COINTELPRO: The FBI’s Covert Action Programs Against American Citizens, Final Report of the Senate Committee to Study Governmental Operations with respect to Intelligence Activities

“…B. The Programs

Before examining each program in detail, some general observations may be useful. Each of the five domestic COINTELPROs had certain traits in common. As noted above, each program used techniques learned from the Bureau’s wartime efforts against hostile foreign agents. Each sprang from frustration with the perceived inability of law enforcement to deal with what the Bureau believed to be a serious threat to the country. Each program depended on an intensive intelligence effort to provide the information used to disrupt the target groups.

The programs also differ to some extent. The White Hate program, for example, was very precisely targeted; each of the other programs spread to a number of groups which do not appear to fall within any clear parameters. 67 In fact, with each subsequent COINTELPRO, the targeting became more diffuse.

The White Hate COINTELPRO also used comparatively few techniques which carried a risk of serious physical, emotional, or economic damage to the targets, while the Black Nationalist COINTELPRO used such techniques extensively. The New Left COINTELPRO, on the other hand, had the highest proportion of proposals aimed at preventing the exercise of free speech. Like the progression in targeting, the use of dangerous, degrading, or blatantly unconstitutional techniques also appears to have become less restrained with each subsequent program.

1. CPUSA. — The first official COINTELPRO program, against the Communist Party, USA, was started in August 1956 with Director Hoover’s approval. Although the formal program was instituted in 1956, COINTELPRO-type activities had gone on for years. The memorandum recommending the program refers to prior actions, constituting “harassment,” which were generated by the field during the course of the Bureau’s investigation of the Communist Party.” These prior actions were instituted on all ad hoc basis as the opportunity arose. As Sullivan testified, “[Before 1956] we were engaged in COINTELPRO tactics, divide, confuse, weaken in diverse ways, all organization. . . . [Before 1956] it, was more sporadic. It depended on a given office. . . .” 69

In 1956, a series of field conferences was held to discuss the development of new security informants. The Smith Act trials and related proceedings had exposed over 100 informants, leaving the Bureau’s intelligence apparatus in some disarray. During the field conferences, a formal counterintelligence program was recommended, partly because of the gaps in the informant ranks. 70

Since the Bureau had evidence that until the late 1940s the CPUSA had been “blatantly” involved in Soviet espionage, and believed that the Soviets were continuing to use the Party for “political and intelligence purposes,” 71 there was no clear line of demarcation in the Bureau’s switch from foreign to domestic counterintelligence. The initial areas of concentration were the use of informants to capitalize on the conflicts within the Party over Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin; to prevent the CP’s efforts to take over (via a merger) a broad-based socialist group; to encourage the Socialist Workers Party in its attacks on the CP; and to use the IRS to investigate underground CP members who either failed to file, or filed under false names.

As the program proceeded, other targets and techniques were developed, but until 1960 the CPUSA targets were Party members, and the techniques were aimed at the Party organization (factionalism, public exposure, etc.)

2. The 1960 Expansion. — In March 1960, CPUSA COINTELPRO field offices received a directive to intensify counterintelligence efforts to prevent Communist infiltration (“COMINFIL”) of mass organizations, ranging from the NAACP 72 to a local scout troop. 73 The usual technique would be to tell a leader of the organization about the alleged Communist in its midst, the target, of course, being the alleged Communist rather than the organization. In an increasing number of cases, however, both the alleged Communist and the organization were targeted, usually by planting a news article about Communists active in the organization. For example, a newsman was given information about Communist participation in a SANE march, with the express purpose being to discredit SANE as well as the participants, and another newspaper was alerted to plans of Bettina Aptheker to join a United Farm Workers picket line. 74 The 1960 “COMINFIL” memorandum marks the beginning of the slide from targeting CP members to those allegedly under CP “influence” (such civil right’s leaders as Martin Luther King, Jr.) to “fellow travelers” (those, taking positions supported by the Communists, such as school integration, increased minority hiring, and opposition to HUAC.) 75

