The idea that a tyrannical government is secretly plotting against US citizens is a popular and longstanding belief among much of the American far right. The scenario has many variations, but the basics are that politicians, threatened by a potentially rebellious populace, are watching and listening in on them, working to undermine them and readying for the day they will wrench away their freedoms.
But this scenario isn’t merely a paranoid fantasy dreamed up in the deepest corners of the alt-right — it’s relatively recent history. Instead of gun-toting “sovereign citizens” and Confederate-flag-waving patriot groups serving as the targets, however, the US government largely targeted segments of the Left for widespread surveillance, disruption, “neutralization,” and eventually destruction.
This was the COINTELPRO program, whose first operations were launched by the FBI sixty years ago this month.
COINTELPRO, short for “Counter Intelligence Program,” was the name given to a series of programs initiated by the Bureau between 1956 and 1971 aimed at undermining and eradicating groups, movements, and individuals — almost all of which were part of the Left — it viewed as threats to national security and social order.
By the time the FBI formally shut down the program, it had successfully torn apart many of these left-wing groups and movements. In the process, the Bureau destroyed the reputations, and in some cases lives, of many.
The history of COINTELPRO shows how far a nominally democratic government can go to shut down leftist movements they view as threatening — and what kind of pushback we might expect in response to a movement upsurge in the twenty-first century.
Origins in Hysteria
COINTELPRO had its origins in the anticommunist fervor of the mid-twentieth century. When COINTELPRO began in 1956, anticommunist hysteria was at its height. The FBI, like many government agencies, began seeing the hand of the Soviet Union in every protest movement, every act of resistance.
This sense of embattlement only increased as the years went on. In the 1960s and 1970s, opposition to the Vietnam War, segregation, and other injustices lit a fire under a number of diverse protest movements which began to challenge what many ordinary Americans — and their government — viewed as the basic precepts of their way of life.
The FBI quickly came to view the citizens who joined those movements as enemies to be covertly fought and eliminated.
As the Church Committee, a congressional committee set up in 1975 to analyze the excesses of US law enforcement and intelligence agencies over the preceding decades, put it, what followed was “a secret war against those citizens it considers threats to the established order.”
Although the FBI was run by the infamously paranoid J. Edgar Hoover, this was not just his pet project. Officials at the highest levels of government were aware of COINTELPRO and approved its continuation. The FBI as a whole dove headfirst into the project.
As Clarence Kelley, Hoover’s successor, told Congress in 1971 following the public exposure of the program: “For the FBI to have done less under the circumstances would have been an abdication of its responsibilities to the American people.”
He went on:
. . .situations have occurred in the past and will arise in the future where the Government may well be expected to depart from its traditional role . . . and take affirmative steps which are needed to meet an imminent threat to human life or property.
What were the threats that bedeviled the FBI during these decades? The Bureau launched successful attacks against racist hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan (though only after President Lyndon Johnson demanded that they do so, and never with the zeal with which it pursued leftists).
But the bulk of its efforts were devoted to “disrupting” and “neutralizing,” to use its own parlance, law-abiding groups on the broad left. This meant, firstly, the Communist Party USA, the inaugural target of COINTELPRO in 1956, as well as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).
It also encompassed the Puerto Rican independence movement, the American Indian Movement, and what the Bureau termed “militant black nationalist groups,” a misleading rubric under which it placed groups as diverse as the Nation of Islam, the Black Panthers, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Martin Luther King, and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
Along with these, one of the major targets of the Bureau during this time was the New Left, whose members the Bureau believed were “getting strength and more brazen in their attempts to destroy American society,” and needed to be “destroyed or neutralized from the inside.”
Much of its ire was directed at the Students for a Democratic Society, the largest student group in the country that organized around issues like opposition to the Vietnam War and racism. In the Bureau’s view, they simply worked “constantly in furtherance of the aims and objectives of the Communist Party throughout the nation.”
Unsurprisingly, in the FBI’s quest to crush all forms of domestic dissent, it also came to target groups and individuals that were not associated with any of these movements, either institutionally or ideologically.
Bringing the War Home
COINTELPRO was a product of the Cold War in more ways than one. As the Church Committee’s final report pointed out, COINTELPRO had its roots “in the Bureau’s jurisdiction to investigate hostile foreign intelligence activities on American soil.”
Just as military equipment and technology is routinely used today against US citizens, the FBI turned the wartime tactics it had used against the Soviet Union on domestic groups.
