COINTELPRO in the 80s

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 Has Persisted Throughout the 1980s

The 1980s ... [were] marked by the rise of right-wing political power and new forms of popular opposition to reactionary government policy. Under these conditions, the danger of domestic covert action is greater than ever.

Since the vast majority of COINTELPRO-type operations stay hidden until long after the damage has been done, those we are already aware of represent only the tip of the iceberg. Far more is sure to lurk beneath the surface. - Most of today's domestic covert action can be kept concealed because full government secrecy has been restored. The Freedom of Information Act, a source of major disclosures about COINTELPRO, was drastically narrowed in the 1980s through administrative and judicial reinterpretation as well as legislative amendment. Thousands of government files were shielded from public scrutiny under presidential directives that vastly expand the range of information classified "top-secret." Government employees now face censorship even after they retire, and new laws make it a federal crime to disclose "any information that identifies an individual as a covert agent."

While restoring full secrecy, the Reagan administration invested covert action with a new legitimacy. In the past, such operations were acknowledged to be improper and illegal. The Senate Intelligence Committee condemned COINTELPRO as "a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association." From its inception, the CLA was barred by law from performing "internal security functions." Top government officials took care to insulate themselves so they could deny involvement if an unseemly operation came to light. These conditions established a kind of speed limit, a set of restrictions which the agencies felt free to exceed, but only by a certain margin.

In the 1980s even this ceiling was lifted. Reagan and his cohorts openly embraced the use of covert operations at home and abroad. They endorsed such action, legalized it, sponsored it, and raised it to the level of patriotic virtue.

Within months of taking office, Reagan pardoned W. Mark Felt and Edward S. Miller, the only FBI officials convicted of COINTELPRO crimes. His congressional allies publicly honored these criminals and praised their work. The President continually revived the tired old Red Scare, adding a new "terrorist" bogeyman, while Attorney General Meese campaigned to narrow the scope of the Bill of Rights and limit judicial review of the constitutionality of government action.

From the National Security Council's offices in the White House basement, Lt. Col. Oliver North proudly funded and orchestrated break ins and other "dirty tricks" to defeat congressional critics of U.S. policy in Central America and neutralize grassroots protest. He ran elaborate networks of paper organizations set up by former government covert operatives who regrouped to do the same work for more money in the "private sector. " Special Prosecutor Walsh found evidence that North and Retired Air Force Gen. Richard Secord (architect of 1960s U.S. covert action in Cambodia) used Iran-Contra funds to harass the Christic Institute, a church-funded public interest law group which specializes in exposing government misconduct. North also helped Reagan's cronies at the Federal Emergency Management Administration develop contingency plans for suspending the Constitution, establishing martial law, and holding political dissidents in concentration camps in the event of "national opposition against a U.S. military invasion abroad."

Much of what was done outside the law under COINTELPRO has since been legalized by Executive Order No. 12333 (December 4, 1981) and new Attorney General's "Guidelines on General Crimes, Racketeering Enterprise and Domestic Security/Terrorism Investigations" (March 7, 1983). For the first time in U.S. history, government infiltration "for the purpose of influencing the activity of' domestic political organizations has received official sanction (E.0.12333, §2.9). This prerogative is now extended to the FBI and anyone acting on its behalf. It provided a legal pretext for the Bureau's attacks on CISPES and other opponents of U.S. policy in Central America.

The new executive order asserts the President's right to authorize CIA "special activities" (the official euphemism for covert operations) redefined to include activity anywhere "in support of national foreign policy objectives abroad" (§1.8(e), §3.4(h)). It legalizes "counterintelligence activities...within the United States" on the part of the FBI and the CLA, Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines (§1 .8(c), §1.1 2(d)). "Specialized equipment, technical knowledge, or assistance of expert personnel" may be provided by any of these agencies "to support local law enforcement" (§2.6c). All are free to mount electronic and mail surveillance without a warrant, and the FBI may also conduct warrantless "unconsented physical searches" (break-ins) if the Attorney General finds probable cause to believe the action is "directed against a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power" (§2.4, §2.5). This signals open season on CISPES, sanctuary churches, anti-apartheid groups, and anyone else who maintains friendly relations with a country or movement opposed by the administration or who dares to organize protest against U.S. foreign policy.

Given how much is at stake, we can hardly afford to ignore these many signs of danger. The FBI and police have now been fully rehabilitated. The CIA and military have assumed an expanded homefront role. Covert action has been legalized and endorsed at the highest levels of government. Official secrecy has been restored. Government harassment of domestic dissidents continues unabated. Evidence of current infiltration and clandestine disruption is surfacing at an alarming rate. Taken together, these developments leave us only one safe assumption: full-scale covert operations are already underway to neutralize today's opposition movements before they can reach the massive level of the 1960s.


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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