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. ...
Covert Action Against the Domestic Dissidents of the 1960s
The first concrete evidence of COINTELPRO surfaced in March 1971, when a "Citizens Committee to Investigate the FBI" removed secret files from an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania and released them to the press.' That same year, agents began to resign from the Bureau and to blow the whistle on its covert operations.' These revelations came at a time of enormous social unrest and declining public confidence in government. Publication of the Pentagon Papers in September 1971 exposed years of systematic official lies about the Vietnam War. Soon it was learned that a clandestine squad of White House "plumbers" had broken into Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office in an effort to smear the former Pentagon staffer who had leaked the top-secret papers to the press
The same "plumbers" were caught the following year burglarizing the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee. Nationally televised congressional hearings on Watergate revealed a full-blown program of "dirty tricks" to subvert the anti-war movement as well as the Democratic Party by forging letters, leaking false news items to the press, stealing files, and roughing up demonstrators. Lines of command for these operations were traced to Attorney General Mitchell and the White House, with the FBI implicated in a massive cover-up involving President Nixon and his top staff. By 1971, congressional hearings had already disclosed U.S. Army infiltration of domestic political movements. Similar CIA and local police activity soon came to light, along with ghastly accounts of CIA operations abroad to destabilize democratically elected governments and assassinate heads of state.
This crisis was eventually resolved through what historian Howard Zinn describes as "a complex process of consolidation," based on "the need to satisfy a disillusioned public that the system was criticizing and correcting itself."' In this process, the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOLA) was amended over President Nixon's veto to provide some degree of genuine public access to FBI documents. Lawsuits under the FOLA forced the Bureau to release some COINTELPRO files to major news media. By 1975, both houses of Congress had launched formal inquiries into government "intelligence activities."
The agencies under congressional investigation were allowed to withhold most of their files and to edit the Senate Committee's reports before publication. The House Committee's report, including an account of FBI and CIA obstruction of its inquiry, was suppressed altogether after part was leaked to the press. Still, pressure to promote the appearance of genuine reform was so great that the FBI had to divulge an unprecedented, detailed account of many of its domestic covert operations.
Many important files continue to be withheld, and others have been destroyed. Former operatives report that the most heinous and embarrassing actions were never committed to writing. Officials with broad personal knowledge of COINTELPRO have been silenced, most notably William C. Sullivan, who created the program and ran it throughout the 1960s. Sullivan was killed in an uninvestigated 1977 "hunting accident" shortly after giving extensive information to a grand jury investigating the FBI, but before he could testify publicly. Nevertheless, a great deal has been learned about COINTELPRO.
When congressional investigations, political trials, and other traditional legal modes of repression failed to counter the growing movements, and even helped to fuel them, the FBI and police moved outside the law. They resorted to the secret and systematic use of fraud and force to sabotage constitutionally protected political activity. Their methods ranged far beyond surveillance, amounting to a home front version of the covert action for which the CIA has become infamous throughout the world.
FBI Headquarters secretly instructed its field offices to propose schemes to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" specific individuals and groups. Close coordination with local police and prosecutors was strongly encouraged. Other recommended collaborators included friendly news media, business and foundation executives, and university, church, and trade union officials, as well as such "patriotic" organizations as the American Legion.
Final authority rested with FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Top FBI officials pressed local field offices to step up their activity and demanded regular progress reports. Agents were directed to maintain full secrecy "such that under no circumstances should the existence of the program be made known outside the Bureau and appropriate within-office security should be afforded to sensitive operations and techniques." A total of 2,370 officially approved COINTELPRO actions were admitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee, and thousands more have since been uncovered. Four main methods have been revealed:
1. Infiltration: Agents and informers did not merely spy on political activists. Their main purpose was to discredit and disrupt. Their very presence served to undermine trust and scare off potential supporters. The FBI and police exploited this fear to smear genuine activists as agents.
2. Psychological Warfare From the Outside: The FBI and police used myriad other "dirty tricks" to undermine progressive movements. They planted false media stories and published bogus leaflets and other publications in the name of targeted groups. They forged correspondence, sent anonymous letters, and made anonymous telephone calls. They spread misinformation about meetings and events, set up pseudo movement groups run by government agents, and manipulated or strong-armed parents, employers, landlords, school officials and others to cause trouble for activists.
3. Harassment through the Legal System The FBI and police abused the legal system to harass dissidents and make them appear to be criminals. Officers of the law gave perjured testimony and presented fabricated evidence as a pretext for false arrests and wrongful imprisonment. They discriminatorily enforced tax laws and other government regulations and used conspicuous surveillance, "investigative" inter views, and grand jury subpoenas in an effort to intimidate activists and silence their supporters.
