This is why no one should join any movement at all, ever.
COINTELPRO: THE FBI’S COVERT ACTION PROGRAMS AGAINST AMERICAN CITIZENS
I. INTRODUCTION AND SUMMARY
COINTELPRO is the FBI acronym for a series of covert action programs directed against domestic groups. In these programs, the Bureau went beyond the collection of intelligence to secret action defined to “disrupt” and “neutralize” target groups and individuals. The techniques were adopted wholesale from wartime counterintelligence, and ranged from the trivial (mailing reprints of Reader’s Digest articles to college administrators) to the degrading (sending anonymous poison-pen letters intended to break up marriages) and the dangerous (encouraging gang warfare and falsely labeling members of a violent group as police informers).
This report is based on a staff study of more than 20,000 pages of Bureau documents, depositions of many of the Bureau agents involved in the programs, and interviews of several COINTELPRO targets. The examples selected for discussion necessarily represent a small percentage of the more than 2,000 approved COINTELPRO actions. Nevertheless, the cases demonstrate the consequences of a Government agency’s decision to take the law into its own hands for the “greater good” of the country.
COINTELPRO began in 1956, in part because of frustration with Supreme Court rulings limiting the Government’s power to proceed overtly against dissident groups; it ended in 1971 with the threat of public exposure. 1 In the intervening 15 years, the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence. 2
Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that. The unexpressed major premise of the programs was that a law enforcement agency has the duty to do whatever is necessary to combat perceived threats to the existing social and political order.
A. “Counterintelligence Program”: A Misnomer for Domestic Covert Action
COINTELPRO is an acronym for “counterintelligence program.”
Counterintelligence is defined as those actions by an intelligence agency intended to protect its own security and to undermine hostile intelligence operations. 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 formal programs which incorporated these techniques were, therefore, also called “counterintelligence.” 2a
“Covert action” is, however, a more accurate term for the Bureau’s programs directed against American citizens. “Covert action” is the label applied to clandestine activities intended to influence political choices and social values. 3
The FBI as the enforcer of the status quo:
3. Maintaining the Existing Social and Political Order
Protecting national security and preventing violence are the purposes advanced by the Bureau for COINTELPRO. There is another purpose for COINTELPRO which is not explicit but which offers the only explanation for those actions which had no conceivable rational relationship to either national security or violent activity. The unexpressed major premise of much of COINTELPRO is that the Bureau has a role in maintaining the existing social order, and that its efforts should be aimed toward combating those who threaten that order. 19
The “New Left” COINTELPRO presents the most striking example of this attitude. As discussed earlier, the Bureau did not define the term “New Left,” and the range of targets went far beyond alleged “subversives” or “extremists.” Thus, for example, two student participants in a “free speech” demonstration were targeted because they defended the use of the classic four-letter-word. Significantly, they were made COINTELPRO subjects even though the demonstration “does not appear to be inspired by the New Left” because it “shows obvious disregard for decency and established morality.” 20 In another case, reprints of a newspaper article entitled “Rabbi in Vietnam Says Withdrawal Not the Answer” were mailed to members of the Vietnam Day Committee “to convince [them] of the correctness of the U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam.” 21 Still another document weighs against the “liberal press and the bleeding hearts and the forces on the left” which were “taking advantage of the situation in Chicago surrounding the Democratic National Convention to attack the police and organized law enforcement agencies.” 22 Upholding decency and established morality, defending the correctness of U.S. foreign policy, and attacking those who thought the Chicago police used undue force have no apparent connection with the expressed goals of protecting national security and preventing violence. These documents, among others examined, compel the conclusion that Federal law enforcement officers looked upon themselves as guardians of the status quo. The attitude should not be a surprise; the difficulty lies in the choice of weapons.