As William C. Sullivan, former assistant to the FBI director, put it:
[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 bread and butter of COINTELPRO operations was the use of wiretaps, anonymous letters, informants, and other means of subterfuge to, in the Bureau’s own words, “foster factionalism” and create suspicion within groups, bring individuals “into disrepute before the American public,” and create “disruption and discord” among such groups and movements in order to destroy the Left, or at least render it useless.
Creating internal strife was key to the Bureau’s success. As one 1956 memo regarding the Communist Party explained, harassment from the outside “might serve only to bring the various factions together,” whereas “forcing and fostering from within the internal fight currently raging” would help destroy the organization while avoiding the appearance of government interference.
To do this, the FBI used a variety of methods. Often, paid informants would infiltrate a group and bring up “controversial issues” or raise “acrimonious debates” in order to spark conflict. Other times, the Bureau would plant falsified evidence suggesting that a particular individual was a CIA informant, fostering suspicion.
Such was the case with one Communist Party official who was subsequently expelled from the party, as well as Stokely Carmichael, who was exiled from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and denounced by the Black Panthers not long after he attempted to bring the two groups together.
Because of the New Left’s perceived immunity to shame and ridicule, the Bureau believed framing members as government informants was “the only thing that could cause these individuals concern.”
Anonymous letters were a staple of COINTELPRO. Individuals would open their mail and find letters that appeared to be written by anyone from members of allied organizations and movements to colleagues and rivals, usually containing misleading information intended to create or exacerbate rifts. This was the Bureau’s method of choice to widen the split between rival factions of the Black Panthers, for instance, as well as to create the impression that the Black Panthers were anti-Semitic.
The mailing of letters may not sound particularly sinister, but the practice had a chilling effect. In one 1964 memo, the FBI celebrated that its campaign of anonymous letters against the Puerto Rican independence movement had contributed to the heart attack of one of its leaders.
“It is clear . . . that our anonymous letter has seriously disrupted the [Puerto Rican independence movement] ranks and created a climate of distrust and dissension from which it will take them some time to recover,” the memo read.
The FBI also used the letters in an attempt to incite murder. In 1969, the Bureau sent an anonymous letter to the leader of the Blackstone Rangers, a Chicago street gang then allied with the Black Panthers, alleging that Black Panther leader Fred Hampton had taken out a hit on him.
In a memo, an FBI official stated his hope that the letter would “disrupt the BPP [Black Panther Party] or lead to reprisals against its leadership,” acknowledging that “violent type activity — shooting and the like — is second nature” to the Rangers.
The same year, the Bureau celebrated its accomplishments in its COINTELPRO against the Black Panthers: “Shootings, beatings, and a high degree of unrest continues to prevail in the ghetto area of southeast San Diego . . . a substantial amount of the unrest is directly attributable to this program.”
The FBI even attempted (unsuccessfully) to commit murder by proxy through “Operation Hoodwink,” in which the FBI used anonymous letters to pit La Cosa Nostra — the Mafia — against the Communist Party.
The Bureau’s other main tool to “neutralize” what it viewed as threats was digging up damaging or embarrassing information about its targets. Worried by the “increasing boldness” of the Puerto Rican independence movement, the coverage given to their cause by Fidel Castro, and the “inevitable communist and/or Soviet efforts to embarrass the United States” over the issue, the FBI began investigating the movement’s leaders.
“We must have information concerning their weaknesses, morals, criminal records, spouses, children, family life, educational qualifications, and personal activities,” one memo read.
To get such information, the FBI did not rely on subtlety. Between 1960 and 1966, the FBI carried out more than ninety burglaries of Socialist Workers Party offices, photographing over eight thousand pages of personal files like letters and financial records. Such break-ins were standard procedure against dozens of New Left groups.
The Bureau was more than happy to simply invent scurrilous stories to defame its targets.
In 1962, it planted five disinformational news stories about the SCLC’s communist connections, and had news articles and editorials involving gossip about Puerto Rican Independence Movement leaders’ sex lives and finances printed.
In St Louis, it created and distributed a fake underground newspaper that spread tales of infidelity by local black leaders and activists and sent letters spreading similar sexual gossip about the reverend Charles Koen, a longtime SNCC activist.
Particularly shameful was the episode involving the actress Jean Seberg, who donated money to the Black Panthers. As well as wiretapping and following her, the FBI decided to destroy her reputation by circulating gossip that her unborn baby had been the product of an affair with a member of the Black Panthers. The LA Times and Newsweek both ran the made-up story.
When Seberg read it, she attempted suicide, resulting in the stillbirth of her baby. According to her partner, she attempted suicide every year near the anniversary of the baby’s death, eventually succeeding on August 30, 1979.
