COINTELPRO in the 90s

excerpted from the book


by Brian Glick


Government harassment of U.S. political activists clearly exists today, violating our fundamental democratic rights and creating a climate of fear and distrust which undermines our efforts to challenge official policy. Similar attacks on social justice movements came to light during the 1960s. Only years later did we learn that these had been merely the visible tip of an iceberg. Largely hidden at the time was a vast government program to neutralize domestic political opposition through "covert action" (political repression carried out secretly or under the guise of legitimate law enforcement).

The 1960s program, coordinated by the FBI under the code name "COINTELPRO," was exposed in the 1970s and supposedly stopped. But covert operations against domestic dissidents did not end. They have persisted and become an integral part of government activity. ...


Domestic Covert Action: a Permanent Feature of U.S. Government

So long as conservative Republicans remain in power, there is no reason to expect [the threat of covert actions against domestic dissidents ] to subside. But what if liberal Democrats were in control? Recent U.S. history indicates that so far as covert operations are concerned, the difference would be marginal at best.

The record of the past 50 years reveals a pattern of continuous domestic covert action. Its use has been documented in each of the last nine administrations, Democratic as well as Republican. FBI testimony shows "COINTELPRO tactics" already in full swing during the presidencies of Democrats Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman. COINTELPRO itself, while initiated under Eisenhower, grew from one program to six under the Democratic administrations of Kennedy and Johnson. It flourished when an outspoken liberal, Ramsey Clark, was Attorney General (1966-1968). After COINTELPRO was exposed, similar programs continued under other names during the Carter years as well as under Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. They have outlived J. Edgar Hoover and remained in place under all of his successors.

Covert police methods have been used against progressive social movements since the founding of the country. Undercover operatives disrupted the historic efforts of rebel slaves and Native American, Mexican, and Puerto Rican resistance. Dissident journalists, insurgent workers, and rebellious farmers were arrested on false charges and jailed or hung after rigged trials.

Through most of U.S. history, progressive activists faced the blatant brutality of hired thugs and right-wing vigilantes backed by government troops. As the country grew more urban and industrial, newly formed municipal police forces came to play a greater role. By the turn of this century, local police departments were running massive anti-union operations in collaboration with the Pinkertons and other private detective agencies.

With World War I and the increasing national integration of the U.S. political economy, the federal government began to take more responsibility for control of domestic dissent From 1917 on, the Justice Department's Bureau of Investigation, forerunner of the FBI, coordinated its work closely with a 250,000 member right-wing vigilante group, the American Protective League. Together they mounted nation wide raids, arrests, and prosecutions which jailed thousands of draft resisters and labor activists and destroyed the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or "Wobblies").

Following the Russian Revolution, the Bureau helped foment the Red Scare of 1919-20. J. Edgar Hoover took personal responsibility for deporting "Red Emma" Goldman and directing the Palmer Raids in which thousands of progressive immigrants were rounded up, jailed, and brutalized, and hundreds were deported.

Stung by public criticism of these raids, Hoover switched to more covert methods in the early 1920s. His men infiltrated the ranks of striking railway workers and penetrated the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee to steal funds raised to support the indicted anarchists. In an operation that prefigured COINTELPRO, Hoover masterminded the destruction of the main Black movement of the post-World War I period, Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). His agents penetrated the multi-million member UNIA and set up the federal mail fraud conviction that discredited its charismatic leader, leading to Garvey's deportation and the group's collapse. Through the rest of the 1920s, the Bureau kept a low profile as domestic insurgency subsided. In the early years of the Depression, primary responsibility for policing dissent remained in the hands of local law enforcement agencies, private detectives, and right-wing groups such as the American Legion. Meanwhile, Hoover and the FBI rose to national prominence by leading a widely heralded "War on Crime. Their capture of John Dillinger and other notorious desperadoes made head lines across the country. The Bureau was glorified in Hollywood films and an immensely popular radio series. The media portrayed the FBI as invincible and proclaimed J. Edgar Hoover "Public Hero Number One."

This new stature positioned the Bureau to regain its status as the nations political police. In 1936, it won secret authorization to once again target "subversive activities in the United States." In a memo to his subordinates, Hoover attributed this coup to confidential "information" he had presented to President Roosevelt showing that "the Communists...practically controlled" at least one key industrial union and were moving to "get control of" others.