3. Socialist Workers Party. — The Socialist Workers Party (“SWP”) COINTELPRO program was initiated on October 12, 1961, by the headquarters supervisor handling the SWP desk (but with Hoover’s concurrence) apparently on a theory of even-handed treatment: if the Bureau has a program against the CP, it was only fair to have one against the Trotskyites. (The COINTELPRO unit chief, in response to a question about why the Bureau targeted the SWP in view of the fact that the SWP’s hostility to the Communist Party had been useful in disrupting the CPUSA, answered, “I do not think that the Bureau discriminates against subversive organizations.”) 76

The program was not given high priority — only 45 actions were approved — and was discontinued in 1969, two years before the other four programs ended. (The SWP program was then subsumed in the New Left COINTELPRO.) Nevertheless, it marks an important departure from the CPUSA COINTELPRO: although the-SWP had contacts with foreign Trotskyite groups, there was no evidence that the SWP was involved in espionage. These were, in C. D. Brennans phrase, “home grown tomatoes.” 77 The Bureau has conceded that the SWP has never been engaged in organizational violence, nor has it taken any criminal steps toward overthrowing the country. 78

Nor does the Bureau claim the SWP was engaged in revolutionary acts. The Party was targeted for its rhetoric; significantly, the originating letter points to the SWPs “open” espousal of its line, “through running candidates for public office” and its direction and/or support of “such causes as Castro’s Cuba and integration problems arising in the South.” Further, the American people had to be alerted to the fact that “the SWP is not just another socialist group but follows the revolutionary principles of Marx, Lenin, and Engles as interpreted by Leon Trotsky.” 79

Like the CPUSA COINTELPRO, non-Party members were also targeted, particularly when the SWP and the Young Socialist Alliance (the SWP’s youth group) started to co-sponsor antiwar marches. 80

4. White Hate. — The Klan COINTELPRO began on July 30, 1964, with the transfer of the “responsibility for development of informants and gathering of intelligence on the KKK and other hate groups” from the General Investigative Division to the Domestic Intelligence Division. The memorandum recommending the reorganization also suggested that, “counterintelligence and disruption tactics be given further study by DID and appropriate recommendations made.” 81

Accordingly, on September 2, 1964, a directive was sent to seventeen field offices instituting a COINTELPRO against Klan-type and hate organizations “to expose, disrupt, and otherwise neutralize the activities of the various Klans and hate organizations, their leadership, and adherents.” 82 Seventeen Klan organizations and nine “hate” organizations (e.g., American Nazi Party, National States Rights Party, etc.) were listed as targets. The field offices were also instructed specifically to consider “Action Groups” — “the relatively few individuals in each organization who use strong arm tactics and violent actions to achieve their ends.” 83 However, counterintelligence proposals were not to be limited to these few, but were to include any influential member if the opportunity arose. As the unit chief stated:

The emphasis was on determining the identity and exposing and neutralizing the violence prone activities of “Action Groups,” but also it was important to expose the unlawful activities of other Klan organizations. We also made an effort to deter or counteract the propaganda and to deter violence and to deter recruitment where we could. This was done with the view that if we could curb the organization, we could curb the action or the violence within the organization. 84

The White Hate COINTELPRO appears to have been limited, with few exceptions, 85 to the original named targets. No “legitimate” right wing organizations were drawn into the program, in contrast with the earlier spread of the CPUSA and SWP programs to non members. This precision has been attributed by the Bureau to the superior intelligence on “hate” groups received by excellent informant penetration.

Bureau witnesses believe the Klan program to have been highly effective. The unit chief stated:

I think the Bureau got the job done.. I think that one reason we were able to get the job done was that we were able to use counterintelligence techniques. It is possible that we eventually could have done the job without counterintelligence techniques. I am not sure we could have done it as well or as quickly. 86

This view was shared by George C. Moore, Section Chief of the Racial Intelligence Section, which had responsibility for the White Hate and Black Nationalist COINTELPROs:

I think from what I have seen and what I have read, as far as the counterintelligence program on the, Klan is concerned, that it was effective. I think it was one of the most effective programs I have ever seen the Bureau handle as far as any group is concerned. 87

5. Black Nationalist-Hate Groups. 88 — In marked contrast to prior COINTELPROs, which grew out of years of intensive intelligence investigation, the Black Nationalist COINTELPRO and the racial intelligence investigative section were set up at about the same time in 1967.