As in Seberg’s case, the media was complicit in the FBI’s operations. Much like the intelligence officials today who leverage the anonymity granted to them by reporters to make a raft of claims that go unchallenged, the FBI regularly relied on friendly newspapers and publications to disseminate these lies.
In one case, the Bureau helped develop a documentary on the black liberation movement and New Left in the Miami area, later gushing about how the television station had, of its own accord, filmed and edited interview subjects to portray them in the most unflattering way possible.
Unsurprisingly, COINTELPRO also ensnared individuals who were far from the radicals that obsessed the Bureau.
During the 1960s, the FBI targeted the entire Unitarian Society of Cleveland because some its members had called for the abolition of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), tried to block the city council campaign of a lawyer who had defended accused communists in court, and attempted to force a raid on a Democratic Party fundraiser because two of the Democratic candidates attending had been in involved in antiwar and anti-HUAC activities.
At times, its actions could be remarkably petty. When the Soviet Union gifted a group of horses to the head of the CPUSA, the FBI had a vet secretly sterilize them. They investigated a girl who had called the local youth branch of the SWP to get information for a social studies project, and arranged for a Boy Scout troop to lose its charter after the scoutmaster, whose wife was an SWP member, said he believed the Scouts were a better way to influence young minds than joining the organization.
Occasionally, the Bureau’s methods approached a goofiness that stands out among its more sinister methods. In 1968, having heard that the rise of the New Left had produced “a yen for magic,” the Bureau developed a plan to harass its leaders by sending them anonymous messages with symbols that could be interpreted as having “a mystical, sinister meaning,” like scorpions, cobras, and beetles. In another instance, the FBI proposed using a stink bomb to shut down the Black Panther newspaper’s production facility.
Preventing an American “Mau Mau”
Of all the FBI’s COINTELPRO operations, none were as vicious as those carried out against various civil rights organizations.
Of all the movements of this period, the FBI viewed civil rights organizers as the greatest threat of all. According to an internal FBI document produced in 1963, civil rights protests were a threat to the “established order,” and Martin Luther King Jr a dangerous radical who had to be stopped.
Not long after King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the assistant to the FBI director wrote: “We must mark [King] now, if we have not before, as the most dangerous Negro in the future of this Nation . . . it may be unrealistic to limit [our actions against King] to legalistic proofs that would stand up in court or before Congressional Committees.”
The FBI followed this up with a program of eavesdropping, IRS harassment, and anti-King propaganda, culminating in the production of a compilation tape of the most damning secret recordings of King, including his affairs.
Two days after being announced as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Bureau sent the tape to King along with a letter, written from the point of view of a black member of the civil rights movement, calling him a “filthy, abnormal beast” who engaged in “sexual orgies,” and threatening to release the tape if he didn’t kill himself.
By the late 1960s, with the rise of more militant figures like Malcolm X and groups like the Black Panthers, the Bureau was even more concerned. A 1968 memo outlined the stakes, as the FBI saw them.
“An effective coalition of black nationalist groups” — which, by the FBI’s definition, included virtually every civil rights organization — “might be the first step toward a real ‘Mau Mau’ in America, the beginning of a true black revolution,” it read, referring to the 1950s anticolonial rebellion in British Kenya.
The same memo noted that one of the goals of the COINTELPRO against such groups was to “prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement.”
Malcom X could’ve been one, the memo noted, had he not been assassinated (something the FBI privately took credit for, after having exacerbated a factional split in the Nation of Islam), as could Martin Luther King, “should he abandon his supposed ‘obedience’ to ‘white, liberal doctrines’ (nonviolence) and embrace black nationalism.”
One year later, Chicago police raided the apartment of Fred Hampton, the twenty-one-year-old charismatic chairman of the Chicago Black Panther Party, killing him in the process. (This was the same Fred Hampton whom the FBI had previously tried to goad a local gang into assassinating).
The police fired ninety bullets into the apartment using submachine guns, shotguns, a rifle, and a pistol, which subsequent analysis showed were mostly aimed at Hampton’s bed. Although police claimed the Panthers had opened fire first, later evidence proved this to be false.
The FBI played a key role in what was essentially an assassination of a popular, rising black leader. Hampton’s bodyguard, William O’Neal, was an FBI informant who provided the Bureau with the floor plan for Hampton’s apartment, who then passed it on to the Chicago Police Department.
