Administration or
in favor of CISPES or the FDR-FMLN, went into the computers, into
the terrorism files. There were no exceptions," he noted.
Around the same time that the Office of Public Diplomacy was geared-up
for its CIA-inspired covert disinformation and propaganda campaign,
Lt. Col. Oliver North was working with officials of the Federal
Emergency Management Agency-an obscure agency which had traditionally
overseen relief planning for disasters-to draw up a secret contingency
plan to surveil political dissenters and to arrange for the detention
of hundreds of thousands of undocumented aliens in case of an
unspecified national emergency. The plan, part of which was code-named
Rex 84, called for the suspension of the Constitution under a
number of scenarios, including a U.S. invasion of Nicaragua.
The fate of Rex 84 has never been definitively explained. Nor
has the plan's development been thoroughly explored. During the
Iran-Contra hearings in the summer of 1987, Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.)
attempted to raise the issue during an open session of the committee
during the appearance of Oliver North.
Brooks: "Col. North, in your work at the NSC, were you
not assigned, at one time, to work on plans for the continuity
of government in the event of a major disaster?"
Sen. Daniel Inouye (Co-chair): "I believe that question
touches upon a highly sensitive and classified area so may I request
that you not touch upon that."
Brooks: "I was particularly concerned, Mr. Chairman,
because I read in the Miami papers and several others that there
had been a plan developed, by that same agency, a contingency
plan in the event of an emergency that would suspend the American
Constitution. And I was deeply concerned about it and wondered
if that was the area in which [North] had worked. I believe that
it was, and I wanted to get his confirmation."
Inouye: "May I most respectfully request that that matter
not be touched upon at this stage. If we wish to get into this,
I'm certain arrangements can be made for an executive session."
That was the beginning and the end of any Congressional discussion
of the plan. Apparently, there was no follow-up executive session
in which committee members tried to learn just how extensive and
well-developed was this plan to surveil and imprison large numbers
of citizens and refugees who might object to the United States
invading Nicaragua or becoming embroiled in armed hostilities
in other parts of the world. But, as researcher Diana Reynolds
and others have noted, "It ) is clear that the FEMA contingency
plans to round up political dissenters was related to the FBI's
investigation of political dissidents."
The real secret ... is the fact that the FBI-following the lead
of the White House and the Reagan CIA-allowed the direction of
its investigation of American liberals to be partially dictated
by the Salvadoran security forces, thereby collaborating in the
persecution of American citizens with one of the most terrorist
governments in the world.
From a U.S. standpoint, the most frightening aspect of the assault
on dissenting citizens lies in the string of break-ins, thefts,
death threats and assaults that stretches forward from 1983 to
1990 like an underground epidemic of low-grade terrorism.
... the FBI's operations against liberal and left-wing citizens
opposed to U.S. policies beg to be seen in the context of the
Bureau's history of abusing its law enforcement powers by persecuting
law-abiding dissenters for strictly political reasons.
Given that historical context, the FBI Director's description
of the CISPES probe as an "aberration" is indefensible.
For the FBI's investigation and harassment of Central America
groups in the 1980s is, after all, simply one more chapter in
a continuing series of FBI political police operations which date
back at least to the 1950s-and which have continued, virtually
unabated, to the present.
... dating at least from the McCarthy period of the 1950s,
the Bureau has engaged in active investigations of virtually every
major dissident political movement in recent American history.
Those investigations have involved techniques ranging from file
checks to active surveillance to infiltration and provocation
to harassments and character assassination to such covert operations
as "black-bag jobs," wiretaps and assassinations.
An adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Stanley Levison, was investigated
on suspicion he was a communist sympathizer. According to a 1964
FBI memorandum which ordered the investigation to continue:
"The Bureau does not agree with the expressed belief
of the field office that [Levison] is not sympathetic to the Party
cause. While there may not be any evidence that [he] is a Communist,
neither is there any substantial evidence that he is anti-communist."
In the course of its operations against civil rights organizations,
black political activists, anti-Vietnam War groups, the Free Speech
Movement of university students, the American Indian Movement
and the movement for Puerto Rican independence, the FBI opened
hundreds of thousands of letters; wiretapped thousands of telephone
conversations; conducted break-ins at hundreds of residences and
offices; and surveilled untold numbers of groups and activists.
One of the FBI's more notorious operations included providing
Dr. King with a tape recording of his private activities, along
with a note suggesting he commit suicide to avoid public humiliation.
The FBI's own regulations are ... not sufficient to prevent violations.
The regulations can also be repealed or modified in the future
and do not, therefore, guarantee future compliance...Based on
the FBI's past behavior, there is a reasonable likelihood of repetition."
Clearly the FBI systematically uses distortion, disinformation
and deliberate lies as official instruments of policy. Whether
those lies are directed toward political adversaries, news reporters,
other agencies of the executive branch or overseers in Congress
charged with monitoring the Bureau's operations, the record of
the FBI's counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence units demonstrates
unequivocally that it is not to be trusted to tell the truth.