The Bureau approved 2,370 separate counterintelligence actions. 27 Their techniques ranged from anonymously mailing reprints of newspaper and magazine articles (sometimes Bureau-authored or planted) to group members or supporters to convince them of the error of their ways, 28 to mailing anonymous letters to a member’s spouse accusing the target of infidelity ; 29 from using informants to raise controversial issues at meetings in order to cause dissent, 30 to the “snitch jacket” (falsely labeling a group member as an informant) 31 and encouraging street warfare between violent groups ; 32 from contacting members of a “legitimate group to expose the alleged subversive background of a fellow member 33 to contacting an employer to get a target fired; 34 from attempting to arrange for reporters to interview targets with planted questions, 35 to trying to stop targets from speaking at all ; 36 from notifying state and local authorities of a target’s criminal law violations, 37 to using the IRS to audit a professor, not just to collect any taxes owing, but to distract him from his political activities. 38
3. The Future of COINTELPRO
Attitudes within and without the Bureau demonstrate a continued belief by some that covert action against American citizens is permissible if the need for it is strong enough. When the Petersen Committee report on COINTELPRO was released, Director Kelley responded, “For the FBI to have done less under the circumstances would have been an abdication of its responsibilities to the American people.” He also restated his “feeling that the FBI’s counterintelligence programs had an impact on the crises of the time and, therefore, that they helped to bring about a favorable change in this country.” 60 In his testimony before the Select Committee, Director Kelley continued to defend COINTELPRO, albeit with some reservations:
What I said then, in 1974, and what I believe today, is that the FBI employees involved in these programs did what they felt was expected of them by the President, the Attorney General, the Congress, and the people of the United States. . . .
Our concern over whatever abuses occurred in the Counterintelligence Programs, and there were some substantial ones, should not obscure the underlying purpose of those programs.
We must recognize that situations have occurred in the past and will arise in the future where the Government may well be expected to depart from its traditional role, in the FBI’s case, as an investigative and intelligence-gathering agency, and take affirmative steps which are needed to meet an imminent threat to human life or property. 62
Nor is the Director alone in his belief that faced with sufficient threat, covert disruption is justified. The Department of Justice promulgated tentative guidelines for the Bureau which would have permitted the Attorney General to authorize “preventive action” where there is a substantial possibility that violence will occur and “prosecution is impracticable.” Although those guidelines have now been dropped, the principle has not been rejected.
III. THE GOALS OF COINTELPRO: PREVENTING OR DISRUPTING THE EXERCISE OF FIRST AMENDMENT RIGHTS
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.
The Bureau’s use of the news media took two different forms: placing unfavorable articles and documentaries about targeted groups, and leaking derogatory information intended to discredit individuals. 157
A typical example of media propaganda is the headquarters letter authorizing the Boston Field Office to furnish “derogatory information about the Nation of Islam (NOI) to established source [name excised)”: 158
Your suggestions concerning material to furnish [name] are good. Emphasize to him that the NOI predilection for violence, preaching of race hatred, and hypocrisy, should be exposed. Material furnished [name] should be either public source or known to enough people as to protect your sources. Insure the Bureau’s interest in this matter is completely protected by [name]. 160
5. Fictitious Organizations
There are basically three kinds of “notional” or fictitious organizations. All three were used in COINTELPRO attempts to factionalize.
