COINTELPRO memo proposing a plan to expose the pregnancy of actress Jean Seberg, a financial supporter of the Black Panther Party, hoping to “possibly cause her embarassment or tarnish her image with the general public”. Covert campaigns to publicly discredit activists and destroy their interpersonal relationships were a common tactic used by COINTELPRO agents.
COINTELPRO (an acronym for COunter INTELligence PROgram) was a series of covert, and at times illegal, projects conducted by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) aimed at surveying, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting domestic political organizations. National Security Agency operation Project MINARET targeted the personal communications of leading Americans, including Senators Frank Church and Howard Baker, civil rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King, journalists and athletes who criticized the Vietnam War.
The FBI has used covert operations against domestic political groups since its inception; however, covert operations under the official COINTELPRO label took place between 1956 and 1971. COINTELPRO tactics are still used to this day, and have been alleged to include discrediting targets through psychological warfare; smearing individuals and groups using forged documents and by planting false reports in the media; harassment; wrongful imprisonment; and illegal violence, including assassination. The FBI’s stated motivation was “protecting national security, preventing violence, and maintaining the existing social and political order.”
FBI records show that 85% of COINTELPRO resources targeted groups and individuals that the FBI deemed “subversive”, including communist and socialist organizations; organizations and individuals associated with the Civil Rights Movement, including Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others associated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Congress of Racial Equality and other civil rights organizations; black nationalist groups; the American Indian Movement; a broad range of organizations labeled “New Left”, including Students for a Democratic Society and the Weathermen; almost all groups protesting theVietnam War, as well as individual student demonstrators with no group affiliation; the National Lawyers Guild; organizations and individuals associated with the women’s rights movement; nationalist groups such as those seeking independence for Puerto Rico, United Ireland, and Cuban exile movements including Orlando Bosch’s Cuban Power and the Cuban Nationalist Movement; and additional notable Americans —even Albert Einstein, who was a socialist and a member of several civil rights groups, came under FBI surveillance during the years just before COINTELPRO’s official inauguration. The remaining 15% of COINTELPRO resources were expended to marginalize and subvert white hate groups, including the Ku Klux Klan and the National States’ Rights Party.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover issued directives governing COINTELPRO, ordering FBI agents to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” the activities of these movements and their leaders. Under Hoover, the agent in charge of COINTELPRO was William C. Sullivan. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy personally authorized some of these programs. Kennedy learned that he was also a target of FBI surveillance.
The FBI engaged in political repression almost from the time of the agency’s inception in 1908, at a time of widespread social disruption due to anarchists and labor movements. Beginning in the 1930s, antecedents to COINTELPRO operated during the Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman administrations. Centralized operations under COINTELPRO officially began in August 1956 with a program designed to “increase factionalism, cause disruption and win defections” inside the Communist Party U.S.A. (CPUSA). Tactics included anonymous phone calls, IRS audits, and the creation of documents that would divide American communists internally. An October 1956 memo from Hoover reclassified the FBI’s ongoing surveillance of black leaders, including it within COINTELPRO, with the justification that the movement was infiltrated by communists. When the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was founded in 1957, the FBI began to monitor and target the group almost immediately, focusing particularly on Bayard Rustin, Stanley Levison, and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
After the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Hoover singled out King as a major target for COINTELPRO. Under pressure from Hoover to focus on King, Sullivan wrote:
“In the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech. . . . We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.”
Soon after, the FBI was systematically bugging King’s home and his hotel rooms.
Amidst the urban unrest of July–August 1967, the FBI began “COINTELPRO–BLACK HATE”, which focused on King and the SCLC as well as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and its leader Stokely Carmichael. BLACK HATE established the Ghetto Informant Program and instructed 23 FBI offices to “disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist hate type organizations”. This program coincided with a broader federal effort to prepare military responses for urban riots, and began increased collaboration between the FBI, Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, and theDepartment of Defense. A particular target was the Poor People’s Campaign, a national effort organized by King and the SCLC to occupy Washington, D.C. The FBI monitored and disrupted the campaign on a national level, while using targeted smear tactics locally to undermine support for the march.
COINTELPRO–NEW LEFT was created in April 1968, in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in Memphis and mass student protests at Columbia University.
The program ultimately encompassed disruption of the Socialist Workers Party (1961), the Ku Klux Klan (1964), the Nation of Islam, the Black Panther Party (1967), and the entire New Left social/political movement, which included antiwar, community, and religious groups (1968). A later investigation by the Senate’s Church Committee(see below) stated that “COINTELPRO began in 1956, in part because of frustration with Supreme Court rulings limiting the Government’s power to proceed overtly against dissident groups…” Official congressional committees and several court cases have concluded that COINTELPRO operations against communist and socialist groups exceeded statutory limits on FBI activity and violated constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and association.