With the acquiescence of the Congressional committees, the FBI
has succeeded in Iying its way out of a series of scandals whose
casualties have been truth, the democratic process, and the First
Amendment to the Constitution.
In the spring of 1990, Adm. John Poindexter, the former National
Security Adviser to whom Oliver North reported, was sentenced
to six months in prison for lying to Congress. At Poindexter's
sentencing, U.S. District Court Judge Harold Greene said that,
had Poindexter not served time in jaiI, it would be tantamount
to a statement that a scheme to lie to and obstruct Congress is
of no great moment, and that even if the perpetrators are found
out, the courts will treat their criminal acts as no more than
minor infractions." Judge Greene held that Poindexter and
North had acted "in violation of a principle fundamental
to this constitutional republic-that those elected by and responsible
to the people shall make the important policy decisions, and that
their decisions may not be nullified by appointed officials who
happen to be in positions _ that give them the ability to operate
programs prohibited by law."
It is perplexing that the appropriate officials of the FBI-Ronald
Davenport, Oliver Revell, and William Webster-have not been held
to the same standards as Poindexter and other federal employees
who have been convicted of Iying to Congress. The message inherent
in the lack of such convictions is that the very agency empowered
to enforce the the federal laws of the country is, itself, beyond
the reach of those laws.
Given the Bureau's tenacious adherence to illegal domestic
operations in the face of public and Congressional criticism,
given its unwillingness or inability to police its own actions
in accordance with the requirements of free speech embedded in
the Constitution, and given its time-tested proclivity to act,
not as a guardian of the law but as a proprietary police force
for the incumbent power structure, there seems no reason for advocates
of civil liberties to accept, once again, another promise that
the FBI will respect the basic rights of freedom and privacy of
... As Frank Wilkinson, a former minister who endured more
than three decades of FBI surveillance and dirty tricks, has consistently
pointed out, the only reliable remedy for illegal FBI activities
is a Congressional charter that would remove the responsibility
for overseeing the Bureau from the Bureau itself. Such a charter
would mandate the so-called "criminal standard." Under
its terms, the FBI would be prohibited from any investigation
unless there were clear and present indications that a law had
been broken or was about to be broken. Whether Wilkinson's organization,
the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation, will be
successful in its current efforts to promote such a charter remains
to be seen. But short of completely abolishing the FBI, there
seems no other solution that would be acceptable to the hundreds
of thousands of law-abiding citizens who have been victimized
by the zealotry of the Bureau.
A major accomplice of the unidentified individuals who coordinated,
planned and executed the break-ins is a press corps which finds
nothing extraordinary or ominous about a sustained campaign of
political assault against law-abiding citizens who disagree with
their president's foreign policies. That was the kind of activity
that heralded the rise to power of Hitler. And, if the United
States ever falls prey to demagoguery, zealotry or institutionalized
intolerance, this is the way it will begin. And it will proceed
with an assist from the press whose members who will most likely
dismiss victims of political repression as "fringe types"
as they turn away from uncomfortable clues of tyranny.
It was the press, after all, that was unconcerned that the
FBI was permitted to enter tens of thousands of names of citizens
into its terrorism ( files-records which can be used to deny them
jobs, to savage their reputations, to subject them to arbitrary
surveillance, and to make them criminal suspects the next time
a bomb explodes in one of America's cities.
Caught in the grip of economic uncertainty and facing a future
of environmental degradation and global political upheaval, much
of the U.S. public has lost sight of the very civil liberties
that distinguish the United States from other empires that were
merely powerful and wealthy. If that forgetfulness persists, this
country will have lost that which has made it an ideal for newly
emerging "Pro-Democracy" regimes throughout Eastern
Europe, that which has made it special in the light of history.
The notion of civil liberties-a major hallmark of the American
Constitution-seems very elusive to many Americans in the 1990s
and virtually irrelevant to others. But from both a societal and
an individual point of view, it is critical to the survival of
the country as we know it. Throughout U.S. history, solutions
to problems have often come from oppositional political movements-most
recently the Civil Rights movement, the Nuclear Freeze, the environmental
movement, the women's movement-many of which began with small
followings and marginal influence. But the existence of unpopular
or dissenting groups provides a kind of intellectual wetlands,
a spawning ground for new experiments, new ideas, new solutions
to problems which are intractable to traditional approaches.
[The FBI] sees its basic mandate as preventing the success of
any significant movement for social change in America. From its
mission as a national police force, dedicated to thwarting interstate
and international crime, the FBI has become a guardian of the
status quo, the incumbency, and the front line in the war against
any set of citizens who oppose the policies of the country's leadership.
That mission may have been appropriate in Stalin's Soviet Union
or Deng's China or Pinochet's Chile. It is not appropriate to
the laws of the United States.
Death Threats and the FBI