4. Extralegal Force and Violence: The FBI and police threatened, instigated, and themselves conducted break-ins, vandalism, assaults, and beatings. The object was to frighten dissidents and disrupt their movements. In the case of radical Black and Puerto Rican activists (and later Native Americans), these attacks-including political assassinations-were so extensive, vicious, and calculated that they can accurately be termed a form of official "terrorism."
Though the name COINTELPRO stands for "Counterintelligence Program," the government's targets were not enemy spies. The Senate Intelligence Committee later found that "Under COINTELPRO certain techniques the Bureau had used against hostile foreign agents were adopted for use against perceived domestic threats to the established political and social order."
The most intense COINTELPRO operations were directed against the Black movement, particularly the Black Panther Party. This was to some extent a function of the racism of the FBI and police, as well as the vulnerability of the Black community (due to its lack of ties to political and economic elites and the tendency of the media-and whites in general-to ignore or tolerate attacks on Black groups). At a deeper level, the choice of targets reflects government and corporate fear of a militant, broad-based Black movement. Such a movement is dangerous because of its historic capacity to galvanize widespread rebellion at home and its repercussions for the U.S. image abroad. Moreover, Black people's location in major urban centers and primary industries gives them the potential to disrupt the base of the U.S. economy.
COINTELPRO's targets were not, however, limited to Black militants. Many other activists who wanted to end U.S. intervention abroad or institute racial, gender, and class justice at home also came under attack. Cesar Chavez, Fathers Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, Rev. Jesse Jackson, David Dellinger, officials of the American Friends Service Committee and the National Council of Churches, and other leading pacifists were high on the list, as were projects directly protected by the First Amendment, such as anti-war teach-ins, progressive bookstores, independent filmmakers, and alternative newspapers and news services. Martin Luther King, Jr., world-renowned prophet of non violence, was the object of sustained FBI assault. King was marked, barely a month before his murder, for elimination as a potential "messiah" who could "unify and electrify" the Black movement.
Ultimately, FBI documents disclosed six major official counterintelligence programs (as well as non-COINTELPRO covert operations against Native American, Asian-American, Arab-American, Iranian, and other activists):
1) "Communist Party-USA" (1956-71): This was the first and largest program, which contributed to the Party's decline in the late 1950s and was used in the early and mid-1960s mainly against civil rights, civil liberties, and peace activists. Its targets during the latter period included Martin Luther King, Jr., the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the NAACP, the National Lawyers Guild, the National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee, Women's Strike for Peace, the American Friends Service Committee, and the National Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy.
2) "Groups Seeking Independence for Puerto Rico" (1960-71): Initially hidden from congressional investigators, and still one of the least well known, this program functioned to disrupt, discredit, and factionalize the island's main centers of anti-colonial resistance, especially the Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PSP) and Socialist League (LSP). It also appears to have targeted groups fighting for human rights for Puerto Ricans living in the United States, such as the Young Lords Party.
3) "Border Coverage Program" (1960-71): This program of covert operations against radical Mexican organizations was similarly concealed from Congress. The few documents released to date do not indicate how much the FBI used it against 1960s Chicano activists such as the Brown Berets, the Crusade for Justice (Colorado), La Alianza (New Mexico), and the Chicano Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam (Los Angeles), which are known to have been infiltrated and repressed by other government agencies.
4) "Socialist Workers Party" (1961-69): In addition to ongoing attacks on the SWP and its youth group, the Young Socialist Alliance, this program operated against whomever those groups supported or worked with, especially Malcolm X and the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.
5) "Black Nationalist Hate Groups" (1967-71): This was the vehicle for the Bureau's all-out assault on Martin Luther King, Jr. (in the late 1960s), the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam ("Black Muslims"), the National Welfare Rights Organization, the League of Black Revolutionary Workers, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), the Republic of New Afrika (RNA), the Congress of African People, Black student unions, and many local Black churches and community organizations struggling for decent living conditions, justice, equality, and empowerment.
6) "New Left" (1968-71): A program to destroy Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Peace and Freedom Party, the Institute for Policy Studies, and a broad range of anti-war, anti-racist, student, GI, veteran, feminist, lesbian, gay, environmental, Marxist, and anarchist groups, as well as the network of food co-ops, health clinics, child care centers, schools, bookstores, newspapers, community centers, street theaters, rock groups, and communes that formed the infrastructure of the counter-culture.