Prior to that time, the Division’s investigation of “Negro matters” was limited to instances of alleged Communist infiltration of civil rights groups and to monitoring civil rights protest activity. However, the long, hot summer of 1967 led to intense pressure on the Bureau to do something to contain the problem, and once again, the Bureau heeded the call.

The originating letter was sent out to twenty-three field offices on August 25, 1967, describing the program’s purpose as

… to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder. . . . Efforts of the various groups to consolidate their forces or to recruit new or youthful adherents must be frustrated. 89

Initial group targets for “intensified attention” were the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Revolutionary Action Movement, Deacons for Defense and Justice, Congress of Racial Equality, and the Nation of Islam. Individuals named targets were Stokely Carmichael, H. “Rap” Brown, Elijah Muhammed, and Maxwell Stanford. The targets were chosen by conferring with Headquarters personnel supervising the racial cases; the list was not intended to exclude other groups known to the field.

According to the Black Nationalist supervisor, individuals and organizations were targeted because of their propensity for violence or their “radical or revolutionary rhetoric [and] actions”:

Revolutionary would be [defined as] advocacy of the overthrow of the Government…. Radical [is] a loose term that might cover, for example, the separatist view of the Nation of Islam, the influence of a group called U.S. Incorporated…. Generally, they wanted a separate black nation…. They [the NOI] advocated formation of a separate black nation on the territory of five Southern states. 90

The letter went on to direct field offices to exploit conflicts within and between groups; to use news media contacts to disrupt, ridicule, or discredit groups; to preclude “violence-prone” or “rabble rouser” leaders of these groups from spreading their philosophy publicly; and to gather information on the “unsavory backgrounds” — immorality, subversive activity, and criminal activity– of group members. 91

According to George C. Moore, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was included because

… at that time it was still under investigation because of the communist infiltration. As far as I know, there were not any violent propensities, except that I note … in the cover memo [expanding the program] or somewhere, that they mentioned that if Martin Luther King decided to go a certain way, he could cause some trouble…. I cannot explain it satisfactorily . . . this is something the section inherited. 92

On March 4, 1968, the program was expanded from twenty-three to forty-one field offices. 93 The letter expanding the program lists five long-range goals for the program:

(1) to prevent the “coalition of militant black nationalist groups,” which might be the first step toward a real “Mau Mau” in America;

(2) to prevent the rise of a “messiah” who could “unify, and electrify,” the movement, naming specifically Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, and Elijah Muhammed;

(3) to prevent violence on the part of black nationalist groups, by pinpointing “potential troublemakers” and neutralizing them “before they exercise their potential for violence;”

(4) to prevent groups and leaders from gaining “respectability” by discrediting them to the “responsible” Negro community, to the white community (both the responsible community and the “liberals” — the distinction is the Bureau’s), and to Negro radicals; and

(5) to prevent the long range growth of these organizations, especially among youth, by developing specific tactics to “prevent these groups from recruiting young people.” 94

6. The Panther Directives. — The Black Panther Party (“BPP”) was not included in the first two lists of primary targets (August 1967 and March 1968) because it had not attained national importance. By November 1968, apparently the BPP had become sufficiently active to be considered a primary target. A letter to certain field offices with BPP activity dated November 25, 1968, ordered recipient offices to submit “imaginative and hard-hitting counterintelligence measures aimed at crippling the BPP.” Proposals were to be received every two weeks. Particular attention was to be given to capitalizing upon the differences between the BPP and US, Inc. (Ron Karenga’s group), which had reached such proportions that “it is taking on the aura of gang warfare with attendant threats of murder and reprisals.” 95

On January 30, 1969, this program against the BPP was expanded to additional offices, noting that the BPP was attempting to create a better image. In line with this effort, Bobby Seale was conducting a “purge” 96 of the party, including expelling police informants. Recipient offices were instructed to take advantage of the opportunity to further plant the seeds of suspicion concerning disloyalty among ranking officials. 97

Bureau witnesses are not certain whether the Black Nationalist program was effective. Mr. Moore stated:

