WHO WERE THE MAIN TARGETS?
The most intense operations were directed against the Black movement, particularly the Black Panther Party. This resulted from FBI and police racism, the Black community’s lack of material resources for fighting back, and the tendency of the media and whites in general to ignore or tolerate attacks on Black groups. It also reflected government and corporate fear of the Black movement because of its militancy, its broad domestic base and international support, and its historic role in galvanizing the entire Sixties’ upsurge. Many other activists who organized against US intervention abroad or for racial, gender or class justice at home also came under covert attack. The targets were in no way limited to those who used physical force or took up arms. Martin Luther King, David Dellinger, Phillip Berrigan and other leading pacifists were high on the list, as were projects directly protected by the Bill of Rights, such as alternative newspapers.The Black Panthers came under attack at a time when their work featured free food and health care and community control of schools and police, and when they carried guns only for deterrent and symbolic purposes. It was the terrorism of the FBI and police that eventually provoked the Panthers to retaliate with the armed actions that later were cited to justify their repression.
Ultimately the FBI disclosed six official counterintelligence programs: Communist Party USA (1956-71); “Groups Seeking Independence for Puerto Rico” (1960-71); Socialist Workers Party (1961-71); “White Hate Groups” (1964-71); “Black Nationalist Hate Groups” (1967-71); and “New Left” (1968- 71). The latter operations hit anti-war, student, and feminist groups. The “Black Nationalist” caption actually encompassed Martin Luther King and most of the civil rights and Black Power movements. The “white hate” program functioned mainly as a cover for covert aid to the kkk and similar right wing vigilantes, who were given funds and information, so long as they confined their attacks to COINTELPRO targets. FBI documents also reveal covert action against Native American, Chicano, Philippine, Arab- American, and other activists, apparently without formal Counterintelligence programs.
WHAT EFFECT DID IT HAVE?
COINTELPRO’s impact is difficult to fully assess since we do not know the entire scope of what was done (especially against such pivotal targets as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, SNCC and SDS) and we have no generally accepted analysis of the Sixties. It is clear, however, that:
-COINTELPRO distorted the public’s view of radical groups in a way that helped to isolate them and to legitimize open political repression.
-It reinforced and exacerbated the weaknesses of these groups, making it very difficult for the inexperienced activists of the Sixties to learn from their mistakes and build solid, durable organizations.
-Its violent assaults and covert manipulation eventually helped to push some of the most committed and experienced groups to withdraw from grass-roots organizing and to substitute armed actions which isolated them and deprived the movement of much of its leadership.
-COINTELPRO often convinced its victims to blame themselves and each other for the problems it created, leaving a legacy of cynicism and despair that persists today.
-By operating covertly, the FBI and police were able to severely weaken domestic political opposition without shaking the conviction of most US people that they live in a democracy, with free speech and the rule of law.
THE DANGER WE FACE
DID COINTELPRO EVER REALLY END?
Public exposure of COINTELPRO in the early 1970s elicited a flurry of reform. Congress, the courts and the mass media condemned government “intelligence abuses.” Municipal police forces officially disbanded their red squads. A new Attorney General notified past victims of COINTELPRO and issued Guidelines to limit future operations. Top FBI officials were indicted (albeit for relatively minor offenses), two were convicted, and several others retired or resigned. J. Edgar Hoover the egomaniacal, crudely racist and sexist founder of the FBI died, and a well known federal judge, William Webster, eventually was appointed to clean house and build a “new FBI.”
Behind this public hoopla, however, was little real improvement in government treatment of radical activists. Domestic covert operations were briefly scaled down a bit, after the 60s’ upsurge had largely subsided, due impart to the success of COINTELPRO. But they did not stop. In April, 1971, soon after files had been taken from one of its offices, the FBI instructed its agents that “future COINTELPRO actions will be considered on a highly selective, individual basis with tight procedures to insure absolute security.” The results are apparent in the record of the subsequent years:
-A virtual war on the American Indian Movement, ranging from forgery of documents, infiltration of legal defense committees, diversion of funds, intimidation of witnesses and falsification of evidence, to the para-military invasion of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and the murder of Anna Mae Aquash, Joe Stuntz and countless others;
-Sabotage of efforts to organize protest demonstrations at the 1972 Republican and Democratic Party conventions. The attempted assassination of San Diego Univ. Prof. Peter Bohmer, by a “Secret Army Organization” of ex-Minutemen formed, subsidized, armed, and protected by the FBI, was a part of these operations;
-Concealment of the fact that the witness whose testimony led to the 1972 robbery murder conviction of Black Panther leader Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt was a paid informer who had worked in the BPP under the direction of the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department;
-Infiltration and disruption of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and prosecution of its national leaders on false charges (Florida, 1971-74);
-Formation and operation of sham political groups such as “Red Star Cadre,” in Tampa, Fla., and the New Orleans “Red Collective” (1972-76);
-Mass interrogation of lesbian and feminist activists, threats of subpoenas, jailing of those who refused to cooperate, and disruption of women’s health collectives and other projects (Lexington, KY., Hartford and New Haven, Conn., 1975);
-Harassment of the Hispanic Commission of the Episcopal Church and numerous other Puerto Rican and Chicano religious activists and community organizers (Chicago, New York City, Puerto Rico, Colorado and New Mexico, 1977);
-Entrapment and frame-up of militant union leaders (NASCO shipyards, San Diego, 1979); and
-Complicity in the murder of socialist labor and community organizers (Greensboro, N.C., 1980).
