Although the rationale for expanding police powers has shifted from communism to terrorism in recent years, the consequences are likely to be the same: Civic organizations that challenge our nation’s power holders will be subject to intense police scrutiny, harassment and intimidation.
From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, the FBI waged a quiet war at home against citizens who questioned U.S. government policies. COINTELPRO was the FBI acronym given to counterintelligence programs (i.e., domestic covert actions) carried out by the bureau against political dissidents and their organizations. The expressed goal of COINTELPRO was to ‘misdirect, discredit, disrupt and otherwise neutralize’ targeted individuals and political groups. Tactics the FBI employed toward these ends originally were adopted from wartime counterintelligence, and included everything from surveillance and?media disinformation campaigns?to home break-ins?and frame-ups.
A vast majority of the FBI’s 2,300 separate COINTELPROs were earmarked for the civil rights movement, Black Liberation movement, American Indian movement, Chicano movement, Puerto Rican Independence movement, women’s movement, anti-war movement and the Old and New Left.
COINTELPRO was officially discontinued in 1971, shortly after the programs were publicly exposed by a small group of patriots who burglarized an FBI field office and leaked stolen records to major media outlets.
The life of Martin Luther King Jr. is illustrative of the horrors police are inclined to unleash when given the power to spy on U.S. citizens.
While King and thousands of courageous grassroots organizers were fighting to put an end to Jim Crow segregation, the FBI was conspiring to pursue any means necessary to undermine their efforts. In the spring of 1962, King was placed on a list of people, at one point numbering 26,000, that were prioritized for detention in the case of a national emergency. Fearing the growing strength of the civil rights movement, the FBI conducted around-the-clock surveillance on King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he led. They paid informants to infiltrate the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and facilitated physical attacks on civil rights workers by feeding information to the Ku Klux Klan. The FBI also actively manipulated tensions between civil rights organizations to provoke splits and attempted to defame King by planting degrading stories about his personal life in the press.
FBI agents even went so far as to send King a letter, complete with audiotapes of an alleged extramarital affair taken from a bugged hotel room, suggesting that he kill himself in order to avoid public embarrassment.
In light of Congressional investigations that uncovered an FBI plan to promote somebody ‘to assume the role of leadership of the Negro people when King has been completely discredited,’ one must wonder how much the bureau’s impatience with King’s continued popularity might have contributed to his untimely death.
The man responsible for ‘neutralizing’ King summed up his experience: ‘No holds were barred. We have used (similar) techniques against Soviet agents. (The same methods were) brought home against any organization against which we were targeted. We did not differentiate. This is a rough, tough business.’
The sheer scope of unconstitutional police actions, COINTELPRO and otherwise, aimed at ordinary citizens because of their political beliefs is mind-boggling. Between 1960 and 1974, the FBI investigated more than 500,000 people and groups under the category of ‘subversive,’ without a single prosecution. The CIA indexed more than 300,000 Americans and singled out some 7,200 people and 100 organizations for special attention. Between the mid-1960s and 1971, Army intelligence units produced files on more than 100,000 Americans. The National Security Agency maintained reports on more than 75,000 U.S. citizens, including King, between 1952 and 1974.
Nor were students immune to repression. According to congressional hearings, ‘In 1970 the FBI ordered investigations of every member of the Students for a Democratic Society and of “very Black Student Union and similar group regardless of their past or present involvement in disorders.””
In other words, the enormously popular movements of the 1960s did not simply collapse under their own weight. They were intentionally sabotaged by U.S. intelligence agencies working to protect the status quo against demands for social justice. Within this historical context, debates about civil liberties are neither abstract nor hypothetical.
The COINTELPRO era of the 1960s and ’70s should give every citizen reason to be suspicious of law enforcement in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world. The Patriot Act effectively rescinded laws created in the wake of the COINTELPRO scandal to safeguard Americans from overzealous policing, leaving us now only one short step from a return to the days of virtually unmitigated repression. Indeed, recent revelations that the Pentagon is gathering volumes of intelligence on anti-war activists while the National Security Agency continues to spy on U.S. citizens without court order indicate that the rulers of this nation no longer are interested in maintaining even the thinnest veneer of democratic governance.
These are extreme and dangerous times we live in. If we do not begin defending what remains of our democracy, we soon will not have a democracy to defend.
Nathan Paulsen welcomes comments at [email protected]
Churchill, Ward with Jim Vader Wall, The COINTELPRO Papers, South End Press, Boston, 1990.