The first kind of “notional” was the organization whose members were all Bureau informants. Because of the Committee’s agreement with the Bureau not to reveal the identities of informants, the only example which can be discussed publicly is a proposal which, although approved, was never implemented. That proposal involved setting up a chapter of the W.E.B. DuBois Club in a Southern city which would be composed entirely of Bureau informants and fictitious persons. The initial purpose o the chapter was to cause the CPUSA expense by sending organizers into the area, cause the Party to fund Bureau coverage of out-of-town CP meetings by paying the informants’ expenses, and receive literature and instructions. Later, the chapter was to begin to engage in deviation from the Party line so that it would be expelled from the main organization “and then they could claim to be the victim of a Stalinist type purge.” It was anticipated that the entire operation would take no more than 18 months. 185
The second kind of “notional” was the fictitious organization with some unsuspecting (non-informant) members. For example, Bureau informants set up a Klan organization intended to attract membership away from the United Klans of America. The Bureau paid the informant’s personal expenses in setting up the new organization, which had, at its height, 250 members. 186
The third type of “notional” was the wholly fictitious organization, with no actual members, which was used as a pseudonym for mailing letters or pamphlets. For instance, the Bureau sent out newsletters from something called “The Committee for Expansion of Socialist Thought in America,” which attacked the CPUSA from the “Marxist right” for at least two years. 187
6. Labeling Targets As Informants
The “snitch jacket” technique — neutralizing a target by labeling him a “snitch” or informant, so that he would no longer be trusted — was used in all COINTELPROs. The methods utilized ranged from having an authentic informant start a rumor about the target member, 188 to anonymous letters or phone calls, 189 to faked informants’ reports. 190
When the technique was used against a member of a nonviolent group, the result was often alienation from the group. For example, a San Diego man was targeted because he was active in draft counseling at the city’s Message Information Center. He had, coincidentally, been present at the arrest of a Selective Service violator, and had been at a “crash pad” just prior to the arrest of a second violator. The Bureau used a real informant to suggest at a Center meeting that it was “strange” that the two men had been arrested by federal agents shortly after the target became aware of their locations. The field office reported that the target had been “completely ostracized by members of the Message Information Center and all of the other individuals throughout the area . . . associated with this and/or related groups.” 191
In another case, a local police officer was used to “jacket” the head of the Student Mobilization Committee at the University of South Carolina. The police officer picked up two members of the Committee on the pretext of interviewing them concerning narcotics. By prearranged signal, he had his radio operator call him with the message, “[name of target] just called. Wants you to contact her. Said you have her number.” 192 No results were reported.
The “snitch jacket” is a particularly nasty technique even when used in peaceful groups. It gains an added dimension of danger when it is used — as, indeed, it was — in groups known to have murdered informers. 193
3. Candidates and Political Appointees
The Bureau apparently did not trust the American people, to make the proper choices in the voting booth. Candidates who, in the Bureau’s opinion, should not be elected were therefore targeted. The case of the Democratic fundraiser discussed earlier was just one example.
Socialist Workers Party candidates were routinely selected for counterintelligence, although they had never come close to winning an election. In one case, a SWP candidate for state office inadvertently protected herself from action by announcing at a news conference that she had no objections to premarital sex; a field office thereupon withdrew its previously approved proposal to publicize her common law marriage. 241a
Other candidates were also targeted. A Midwest lawyer whose firm represented “subversives” (defendants in the Smith Act trials) ran for City Council. The lawyer had been active in the civil rights movement in the South, and the John Birch Society in his city had recently mailed a book called “It’s Very Simple — The True Story of Civil Rights” to various ministers, priests, and rabbis. The Bureau received a copy of the mailing list from a source in the Birch Society and sent an anonymous follow-up letter to the book’s recipients noting the pages on which the candidate had been mentioned and calling their attention to the “Communist background” of this “charlatan.” 242 The Bureau also sent a fictitious-name letter to a television station on which the candidate was to appear, enclosing a series of informative questions it believed should be asked. 243 The candidate was defeated. He subsequently ran (successfully, as it happened) for a judgeship.
Political appointees were also targeted. One target was a member of the board of the NAACP and the Democratic State Central Committee. His brother, according to the documents, was a communist, and the target had participated in some Party youth group activities fifteen years earlier. The target’s appointment as secretary of a city transportation board elicited an anonymous letter to the Mayor, with carbons to two newspapers, protesting the use of “us taxpayers’ money” in the appointment of a “known Communist” to a highly paid job; more anonymous letters to various politicians, the American Legion, and the county prosecutor in the same vein; and a pseudonymous letter to the members of the transportation board, stating that the Mayor had “saddled them with a Commie secretary because he thinks it will get him a few Negro votes. 244