I know that the … overall results of the Klan [COINTELPRO] was much more effective from what I have been told than the Black Extremism [COINTELPRO] because of the number of informants in the Klan who could take action which would be more effective. In the Black Extremism Group . . . we got a late start because we did not have extremist – activity [until] ’67 and ’68. Then we had to play catch-up…. It is not easy to measure effectiveness…. There were policemen killed in those days. There were bombs thrown. There were establishments burned with molotov cocktails…. We can measure that damage. You cannot measure over on the other side, what lives were saved because somebody did not leave the organization or suspicion was sown on his leadership and this organization gradually declined and [there was] suspicion within it, or this organization did not join with [that] organization as a result of a black power conference which was aimed towards consolidation efforts. All we know, either through their own ineptitude, maybe it emerged through counterintelligence, maybe, I think we like to think that that helped to do it, that there was not this development. . . . What part did counterintelligence [play?] We hope that it did play a part. Maybe we just gave it a nudge.” 98

7. New Left. — The Internal Security Section had undergone a slow transition from concentrating on the “Old Left” — the CPUSA and SWP — to focusing primarily on the activities of the “New Left” — a term which had no precise definition within the Bureau. 99 Some agents defined “New Left” functionally, by connection with protests. Others defined it by philosophy, particularly antiwar philosophy.

On October 28, 1968, the fifth and final COINTELPRO was started against this undefined group. The program was triggered in part by the Columbia campus disturbance. Once again, law enforcement methods had broken down, largely (in the Bureau’s opinion) because college administrators refused to call the police on campus to deal with student demonstrations. The atmosphere at the time was described by the Headquarters agent who supervised the New Left COINTELPRO:

During that particular time, there was considerable public, Administration — I mean governmental Administration [and] news media interest in the protest movement to the extent that some groups, I don’t recall any specifics, but some groups were calling for something to be done to blunt or reduce the protest movements that were disrupting campuses. I can’t classify it as exactly an hysteria, but there was considerable interest [and concern]. That was the framework that we were working with…. It would be my impression that as a result of this hysteria, some governmental leaders were looking to the Bureau. 100

And, once again, the combination of perceived threat, public outcry, and law enforcement frustration produced a COINTELPRO.

According to the initiating letter, the counterintelligence program’s purpose was to “expose, disrupt, and otherwise neutralize,” the activities of the various New Left organizations, their leadership, and adherents, with particular attention to Key Activists, “the moving forces behind the New Left.” The final paragraph contains an exhortation to a “forward look, enthusiasm, and interest” because of the Bureau’s concern that “the anarchist activities of a few can paralyze institutions of learning, induction centers, cripple traffic, and tie the arms of law enforcement officials all to the detriment of our society.” The internal memorandum recommending the program further sets forth the Bureau’s concerns:

Our Nation is undergoing an era of disruption and violence caused to a large extent by various individuals generally connected with the New Left. Some of these activists urge revolution in America and call for the defeat of the United States in Vietnam. They continually and falsely allege police brutality and do not hesitate to utilize unlawful acts to further their so-called causes.

The document continues:

The New Left has on many occasions viciously and scurrilously attacked the Director and the Bureau in an attempt to hamper our investigation of it and to drive us off the college campuses. 101

Based on those factors, the Bureau decided to institute a new COINTELPRO.

8. New Left Directives. — The Bureau’s concern with “tying the hands of law enforcement officers,” and with the perceived weakness of college administrators in refusing to call police onto the campus, led to a May 23, 1968, directive to all participating field offices to gather information on three categories of New Left activities:

(1) false allegations of police brutality, to “counter the wide-spread charges of police brutality that invariably arise following student-police encounters”;

(2) immorality, depicting the “scurrilous and depraved nature of many of the characters, activities, habits, and living conditions representative of New Left adherents”; and

(3) action by college administrators, “to show the value of college administrators and school officials taking a firm stand,” and pointing out “whether and to what extent faculty members rendered aid and encouragement.”