The FBI vastly expanded its operations during World War II and acquired new covert technology, including the capacity for expert forgery. In the aftermath of the war, as the United States began to exercise hegemonic world power and to identify the Soviet Union as its main enemy, the Bureau firmly established its political role as an accepted institutional reality. The Senate Intelligence Committee later found that it was in this period, well before the start of COINTELPRO, that "the domestic intelligence programs of the FBI ... became permanent features of government."

The Committee attributes the Bureau's ability to consolidate political police powers to the "Cold War fears" which swept the country during the late 1940s and the 1950s, but it skips over the Bureau's central role in fomenting those fears. FBI Director Hoover openly threw his enormous public prestige behind the postwar witchhunts mounted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and Joseph McCarthy's Senate Internal Security Sub-Committee. Directed by law to investigate the loyalty of federal employees, the FBI secretly passed confidential raw files to its congressional allies, especially McCarthy and the rising young star of HUAC, Richard Nixon.

Above all, Hoover and his men set up and orchestrated the pivotal spy trials that made the witchhunts credible. In 1950, former high-ranking State Department official Alger Hiss, President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was found guilty of perjury for denying that he had copied confidential government papers for the Soviet Union in the late 1930s. In 1951, U.S. communists Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and Morton Sobell were convicted, and the Rosenbergs executed, for allegedly passing to the Soviet Union "atomic secrets" that were already general scientific knowledge. In each case, the star witness was an informer whose initial contradictory accounts were meshed into semi-coherent testimony only after months of careful FBI coaching. In each, the supposedly incorruptible FBI vouched for the authenticity of key documentary evidence which activists later learned could easily have been forged.

Subsequent investigation and analysis suggest that both cases may well have been fabricated. At the time, however, their impact was devastating. By appearing to validate the witchhunts, they paved the way for the purge of an entire generation of radicals from U.S. political and cultural life. In this atmosphere of anti-communist hysteria, as in the preceding years of wartime fear of espionage, the FBI was free to move against a broad range of domestic political movements. It took an occasional swipe at the right wing and managed to arrest a few outright Nazi saboteurs. As always, however, the brunt of its attack was directed against those who sought progressive social change.

The Senate Intelligence Committee documented long-standing, pre-COINTELPRO FBI infiltration of industrial unions, major Black organizations (including the NAACP and the Nation of Islam), the unemployed movement, the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico, and at least one group of reform Democrats (the Independent Voters of Illinois). Documents later obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal FBI undercover operations in the late 1940s against the third party presidential candidacy of former Vice President Henry Wallace, the pro-Wallace American Labor Party (ALP), and U.S. Congressman Vito Marcantonio (D/ALP-NY). Other Bureau memoranda show the collaboration of Ronald Reagan, "Confidential Informant T-10," in FBI maneuvers to oust leftists from the Screen Actors Guild and the Hollywood film industry. Bureau targets during the late 1940s and early 1950s also included the National Lawyers Guild and the American Friends Service Committee, as well as the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, and other early gay and lesbian rights groups.

From the outset, these groups faced far more than mere surveillance. From 1936-56, the FBI took advantage of wartime fears and postwar hysteria to slip into place the domestic covert operations later consolidated under COINTELPRO. Ex-agents' report that activists' homes and offices were routinely burglarized during these years. As early as 1939, the Bureau began to compile a secret "Security Index" listing subversives to be detained in the event of a "national emergency." William Sullivan, former head of the FBI Intelligence Division, testified that, "We were engaged in COINTELPRO tactics, to divide, confuse, weaken, in diverse ways, an organization. We were engaged in that when I entered the Bureau in 1941." The Senate Intelligence Committee found that by 1946 the Bureau had a "policy" of preparing and disseminating "propaganda" to "discredit" its targets.

Thus, COINTELPRO was not a radical departure. It merely centralized and intensified long-standing FBI policy and practice. The 1956 directive setting up the new program took as its starting point the historic record of Bureau work "to foster factionalism, bring the Communist Party and its leaders into disrepute before the American public, and cause confusion and dissatisfaction among rank-and-file members." It called for a better coordinated, more focused, "all-out disruptive attack" to make up for new judicial restrictions on political prosecutions and to eliminate once and for all a U.S. left already in disarray.