7) "White Hate Groups" (1964-71): This unique "program" functioned largely as a component of the FBI's operations against the progressive activists who were COINTELPRO's main targets. Under the cover of being even-handed and going after violent right-wing groups, the FBI actually gave covert aid to the Ku Klux Klan, Minutemen, Nazis, and other racist vigilantes. These groups received substantial funds, information, and protection-and suffered only token FBI harassment-so long as they directed their violence against COINTELPRO targets. They were not subjected to serious disruption unless they breached this tacit under standing and attacked established business and political leaders.
Since COINTELPRO was used mainly against the progressive movements of the 1960s, its impact can be grasped only in the context of the momentous social upheaval which shook the country during those years.
All across the United States, Black communities came alive with renewed political struggle. Most major cities experienced sustained, disciplined Black protest and massive ghetto uprisings. Black activists galvanized multi-racial rebellion among GIs, welfare mothers, students, and prisoners. College campuses and high schools erupted in militant protest against the Vietnam War. A predominantly white New Left, inspired by the Black movement, fought for an end to U.S. intervention abroad and a more humane and cooperative way of life at home. By the late 1960s, deep-rooted resistance had revived among Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans. A second wave of broad-based struggle for women's liberation had also emerged, along with significant efforts by lesbians, gay men, and disabled people.
Millions of people in the United States began to reject the dominant ideology and culture. Thousands challenged basic U.S. political and economic institutions. For a brief moment, "the crucial mixture of people's confidence in the government and lack of confidence in themselves which allows the government to govern, the ruling class to rule. . .threatened to break down."
By the mid-1970s, this upheaval had largely subsided. Important progressive activity persisted, mainly on a local level, and much continued to be learned and won, but the massive, militant Black and New Left movements were gone. The sense of infinite possibility and of our collective power to shape the future had been lost. Progressive momentum dissipated. Radicals found themselves on the defensive as right-wing extremists gained major government positions and defined the contours of accepted political debate.
Many factors besides COINTELPRO contributed to this change. Important progress was made toward achieving movement goals such as Black civil rights, an end to the Vietnam War, and university reform. The mass media, owned by big business and cowed by government and right-wing attack, helped to bury radical activism by ceasing to cover it. Television, popular magazines, and daily papers stereotyped Blacks as hardened criminals and welfare chiselers or as the supposedly affluent beneficiaries of reverse "discrimination." White youth were portrayed first as hedonistic hippies and mindless terrorists, later as an apolitical, self-indulgent "me generation." Both were scapegoated as threats to "decent, hard-working Middle America."
During the severe economic recession of the early- to mid- 1970s, former student activists began entering the job market, some taking on responsibility for children. Many were scared by brutal government and right-wing attacks culminating in the murder of rank-and-file activists as well as prominent leaders. Some were strung out on the hard drugs that had become increasingly available in Black and Latin communities and among white youth. Others were disillusioned by mistreatment in movements ravaged by the very social sicknesses they sought to eradicate, including racism, sexism, homophobia, class bias and competition.
Limited by their upbringing, social position, and isolation from older radical traditions, 1960s activists were unable to make the connections and changes required to build movements strong enough to survive and eventually win structural change in the United States. Middle-class students did not sufficiently ally with working and poor people. Too few white activists accepted third world leadership of multi-racial alliances. Too many men refused to practice genuine gender equality. Originally motivated by goals of quick reforms, 1960s activists were ill-prepared for the long-term struggles in which they found themselves. Overly dependent on media-oriented superstars and one-shot dramatic actions, they failed to develop stable organizations, accountable leader ship, and strategic perspective. Creatures of the culture they so despised, they often lacked the patience to sustain tedious grassroots work and painstaking analysis of actual social conditions. They found it hard to accept the slow, uneven pace of personal and political change.
This combination of circumstances, however, did not by itself guarantee political collapse. The achievements of the 1960s movements could have inspired optimism and provided a sense of the power to win other important struggles. The rightward shift of the major media could have enabled alternative newspapers, magazines, theater, film, and video to attract a broader audience and stable funding. The economic downtum of the early 1970s could have united Black militants, New Leftists, and workers in common struggle. Police brutality and government collusion in drug trafficking could have been exposed in ways that undermined support for the authorities and broadened the movements' backing.
