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 Administration.

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 1982.

The following year [1983], 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 of 1980.

Chip Berlet
"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 FBI files

"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 looking."

Frank Verelli
"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 U.S. citizens.

... 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.

Break-ins, Death Threats and the FBI

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