COINTELPRO in the 90s
excerpted from the book
WAR AT HOME
by Brian Glick
Government harassment of U.S. political
activists clearly exists today, violating our fundamental democratic
rights and creating a climate of fear and distrust which undermines
our efforts to challenge official policy. Similar attacks on social
justice movements came to light during the 1960s. Only years later
did we learn that these had been merely the visible tip of an
iceberg. Largely hidden at the time was a vast government program
to neutralize domestic political opposition through "covert
action" (political repression carried out secretly or under
the guise of legitimate law enforcement).
The 1960s program, coordinated by the
FBI under the code name "COINTELPRO," was exposed in
the 1970s and supposedly stopped. But covert operations against
domestic dissidents did not end. They have persisted and become
an integral part of government 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
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
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
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"
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
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
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
South End Press
116 Saint Botolph Street, Boston, MA 02115
Third World in United States