Conceived as a mid-1950s coup degrace against a failing Old Left, COINTELPRO became the cutting edge of the Bureau's attack on the rising struggles of the 1960s. It provided the framework for operations against the resurgent Black movement whose first audible rumblings, in the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, may explain the urgency of the Bureau's drive to do away with what remained of an organized radical presence in the United States. It also formed the FBI's primary response to the student and anti-war protests which swept the country during the 1960s. COINTELPRO grew increasingly important as the traditional modes of repression failed. An undaunted new generation of activists made a laughing stock of HUAC and turned criminal trials into political forums. Although brute force ultimately did contribute to their demise, for most of the decade police beatings served only to stiffen resistance and to help win over the millions who watched on television.

Reviewing the Bureau's experience with domestic covert action as of 1964, J. Edgar Hoover concluded that:

"These ideas will not be increased in number or improved upon from the standpoint of accomplishments merely through the institution of a program such as COINTELPRO which is given another name, and which, in fact, only encompasses everything that has been done in the past or will be done in the future."

True to his words, Hoover did continue domestic covert action under "another name" when he eventually had to shut down COINTELPRO. Fearing public exposure, the FBI reverted to the less centralized, more secure procedures of the previous era, but the basic approach persisted.

Over the past 50 years, clandestine work has become an essential part of the Bureau's mode of operation. Many of its senior agents are now specialists whose professional advancement requires that the government continue to rely on covert action. A similar group of "old hands" has emerged from the covert operations that the United States and its European allies developed in an effort to maintain control of their colonies and neo-colonies in countries such as Algeria, the Congo, India, Northern Ireland, Chile, and Vietnam. With Hoover's death and Webster's ascendancy at the FBI and then the CLA, the two sets of spies came gradually to coordinate and integrate their work. The combined experience of these veteran covert operatives has given rise to a growing literature and theory of counter-insurgency. Their widely circulated texts and manuals restate the basic precepts of COINTELPRO and pound home the necessity for continuous covert operations. The leading treatise, Low-Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency, and Peacekeeping, by Frank Kitson, British commander in Kenya, Malaysia, Cyprus, and Northern Ireland, insists that infiltration and "psychological operations" be mounted against dissident groups in "normal times," before any mass movement can develop.

Careerism, old boy networks, theories, and treatises help to perpetuate domestic covert action. The persistence of such operations can be fully explained, however, only in terms of their value to economic and political elites. Any social order based on inequality of wealth and power depends, to some degree, on political repression to control the disadvantaged majority. Modern U.S. elites have particular need for covert measures because the war at home is primarily the responsibility of the federal government, a government which is under intense pressure to appear to be democratic. The federal government has become the main arm of domestic repression through a series of historic developments. First, internal political conflict has come to focus increasingly on issues of public policy. Second, business and industry, which once played a major role, now rely on the public sector for unprofitable support services-from post offices, airports, roads, and job training to the pacification of workers and markets at home and abroad. They are no longer willing to maintain a large-scale in-house apparatus for repressing societal political dissent or to purchase such services from private agencies. Finally, state and local governments lack the funds and personnel to cope with countrywide dissident movements. Federal coordination and direction is demanded by the national integration of the U.S. economy and culture, with its geographically mobile population and instant communication.

For all these reasons, U.S. domestic political repression is now effectively nationalized. Local police may still be the foot soldiers for many arrests, raids, beatings, and infiltrations; college administrators, corporate security forces, and private right-wing groups may also help out. But when it comes to full-scale strategic, coordinated domestic counter-insurgency, only "the Feds" can do the job.

But the federal government has other imperatives. It strives to maintain U.S. control over world markets and resources in an era when most of Asia, Africa, and Latin America have been legally decolonized. It competes internationally with the Soviet Union, Germany, and Japan. At the same time, it needs patriotic support, or at least passive acquiescence, at home. For all these purposes, it must effectively promote the image of the United States as leader of the "free world," complete with free speech and the rule of law.

If the U.S. government is seen as unduly repressive within its own borders, however, it will have trouble maintaining the allegiance of its citizenry and competing effectively for world influence. It can sustain its legitimacy, while effectively marginalizing or eliminating domestic dissent, if it makes the victims of official violence appear to be the aggressors and provokes dissident movements to tear themselves apart through factionalism and other modes of self-destruction. No wonder covert action is here to stay.


excerpted from the book
War at Home
by Brian Glick


published by
South End Press
116 Saint Botolph Street, Boston, MA 02115

Third World in United States

War At Home

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