IS IT A THREAT TODAY?
All this, and maybe more, occurred in an era of reform. The use of similar measures in today’s very different times cannot be itemized in such detail, since most are still secret. The gravity of the current danger is evident, however, from the major steps recently taken to legitimize and strengthen political repression, and from the many incidents which are coming to light despite stepped-up security.
The ground-work for public acceptance of repression has been laid by President Reagan’s speeches reviving the old red scare tale of worldwide “communist take-overs” and adding a new bogeyman in the form of domestic and international “terrorism.” The President has taken advantage of the resulting political climate to denounce the Bill of Rights and to red bait critics of US intervention in Central America. He has pardoned the FBI officials convicted of COINTELPRO crimes, praised their work, and spoken favorably of the political witch hunts he took part in during the 1950s.
For the first time in US history, government infiltration to “influence” domestic political activity has received official sanction. On the pretext of meeting the supposed terrorist threat, Presidential Executive Order 12333 (Dec. 4, 1981) extends such authority not only to the FBI, but also to the military and, in some cases, the CIA. History shows that these agencies treat legal restriction as a kind of speed limit which they feel free to exceed, but only by a certain margin. Thus, Reagan’s Executive Order not only encourages reliance on methods once deemed abhorrent, it also implicitly licenses even greater, more damaging intrusion. Government capacity to make effective use of such measures has also been substantially enhanced in recent years:
-Judge Webster’s highly touted reforms have served mainly to modernize the FBI and make it more dangerous. Instead of the back- biting competition which impeded coordination of domestic counter- insurgency in the 60s, the Bureau now promotes inter-agency cooperation. As an equal opportunity employer, it can use Third World and female agents to penetrate political targets more thoroughly than before. By cultivating a low visibility corporate image and discreetly avoiding public attack on prominent liberals, the FBI has regained respectability and won over a number of former critics.
-Municipal police forces have similarly revamped their image while upgrading their repressive capabilities. The police “red squads” that infiltrated and harassed the 60s’ movements have been revived under other names and augmented by para-military SWAT teams and tactical squads as well as highly politicized community relations and “beat rep” programs, in which Black, Hispanic and female officers are often conspicuous. Local operations are linked by FBI led regional anti terrorist task forces and the national Law Enforcement Intelligence Unit (LEIU).
-Increased military and CIA involvement has added political sophistication and advanced technology. Army Special Forces and other elite military units are now trained and equipped for counter-insurgency (known as “low intensity warfare”). Their manuals teach the essential methodology of COINTELPRO, stressing earlier intervention to neutralize potential opposition before it can take hold.
The CIA’s expanded role is especially ominous. In the 60s, while legally banned from “internal security functions,” the CIA managed to infiltrate the Black, student and antiwar movements. It also made secret use of university professors, journalists, labor leaders, publishing houses, cultural organizations and philanthropic fronts to mold US public opinion. But it apparently felt compelled to hold back within the country from the kinds of systematic political destabilization, torture, and murder which have become the hallmark of its operations abroad. Now, the full force of the CIA has been unleashed at home.
-All of the agencies involved in covert operations have had time to learn from the 60s and to institute the “tight procedures to insure absolute security” that FBI officials demanded after COINTELPRO was exposed in 1971. Restoration of secrecy has been made easier by the Administration’s steps to shield covert operations from public scrutiny. Under Reagan, key FBI and CIA files have been re-classified “top secret.” The Freedom of Information Act has been quietly narrowed through administrative reinterpretation. Funds for covert operations are allocated behind closed doors and hidden in CIA and defense appropriations.
Government employees now face censorship even after they retire, and new laws make it a federal crime to publicize information which might tend to reveal an agent’s identity. Despite this stepped-up security, incidents frighteningly reminiscent of 60s’ COINTELPRO have begun to emerge.
The extent of the infiltration, burglary and other clandestine government intervention that has already come to light is alarming. Since the vast majority of such operations stay hidden until after the damage has been done, those we are now aware of undoubtedly represent only the tip of the iceberg. Far more is sure to lie beneath the surface.
Considering the current political climate, the legalization of COINTELPRO, the rehabilitation of the FBI and police, and the expanded role of the CIA and military, the recent revelations leave us only one safe assumption: that extensive government covert operations are already underway to neutralize today’s opposition movements before they can reach the massive level of the 60s.