By the close of the decade, many of the movements' internal weaknesses were starting to be addressed. Black-led multi-racial alliances, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign and the Black Panthers' Rainbow Coalition, were forming. The movements' class base was broadening through Black "revolutionary unions" in auto and other industries, King's increasing focus on economic issues, the New Left's spread to community colleges, and the return of working-class GIs radicalized by their experience in Vietnam. At the same time, the women's movement was confronting the deep sexism which permeated 1960s activism, along with its corollaries: homophobia, sexual violence, militarism, competitiveness, and top-down decision-making.
While the problems of the 1960s movements were enormous, their strengths might have enabled them to overcome their weaknesses had the upsurge not been stifled before activists could learn from their mistakes. Much of the movements' inability to transcend their initial limitations and overcome adversity can be traced to COINTELPRO.
It was through COINTELPRO that the public image of Blacks and New Leftists was distorted to legitimize their arrest and imprisonment and scapegoat them as the cause of working people's problems. The FBI and police instigated violence and fabricated movement horrors. Dissidents were deliberately "criminalized" through false charges, frame-ups, and offensive, bogus leaflets and other materials published in their name.
COINTELPRO enabled the FBI and police to exacerbate the movements' internal stresses until beleaguered activists turned on one another. Whites were pitted against Blacks, Blacks against Chicanos and Puerto Ricans, students against workers, workers against people on welfare, men against women, religious activists against atheists, Christians against Jews, Jews against Muslims. "Anonymous" accusations of infidelity ripped couples apart. Backers of women's and gay liberation were attacked as "dykes" or "faggots." Money was repeatedly stolen and precious equipment sabotaged to intensify pressure and sow suspicion and mistrust.
Otherwise manageable disagreements were inflamed by COINTELPRO until they erupted into hostile splits that shattered alliances, tore groups apart, and drove dedicated activists out of the movement. Government documents implicate the FBI and police in the bitter breakup of such pivotal groups as the Black Panther Party, SDS, and the Liberation News Service, and in the collapse of repeated efforts to form long-term coalitions across racial, class, and regional lines. While genuine political issues were often involved in these disputes, the outcome could have been different if government agencies had not covertly intervened to subvert compromise and fuel hostility and competition.
Finally, it was COINTELPRO that enabled the FBI and police to eliminate the leaders of mass movements without undermining the image of the United States as a democracy, complete with free speech and the rule of law. Charismatic orators and dynamic organizers were covertly attacked and "neutralized" before their skills could be transferred to others and stable structures established to carry on their work. Malcolm X was killed in a "factional dispute" which the FBI took credit for having "developed" in the Nation of Islam. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the target of an elaborate FBI plot to drive him to suicide and replace him "in his role of the leadership of the Negro people" with conservative Black lawyer Samuel Pierce (later named to Reagan's cabinet). Many have come to view King's eventual assassination (and Malcolm's as well) as itself a domestic covert operation.
Other prominent radicals faced similar attack when they began to develop broad followings and express anti-capitalist ideas. Some were portrayed as crooks, thugs, philanderers, or government agents, while others were physically threatened or assaulted until they abandoned their work. Still others were murdered under phony pretexts, such as "shootouts" in which the only shots were fired by the police.
To help bring down a major target, the FBI often combined these approaches in strategic sequence. Take the case of the "underground press, " a network of some 400 radical weeklies and several national news services, which once boasted a combined readership of close to 30 million. In the late 1960s, government agents raided the offices of alternative newspapers across the country in purported pursuit of drugs and fugitives. In the process, they destroyed typewriters, cameras, printing presses, layout equipment, business records, and research files, and roughed up and jailed staffers on bogus charges. Meanwhile, the FBI was persuading record companies to withdraw lucrative advertising and arranging for printers, suppliers, and distributors to drop underground press accounts. With their already shaky operations in disarray, the papers and news services were easy targets for a final phase of COINTELPRO disruption. Forged correspondence, anonymous accusations, and infiltrators' manipulation provoked a flurry of wild charges and counter-charges that played a major role in bringing many of these promising endeavors to a premature end.
A similar pattern can be discerned from the history of the Black Panther Party. Brutal government attacks initially elicited broad support for this new, militant, highly visible national organization and its popular ten-point socialist program for Black self-determination. But the FBI's repressive onslaught severely weakened the Party, making it vulnerable to sophisticated FBI psychological warfare which so discredited and shattered it that few people today have any notion of the power and potential that the Panthers once represented.
What proved most devastating in all of this was the effective manipulation of the victims of COINTELPRO into blaming themselves. Since the FBI and police operated covertly, the horrors they engineered appeared to emanate from within the movements. Activists' trust in one another and in their collective power was subverted, and the hopes of a generation died, leaving a legacy of cynicism and despair which continues to haunt us today.