This post is meant as a primer on COINTELPRO. A large part of the course was spent on the surveillance of social movements, but surveillance in general and surveillance of social movements in particular cannot be properly understood without some background on COINTELPRO.
In 1971, a group of activists called the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania. The group found over a thousand classified documents which they shared with the press. The story behind the break-in is recounted in this video, the book The Burglary and the film 1971 on Netflix. These documents revealed, for the first time, the existence of a covert FBI operation called COINTELPRO whose goal was to disrupt and neutralize domestic groups perceived as threats. A few years later, in 1974, the New York Times revealed the existence of a CIA report called Family Jewels. The report described many covert CIA operations, including behavior modification research, surveillance of domestic protestors, and assassination attempts against Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba, among others.
The disclosures of COINTELPRO and of Family Jewels pushed the US Senate to establish a committee—informally called the Church committee—to investigate the abuses of the US Intelligence Community. The committee produced what is referred to as the Church report which describes the abuses of the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, the IRS and certain parts of the Department of Justice and of the State Department.
Everything described in the rest of the post is straight from the Church report.
Overview. COINTELPRO was started in 1956 for the purpose of running counterintelligence operations against communist groups in the US. It lasted until 1971 and consisted of over 2000 approved actions. It’s important to understand that the nature of the program was counterintelligence and not criminal investigation which is what people typically associate with the FBI. The differences are important. Roughly speaking, the goal of a criminal investigation is to get a conviction, whereas the goal of a counterintelligence operation is to undermine and neutralize hostile agents.
As we will see, there were a lot of serious abuses with COINTELPRO, including actions that were unconstitutional and clearly immoral and illegal. But it’s important to also understand that the high-level goal of the program was to maintain the existing social order of the time. In fact, the Church report itself states,
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 combatting those who threaten that order.
It’s important to keep in the mind the historical and social context of the time. The 1960’s were a time when many important social movements were born including the Women’s Liberation movement, the Civil Rights movement, the Gay Liberation movement and the Anti-War movement.
During its 15 years of existence, COINTELPRO targeted four types of groups which it labeled as: Communist groups, White Hate groups, Black Nationalist groups and the New Left.
The White Hate groups included the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party and the National States’ Right Party. For the most part, and unlike the other programs, the scope of White Hate program remained narrowly focused on its initial targets and, as the report states,
No legitimate right wing organizations were drawn into the program, in contrast with the earlier spread of the CPUSA and SWP programs to non members.
According to the FBI itself, this was also the most successful of all the programs.
The Black Nationalist program started with the monitoring of civil rights groups for communist influence but quickly expanded in scope. Its targets included the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Revolutionary Action Movement, Deacons for Defense and Justice, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party. The NAACP was investigated for more than 25 years on the suspicion that its leaders sympathized with communists; even after initial FBI reports stated that they didn’t. Individuals that were targeted included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, H. Rap Brown and Elijah Muhammad. The FBI also included “every Black Student union and similar group regardless of their past or present involvement in disorders.”
The New Left program was started after student protests at Columbia University. The FBI was never really able to define what it meant by New Left but, roughly speaking, it seemed to include anti-war groups, Women’s Liberation groups like the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and, eventually, encompassed all student protest groups. For example, the report describes a student that was investigated because they carried an obscene sign in protest of their University’s censorship of the school newspaper. It also included the Inter-University Committee for Debate on Foreign Policy.
According to the Church report, the actions the FBI undertook against its targets were classified into four goals: preventing speaking, preventing teaching, preventing writing and publishing and preventing meetings. Specific actions taken by the FBI included getting high school teachers and professors fired, preventing the distribution of books and newspapers, disrupting peaceful protests and even intervening to deny meeting spaces.
A high school teacher was investigated because they invited two poets that were involved with the draft resistance movement to attend their class. After this was discovered and the ACLU got involved, the FBI sent anonymous letters to local papers, the city’s Board of Education and to the school administration criticizing the ACLU’s involvement, urging them to focus on the teacher’s activities, and denouncing the teacher as a convicted draft dodger.
The FBI also targeted a university professor who was an anti-war demonstrator. Agents contacted a foundation known to contribute to the university and asked that they pressure the university to fire the professor. Though the university told the foundation that the professor’s contract would not be renewed it, in fact, was renewed so the FBI and the foundation continued to mount pressure. In another case, the FBI sent letters to politicians, the press and university administrators accusing a professor of giving aid and comfort to the enemy and suggesting that their goal was to “…bleed the United States white by prolonging the war in Vietnam and pave the way for a takeover by Russia”. Another professor was even targeted because they were the faculty advisor of a student group that was circulating a “pro-student” and anti-establishment pamphlet.