The program was successfully kept secret until 1971, when the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI burglarized an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania, took several dossiers, and exposed the program by passing this material to news agencies. Many news organizations initially refused to publish the information. Within the year, Director J. Edgar Hoover declared that the centralized COINTELPRO was over, and that all future counterintelligence operations would be handled on a case-by-case basis.
Additional documents were revealed in the course of separate lawsuits filed against the FBI by NBC correspondent Carl Stern, the Socialist Workers Party, and a number of other groups. In 1976 the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities of the United States Senate, commonly referred to as the “Church Committee” for its chairman, Senator Frank Church of Idaho, launched a major investigation of the FBI and COINTELPRO. Journalists and historians speculate that the government has not released many documents related to the program, and many released documents have been partly, or entirely, redacted.
Since the conclusion of centralized COINTELPRO operations in 1971, FBI counterintelligence operations have been handled on a “case-by-case basis”; however allegations of improper political repression continue.
The Final Report of the Select Committee castigated conduct of the intelligence community in its domestic operations (including COINTELPRO) in no uncertain terms:
- The Committee finds that the domestic activities of the intelligence community at times violated specific statutory prohibitions and infringed the constitutional rights of American citizens. The legal questions involved in intelligence programs were often not considered. On other occasions, they were intentionally disregarded in the belief that because the programs served the “national security” the law did not apply. While intelligence officers on occasion failed to disclose to their superiors programs which were illegal or of questionable legality, the Committee finds that the most serious breaches of duty were those of senior officials, who were responsible for controlling intelligence activities and generally failed to assure compliance with the law.
- 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 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.
The Church Committee documented a history of the FBI exercising political repression as far back as World War I, through the 1920s, when agents were charged with rounding up “anarchists and revolutionaries” for deportation. The domestic operations were increased against political groups from 1936 through 1976.
The intended effect of the FBI’s COINTELPRO was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, or otherwise neutralize” groups that the FBI officials believed were “subversive” by instructing FBI field operatives to:
- create a negative public image for target groups (e.g. by surveiling activists, and releasing negative personal information to the public)
- break down internal organization
- create dissension between groups
- restrict access to public resources
- restrict the ability to organize protests
- restrict the ability of individuals to participate in group activities
Range of targets
In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Noam Chomsky, a MIT professor of linguistics and political activist, spoke about the purpose and the targets of COINTELPRO, saying,
“COINTELPRO was a program of subversion carried out not by a couple of petty crooks but by the national political police, the FBI, under four administrations… by the time it got through, I won’t run through the whole story, it was aimed at the entire new left, at the women’s movement, at the whole black movement, it was extremely broad. Its actions went as far as political assassination.”
According to the Church Committee:
- While the declared purposes of these programs were to protect the “national security” or prevent violence, Bureau witnesses admit that many of the targets were nonviolent and most had no connections with a foreign power. Indeed, nonviolent organizations and individuals were targeted because the Bureau believed they represented a “potential” for violence — and nonviolent citizens who were against the war in Vietnam were targeted because they gave “aid and comfort” to violent demonstrators by lending respectability to their cause.
- The imprecision of the targeting is demonstrated by the inability of the Bureau to define the subjects of the programs. The Black Nationalist program, according to its supervisor, included “a great number of organizations that you might not today characterize as black nationalist but which were in fact primarily black.” Thus, the nonviolent Southern Christian Leadership Conference was labeled as a Black Nationalist-“Hate Group.”
- Furthermore, the actual targets were chosen from a far broader group than the titles of the programs would imply. The CPUSA program targeted not only Communist Party members but also sponsors of the National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee and civil rights leaders allegedly under Communist influence or deemed to be not sufficiently “anti-Communist”. The Socialist Workers Party program included non-SWP sponsors of anti-war demonstrations which were cosponsored by the SWP or the Young Socialist Alliance, its youth group. The Black Nationalist program targeted a range of organizations from the Panthers to SNCC to the peaceful Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and included every Black Student Union and many other black student groups. New Left targets ranged from the SDS to the InterUniversity Committee for Debate on Foreign Policy, from Antioch College (“vanguard of the New Left”) to the New Mexico Free University and other “alternate” schools, and from underground newspapers to students’ protesting university censorship of a student publication by carrying signs with four-letter words on them.
Examples of surveillance, spanning all presidents from FDR to Nixon, both legal and illegal, contained in the Church Committee report:
- President Roosevelt asked the FBI to put in its files the names of citizens sending telegrams to the White House opposing his “national defense” policy and supporting Col. Charles Lindbergh.
