In March of 1971, some anti-war activists broke into an FBI field office in Media Pennsylvania. They called themselves the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, and what they found was hard evidence of organized, frequently illegal actions taken by the FBI against American citizens who were seeking social justice and an end to the war in Vietnam. The activists made off with dozens of files related to what the FBI called COINTELPRO or the Counter Intelligence Program. The activists released the documents to the press and the whistle was blown.
COINTELPRO was started in 1956 to covertly disrupt the Communist Party of the United States. It was later expanded to include: the Black Panther Party, the Socialist Workers Party, white supremacy organizations, groups seeking independence for Puerto Rico such as the Puerto Rican Socialist Party and the Young Lords, the American Indian Movement, the Committee to End the War in Vietnam, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality, the Nation of Islam, the National Welfare Rights Organization, the Congress of African people, the Peace and Freedom Party, the New Left, Students for a Democratic Society, the Institute for Policy Studies and many more. Also targeted were health clinics, food co-ops, bookstores, the underground press, community centers, communes and other groups that were considered a part of the counterculture.
The FBI, then led by J. Edgar Hoover, ordered illegal mail searches, domestic spying on activist citizens, secret and open warrantless home searches, and wiretapping phones and homes without a court order. The information gathered was used in every conceivable way, legal and personal, that would harass and abuse people who were protesting Vietnam and those who were marching for equal rights and fair treatment under the Constitution. The FBI sabotaged legal political activity. The Bureau instructed its field offices to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” individuals and groups. FBI headquarters advised its agents to coordinate their efforts with local police and prosecutors. The Bureau recommended that agents enlist the media, friendly businesses, college administrators, and members of the American Legion among others in weakening protesters and members of parties who were considered by the agency to be un-American. These efforts were made so that the FBI could reach into any aspect of a person’s life and basically destroy it.
Hoover claimed the protesters were a threat to national security, not citizens exercising their First Amendment rights. He used national security as an excuse to violate the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens. The FBI was actively working to discredit and undermine those who dared speak out against the actions of the United States government.
The four main methods outlined for use against American citizens were Infiltration of their groups, Psychological Warfare From the Outside, Harassment Through the Legal System, and Extralegal Force and Violence.
Agents and informers didn’t just park a van outside someone’s home and observe their movements, they insinuated themselves into existing groups by pretending to be supporters, then working to discredit and disrupt the group to make it seem less than credible. They sowed seeds of discontent among group members and sometimes committed the acts for which the targeted group was condemned.
The FBI planted false stories in the press, they published leaflets with phony information claiming the leaflets were published by targeted groups. They spread misinformation about meetings and events, set up pseudo groups that were actually run by government agents to see who would join, and they manipulated or strong-armed parents, employers, landlords, school officials and others to cause trouble for activists in their personal lives. They used or fabricated information that wrecked marriages and got students kicked out of school. The FBI forged correspondence, sent anonymous letters that contained false information and made anonymous phone calls that caused racial tension between Black and Jewish activists and spread rumors of fictitious murder plots between activist groups. One goal of COINTELPRO was to drive Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide. The FBI was afraid that he was becoming a “messiah figure” who would unite people against the government. While COINTELPRO infiltrated white hate groups, it also armed and subsidized many right-wing racists.
Harassment Through the Legal System
The legal system was abused by the FBI and police. They fabricated evidence and gave perjurious testimony in court against activists so they could arrest and imprison them. The FBI and police turned dissidents into criminals. For example, members of the Black Panther Party were arrested 768 times between May 1967 and December 1969. Some of these arrests were specifically to keep BPP members from speaking publicly. The arrests took place just prior to public speaking engagements and those arrested were released just after the end of the speaker’s event.
Extralegal Force and Violence
The FBI and police conducted thousands of break-ins, called “black bag jobs”, they vandalized property, and they physically assaulted protesters. In the instance of radical Black activists, these assaults included assassination. One of the stolen COINTELPRO memos stated, “The Negro youth and moderates must be made to understand that if they succumb to revolutionary teaching, they will be dead revolutionaries.” Bobby Hutton was shot 12 times by police after he had surrendered to them. Fred Hampton was shot to death while asleep in bed with his pregnant fiancé during a raid conducted by Chicago police in the middle of the night. Mark Clark was also killed and four others were wounded.
The FBI shut down COINTELPRO a short time after it was uncovered, and the Bureau publicly apologized. A few officials were indicted, some resigned or retired. J. Edgar Hoover died in 1972 and was never held legally accountable. The Church Committee was formed in 1975 to investigate the abuses of power by government agencies. The Church Committee published 14 reports of its findings regarding government agency abuses at home and around the world. The Committee stated that domestic intelligence had lost its focus and privacy rights of individual citizens had been violated, and unless tighter restrictions were placed on US intelligence agencies, our democracy could be undermined.
There is evidence that even though COINTELPRO formally ended in 1971, illegal, covert domestic actions by the bureau did not stop. Author of the well-documented book, The War At Home, Brian Glick, cites deadly use of force against Native Americans on the Pine Ridge Reservation from 1973 to 1976 when the American Indian Movement sought tribal sovereignty and U.S. adherence to treaty rights. Sixty-nine Native Americans were killed by “the FBI and its allies” on Pine Ridge Reservation over the course of three years. According to Glick, the FBI fabricated reports of criminal actions, such as reservation snipers attacking tourists and burning farms in South Dakota. These imaginary crimes were blamed on AIM.
Also targeted well into the 1970s were the power movements of Black, Chicano, Women’s, and Lesbian and Gay groups. As late as 1984, the FBI was still conducting highly questionable investigations into grass roots movements of black people supporting Jesse Jackson’s run for president.
Civil rights activists Albert Turner and Spencer Hogue were targeted by the FBI in 1984. These activists worked to help elderly black voters register and vote in the presidential primary in Alabama’s Black Belt. The activists were arrested for mail fraud when they went to the post office to mail the ballots and over 200 FBI agents rolled into western Alabama in the middle of the night, pulling the old people out of bed and hustling them onto buses where they were driven by police escort to Mobile to be fingerprinted and interrogated. Law enforcement officials did this under the pretense that Turner and Hogue had tampered with the ballots. Jeff Sessions was the US Attorney for the Southern District who filed mail fraud charges against Turner, his wife Evelyn, and Hogue.
While all of this may sound hard to believe, it can be verified. At this writing, most of the actual COINTELPRO files are online on the FBI’s website. Incidents after 1971, take further research as do the incidents involving the deaths of activists. The War At Home is a good place to start. It can be read online for free. Democracy Now also has published several videos on the topic.
The story of COINTELPRO isn’t included in most high school history texts even though it had a major impact on the counterculture and social justice movements of the 1960s. The counterculture movement didn’t succeed because it was actively suppressed by government agencies. The will of the people for a fair and equitable society was subverted by our elected officials and those appointed by them. COINTELPRO severely weakened political opposition and helped criminalize protest groups and activists.
Understanding COINTELPRO is important today because it shows us what happens when corrupt people are in power. A corrupt government will go to any lengths it deems necessary, legal or not, to attain and keep the power and the wealth of the country in the hands of a chosen few. In the frightening possibility that our government becomes our enemy, we should know what we could be up against.
COINTELPRO 101 – video (This is the homepage of Freedom Archives. The video could not be directly linked. It’s the second video on the homepage.)