The letter continues, “Every avenue of possible embarrassment must be vigorously and enthusiastically explored. It cannot be expected that information of this type will be easily obtained, and an imaginative approach by your personnel is imperative to its success.” 103

The order to furnish information on “immorality” was not carried out with sufficient enthusiasm. On October 9, 1968, headquarters sent another letter to all offices, taking them to task for their failure to “remain alert for and to seek specific data depicting the depraved nature and moral looseness of the New Left” and to “use this material in a vigorous and enthusiastic approach to neutralizing them.” 104 Recipient offices were again instructed to be “particularly alert for this type of data” 105 and told:

As the current school year commences, it can be expected that the New Left with its anti-war and anti-draft entourage will make every effort to confront college authorities, stifle military recruiting, and frustrate the Selective Service System. Each office will be expected, therefore, to afford this program continuous effective attention in order that no opportunity will be missed to destroy this insidious movement. 106

As to the police brutality and “college administrator” categories, the Bureau’s belief that getting tough with students and demonstrators would solve the problem, and that any injuries which resulted were deserved, is reflected in the Bureau’s reaction to allegations of police brutality following the Chicago Democratic Convention.

On August 28, 1968, a letter was sent to the Chicago field office instructing it to “obtain all possible evidence that would disprove these charges” [that the Chicago police used undue force] and to “consider measures by which cooperative news media may be used to counteract these allegations.” The administrative “note” (for the file) states :

Once again, the liberal press and the bleeding hearts and the forces on the left are taking advantage of the situation in Chicago surrounding the Democratic National Convention to attack the police and organized law enforcement agencies…. We should be mindful of this situation and develop all possible evidence to expose this activity and to refute these false allegations. 107

In the same vein, on September 9, 1968, an instruction was sent to all offices which had sent informants to the Chicago convention demonstrations, ordering them to debrief the informants for information “indicating incidents were staged to show police reacted with undue force and any information that authorities were baited by militants into using force.” 108 The offices were also to obtain evidence of possible violations of anti-riot laws. 109

The originating New Left letter had asked all recipient offices to respond with suggestions for counterintelligence action. Those responses were analyzed and a letter sent to all offices on July 6, 1968, setting forth twelve suggestions for counterintelligence action which could be utilized by all offices. Briefly the techniques are:

(1) preparing leaflets designed to discredit student demonstrators, using photographs of New Left leadership at the respective universities. “Naturally, the most obnoxious pictures should be used”;

(2) instigating “personal conflicts or animosities” between New Left leaders;

(3) creating the impression that leaders are “informants for the Bureau or other law enforcement agencies”;

(4) sending articles from student newspapers or the “underground press” which show the depravity of the New Left to university officials, donors, legislators, and parents. “Articles showing advocation of the use of narcotics and free sex are ideal”;

(5) having members arrested on marijuana charges;

(6) sending anonymous letters about a student’s activities to parents, neighbors, and the parents’ employers. “This could have the effect of forcing the parents to take action”;

(7) sending anonymous letters or leaflets describing the “activities and associations” of New Left faculty members and graduate assistants to university officials, legislators, Boards of Regents, and the press. “These letters should be signed ‘A Concerned Alumni,’ or ‘A Concerned Taxpayer'”;

(8) using cooperative press contacts” to emphasize that the “disruptive elements” constitute a “minority” of the students. “The press should demand an immediate referendum on the issue in question”;

(9) exploiting the “hostility” among the SDS and other New Left groups toward the SWP, YSA, and Progressive Labor Party;

(10) using “friendly news media” and law enforcement officials to disrupt New Left coffeehouses near military bases which are attempting to “influence members of the Armed Forces”;

(11) using cartoons, photographs, and anonymous letters to “ridicule” the New Left, and

(12) using “misinformation” to “confuse and disrupt” New Left activities, such as by notifying members that events have been cancelled. 110

As noted earlier, the lack of any Bureau definition of “New Left” resulted in targeting almost every anti-war group, 111 and spread to students demonstrating against anything. One notable example is a proposal targeting a student who carried an “obscene” sign in a demonstration protesting administration censorship of the school newspaper, and another student who sent a letter to that paper defending the demonstration. 112 In another article regarding “free love” on a university campus was anonymously mailed to college administrators and state officials since free love allows “an atmosphere to build up on campus that will be a fertile field for the New Left.” 113

None of the Bureau witnesses deposed believes the New Left COINTELPRO was generally effective, in part because of the imprecise targeting.


The origins of COINTELPRO demonstrate that the Bureau adopted extralegal methods to counter perceived threats to national security and public order because the ordinary legal processes were believed to be insufficient to do the job. In essence, the Bureau took the law into its own hands, conducting a sophisticated vigilante operation against domestic enemies…”


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