The FBI often targeted newspapers including college and underground papers. It contacted their landlords to try to get them evicted. They sent anonymous letters to politicians and advertisers complaining of college articles.
To prevent groups from meeting, the FBI contacted the owners of the meeting spaces to pressure them to refuse to rent the space. Agents tried to get the groups’ charters revoked. They leaked the time and place of closed meetings to the press. The FBI mounted disinformation campaigns against protestors by filling out forms with fake names and addresses so that organizers could not find housing for out of town protestors. Agents placed fake calls to confuse a transportation company that was hired to transport protestors and dropped fake leaflets on campus with different times and places for meetings.
To achieve its goals, the FBI used various techniques including propaganda, informants and anonymous letters and phone calls.
A common theme in COINTELPRO actions was to create distrust and animosity within groups and between groups. For example, the FBI sent an anonymous letter to the leader of a Chicago gang telling him that the Black Panthers had taken out a hit on him. As stated in the report the goal was to
…intensify the degree of animosity between the two groups and cause retaliatory action which could disrupt the Black Panther Party or lead to reprisals against its leadership.
In California, the FBI used anonymous letters to exacerbate conflicts between the Black Panthers and a group called the US Organization. Several deaths ensued and FBI reports said:
Shootings, beatings, and a high degree of unrest continues to prevail in the ghetto area of southeast San Diego. Although no specific counterintelligence action can be credited with contributing to this overall situation, it is felt that a substantial amount of the unrest is directly attributable to this program.
The FBI targeted a Black veteran who was on leave from a mental hospital and was upset with the SCLC. Again, according to FBI reports the goal of the operation was to:
…neutralize [him] by causing his commitment to a mental hospital, and to gain unfavorable publicity for the SCLC.
The FBI also targeted the leaders of various groups, especially of the Black Panther Party. A series of anonymous letters were sent to create a rift between Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver. The FBI even sent an anonymous letter to Stokely Carmichael’s mother claiming members of the Party planned to kill him.
Another tactic was the snitch jacket, where a target would be falsely labeled as an informant. In one instance, the FBI had a police officer pick up two anti-war protestors under false pretense and arranged for someone to radio the officer to say that the target—a third anti-way protestor—had called and wanted the officer to call her back. In another example, five members of the Black Panther Party were arrested. All but one were released and the rumor was spread that the fifth member was released last because they had cooperated.
A third tactic was to interfere in a target’s personal life. For example, the FBI targeted a woman that was associated with WILPF as well as two groups labeled as New Left and Black Nationalist. Agents sent anonymous letters to her husband accusing her of infidelity. Four months after the letter was sent, the couple had separated.
Letters were sent to employers of targets to get them fired. A priest that allowed the Black Panther Party to use his church for its breakfast program was transferred after an anonymous letter and anonymous phone calls were made to his bishop. A television commentator that had expressed sympathy for a “Black Nationalist” leader was transferred after his station received anonymous letters from the FBI.
After a Black university student was arrested in a protest, the FBI sent anonymous letters to the local prosecutor and radio to reveal that her adoptive father was a communist. The goal was to “aid the prosecutor in his case against the student”.
Martin Luther King Jr.
The FBI targeted a lot of people under COINTELPRO but the intensity of its actions against Martin Luther King Jr. was exceptional. It would take too long to properly describe the FBI’s actions against Dr. King but, as the Church report, states
The FBI campaign to discredit and destroy Dr. King was marked by extreme personal vindictiveness.
Dr. King was a target of the FBI from 1963 until his death in 1968 and, in fact, even after. His home was tapped from 1963 to 1965 and the headquarters of the SCLC for even longer. The FBI tapped his hotel rooms in the hope of gathering evidence of adultery.
FBI agents flew to the Vatican to convince the Pope to cancel a meeting with Dr. King. When he won the Nobel Peace prize, the FBI mounted a campaign to undermine him with heads of states and ambassadors. Letters with his forged signature were sent to donors suggesting that the SCLC was being investigated by the IRS.
The FBI even sent Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, purported recordings of his adultery with a letter suggesting he kill himself if he did not want the recording to be released.
Even after his death, the FBI lobbied Congress to fight against the establishment of Martin Luther King day.
COINTELPRO was officially terminated in 1971. The Church report had a big impact on how intelligence and counterintelligence is conducted in the US. Among other things, it lead to the ban of political assassinations and to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Even though COINTELPRO was terminated, the FBI continues to surveil domestic groups, including activists.