- President Truman received inside information on a former Roosevelt aide’s efforts to influence his appointments, labor union negotiating plans, and the publishing plans of journalists.
- President Eisenhower received reports on purely political and social contacts with foreign officials by Bernard Baruch, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.
- The Kennedy administration had the FBI wiretap a congressional staff member, three executive officials, a lobbyist, and a Washington law firm. US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy received the fruits of an FBI wire tap on Martin Luther King, Jr. and an electronic listening device targeting a congressman, both of which yielded information of a political nature.
- President Johnson asked the FBI to conduct “name checks” of his critics and members of the staff of his 1964 opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater. He also requested purely political intelligence on his critics in the Senate, and received extensive intelligence reports on political activity at the 1964 Democratic Conventionfrom FBI electronic surveillance.
- President Nixon authorized a program of wiretaps which produced for the White House purely political or personal information unrelated to national security, including information about a Supreme Court Justice.
The COINTELPRO documents show numerous cases of the FBI’s intentions to prevent and disrupt protests against the Vietnam War. Many techniques were used to accomplish this task. “These included promoting splits among antiwar forces, encouraging red-baiting of socialists, and pushing violent confrontations as an alternative to massive, peaceful demonstrations.” One 1966 COINTELPRO operation tried to redirect the Socialist Workers Party from their pledge of support for the antiwar movement.
The FBI claims that it no longer undertakes COINTELPRO or COINTELPRO-like operations. However, critics have claimed that agency programs in the spirit of COINTELPRO targeted groups such as the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, the American Indian Movement, Earth First!, the White Separatist Movement, and the Anti-Globalization Movement.
Body of Fred Hampton, national spokesman for the Black Panther Party, who was killed by members of the Chicago Police Department, as part of a COINTELPRO operation.
According to attorney Brian Glick in his book War at Home, the FBI used four main methods during COINTELPRO:
- 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.
- Psychological warfare: The FBI and police used myriad “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. They used bad-jacketing to create suspicion about targeted activists, sometimes with lethal consequences.
- Legal harassment: 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” interviews, and grand jury subpoenas in an effort to intimidate activists and silence their supporters.
- Illegal force: The FBI conspired with local police departments to threaten dissidents; to conduct illegal break-ins in order to search dissident homes; and to commit vandalism, assaults, beatings and assassinations. The object was to frighten or eliminate dissidents and disrupt their movements.
The FBI specifically developed tactics intended to heighten tension and hostility between various factions in the black militancy movement, for example between the Black Panthers, the US Organization, and the Blackstone Rangers. This resulted in numerous deaths, among which were San Diego Black Panther Party members John Huggins, Bunchy Carter and Sylvester Bell.
The FBI also conspired with the police departments of many U.S. cities (San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Philadelphia, Chicago) to encourage repeated raids on Black Panther homes—often with little or no evidence of violations of federal, state, or local laws—which resulted directly in the police killing many members of the Black Panther Party, most notably Chicago Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton on December 4, 1969.
In order to eliminate black militant leaders whom they considered dangerous, the FBI is believed to have worked with local police departments to target specific individuals, accuse them of crimes they did not commit, suppress exculpatory evidence and falsely incarcerate them. Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt, a Black Panther Party leader, was incarcerated for 27 years before a California Superior Court vacated his murder conviction, ultimately freeing him. Appearing before the court, an FBI agent testified that he believed Pratt had been framed, because both the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department knew he had not been in the area at the time the murder occurred.
Some sources claim that the FBI conducted more than 200 “black bag jobs”, which were warrantless surreptitious entries, against the targeted groups and their members.
J. Edgar Hoover
In 1969 the FBI special agent in San Francisco wrote Hoover that his investigation of the Black Panther Party (BPP) had concluded that in his city, at least, the Panthers were primarily engaged in feeding breakfast to children. Hoover fired back a memo implying the agent’s career goals would be directly affected by his supplying evidence to support Hoover’s view that the BPP was “a violence-prone organization seeking to overthrow the Government by revolutionary means”.
Hoover supported using false claims to attack his political enemies. In one memo he wrote: “Purpose of counterintelligence action is to disrupt the BPP and it is immaterial whether facts exist to substantiate the charge.”
In one particularly controversial 1965 incident, white civil rights workerViola Liuzzo was murdered by Ku Klux Klansmen, who gave chase and fired shots into her car after noticing that her passenger was a young black man; one of the Klansmen was Gary Thomas Rowe, an acknowledged FBI informant. The FBI spread rumors that Liuzzo was a member of the Communist Party and had abandoned her children to have sexual relationships with African Americans involved in the Civil Rights Movement. FBI records show that J. Edgar Hoover personally communicated these insinuations to President Johnson. FBI informant Rowe has also been implicated in some of the most violent crimes of the 1960s civil rights era, including attacks on the Freedom Riders and the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. According to Noam Chomsky, in another instance in San Diego, the FBI financed, armed, and controlled an extreme right-wing group of former Minutemen, transforming it into a group called the Secret Army Organization that targeted groups, activists, and leaders involved in the Anti-War Movement, using both intimidation and violent acts.