The COINTELPRO against the Black Panthers, part of the FBI’s wider “Racial Intelligence” program, spanned many years and methods. The group, with its growing popularity and penchant for carrying guns and standing up against police violence, was a particular bugbear for the Bureau. Of the 295 COINTELPRO operations launched against the FBI’s broad definition of black nationalist groups, 233 targeted the Panthers.
The Bureau, for instance, worked to destroy the Black Panthers’ breakfast program, which provided free breakfasts for school children. The FBI manufactured a violent and racist coloring book for children that it claimed was made by the Black Panthers, which it sent to the businesses donating food to the program in order to make them withdraw their support. It also wrote anonymous letters to the churches that served as venues for the breakfast program, hoping to lead them to rescind their offer.
Aside from its usual tricks aimed at fomenting suspicion and conflict within the organization, the FBI also embarked on a program of baseless raids and arrests of Panther members that didn’t just disrupt the group, but financially crippled it.
According to the Panthers’ attorney, between 1967 and 1969, the party spent over $200,000 (around $1.3 million in today’s dollars) on bail bond premiums alone.
The Bureau was wildly successful. By the early 1970s, the Black Panther Party effectively ceased to be, crumpling under the weight of paranoia, internal strife, jailings and assassinations, and financial pressure.
The Black Panthers weren’t the only ones. CPUSA membership, hitting a peak of eighty-five thousand in 1942 — well below the near-apocalyptic levels the FBI made it out to be, but far from insignificant — dropped to less than 2,800 by the late 1960s.
The New Left likewise splintered under the pressure of its own many divisions. These groups fell apart for multiple reasons, but the FBI’s sustained campaign to destroy them played a large role.
A History of Subversion
The traditional interpretation of COINTELPRO pegs it as an aberration in the history of the FBI and US government. For a few decades, the thinking goes, caught up in the paranoia of the time, the nation’s top law enforcement agency went rogue, turning its formidable powers and resources on the American people.
This ignores much of the preceding and subsequent history of the Bureau.
In truth, from its earliest days, when it investigated and arrested what it viewed as dangerous radicals during World War I and the red scare of 1919–1920, a significant part of the FBI’s role has been to act as something of a corrective against what it views as dangerous political extremes.
Even after the first red scare, the Bureau continued to monitor and harass communists, striking workers, and civil rights groups like the NAACP. As the Church Committee put it, “COINTELPRO existed for years on an ‘ad hoc’ basis before the formal programs were instituted, and more significantly, COINTELPRO-type activities may continue today under the rubric of ‘investigation.’”
And while it dropped the name after 1971, when the program was supposedly shut down after being exposed to the public, the FBI continued to engage in COINTELPRO-style activities long after.
To get a sense of how little has changed, consider the FBI today. The Bureau now spends an inordinate amount of time and resources paying or otherwise bribing criminals into becoming paid informers, and using them to goad and entrap young, poor, and sometimes mentally handicapped Muslim men into carrying out terrorist attacks they would neither have the wherewithal nor intention of otherwise committing.
Since 2014, at least eighty-eight people have been arrested on charges of supporting ISIS, many of which had little or no connection to the terrorist group. That doesn’t even count those arrested on more generic terrorism charges, typically in plots the FBI themselves have created.
This is a continuation of methods the FBI pioneered during the COINTELPRO years, when the Bureau regularly paid provocateurs to infiltrate student protesters and urge violence.
These individuals would push for bombings or the murder of police, provide students with weapons and explosive-making ingredients, give them guidance and training for carrying out such actions, and ultimately serve as the justification for raids and arrests of such groups by police.
In one case, an informant who “constantly talked violence, carried a grenade in his car, showed students how to use an M-1 rifle and offered advice on how to carry out bombings” led his followers to bomb a building, exposing him in the aftermath. He was cleared of all charges and later became a policeman. In another, the FBI informant was so unhinged, the group he was trying to goad into violence reported him to the local police.
Many such incidents from this period are nearly indistinguishable from the FBI’s antics today, if you replace the word “student” with “Muslim.”
Sixty years on from COINTELPRO, there’s not much reason to believe the FBI isn’t engaging in similar tactics today, particularly with reports that the Bureau has tracked and monitored Black Lives Matter protesters.
Advances in technology, however, allowing governments to peer into our personal lives like never before, make the prospect of a modern-day COINTELPRO distinctly frightening.
With a number of leftist movements beginning to spring up again all around the United States, it’s worth thinking about whether a surge in social movements could also see the full-blown revival of a campaign of dirty tricks by the FBI or another government agency. It might seem unthinkable. But then again, once upon a time, so did COINTELPRO.