Hoover ordered preemptive action “to pinpoint potential troublemakers and neutralize them before they exercise their potential for violence.”
The final report of the Church Committee concluded:
- Too many people have been spied upon by too many Government agencies and too much information has been collected. The Government has often undertaken the secret surveillance of citizens on the basis of their political beliefs, even when those beliefs posed no threat of violence or illegal acts on behalf of a hostile foreign power. The Government, operating primarily through secret informants, but also using other intrusive techniques such as wiretaps, microphone “bugs”, surreptitious mail opening, and break-ins, has swept in vast amounts of information about the personal lives, views, and associations of American citizens. Investigations of groups deemed potentially dangerous — and even of groups suspected of associating with potentially dangerous organizations — have continued for decades, despite the fact that those groups did not engage in unlawful activity.
- Groups and individuals have been harassed and disrupted because of their political views and their lifestyles. Investigations have been based upon vague standards whose breadth made excessive collection inevitable. Unsavory and vicious tactics have been employed — including anonymous attempts to break up marriages, disrupt meetings, ostracize persons from their professions, and provoke target groups into rivalries that might result in deaths. Intelligence agencies have served the political and personal objectives of presidents and other high officials. While the agencies often committed excesses in response to pressure from high officials in the Executive branch and Congress, they also occasionally initiated improper activities and then concealed them from officials whom they had a duty to inform.
- Governmental officials — including those whose principal duty is to enforce the law –have violated or ignored the law over long periods of time and have advocated and defended their right to break the law.
- The Constitutional system of checks and balances has not adequately controlled intelligence activities. Until recently the Executive branch has neither delineated the scope of permissible activities nor established procedures for supervising intelligence agencies. Congress has failed to exercise sufficient oversight, seldom questioning the use to which its appropriations were being put. Most domestic intelligence issues have not reached the courts, and in those cases when they have reached the courts, the judiciary has been reluctant to grapple with them.
While COINTELPRO was officially terminated in April 1971, (Former FBI Director William Webster stated that the program was “Rerouted”), critics allege that continuing FBI actions indicate that post-COINTELPRO reforms did not succeed in ending COINTELPRO tactics. Documents released under the FOIA show that the FBI tracked the late David Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, for more than two decades.
“Counterterrorism” guidelines implemented during the Reagan administration have been described as allowing a return to COINTELPRO tactics. Some radical groups accuse factional opponents of being FBI informants or assume the FBI is infiltrating the movement.
The FBI improperly opened investigations of American activist groups, even though they were planning nothing more than peaceful civil disobedience, according to a report by the Inspector General (IG) of the U.S. Department of Justice. The review by the inspector general was launched in response to complaints by civil liberties groups and members of Congress. The FBI improperly monitored groups including the Thomas Merton Center, a Pittsburgh-based peace group; People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA); and Greenpeace USA, an environmental activism organization. Also, activists affiliated with Greenpeace were improperly put on aterrorist watch list, although they were planning no violence or illegal acitivities. The IG report found these “troubling” FBI practices between 2001 and 2006. In some cases, the FBI conducted investigations of people affiliated with activist groups for “factually weak” reasons. Also, the FBI extended investigations of some of the groups “without adequate basis” and improperly kept information about activist groups in its files. The IG report also found that FBI Director Robert Mueller III provided inaccurate congressional testimony about one of the investigations, but this inaccuracy may have been due to his relying on what FBI officials told him.
Several authors have accused the FBI of continuing to deploy COINTELPRO-like tactics against radical groups after the official COINTELPRO operations were ended. Several authors have suggested the American Indian Movement (AIM) has been a target of such operations. Authors such as Ward Churchill, Rex Weyler and Peter Mathiessen allege that the federal government intended to acquire uranium deposits on the Lakota tribe’s reservation land, and that this motivated a larger government conspiracy against AIM activists on the Pine Ridgereservation. Others believe COINTELPRO continues and similar actions are being taken against activist groups.
Caroline Woidat says that, with respect to Native Americans, COINTELPRO should be understood within a historical context in which “Native Americans have been viewed and have viewed the world themselves through the lens of conspiracy theory.”
Other authors note that while some conspiracy theories related to COINTELPRO are unfounded, the issue of ongoing government surveillance and repression is real.