The FBI and the Engineering of consent

From Public Eye Magazine, Volume One, Number Two

by Noam Chomsky

  It has often been observed that the United States is unusual, among the industrial democracies, in the narrowness of the spectrum of thought and political action, sharply skewed to the right as compared with other societies of comparable social and economic structure. Complex theories have been advanced to explain this intriguing phenomenon. No doubt subtle issues are involved, but it is important not to disregard some quite simple factors. For one thing, American business has been engaged for many years in massive organizing propaganda campaigns directed to what leading practitioners call "the engineering of consent." The scale is vast and the impact - on the media and school texts for example - quite substantial, far beyond anything to be found in the other industrial democracies. Another central element in the picture is the role of the national political police, the FBI, which for over half a century has been devoting major efforts to engineering of consent in a more direct way: by force. The character and scale of this enterprise is only now beginning to come to light, and the story that is being pieced together is quite a remarkable one.

  J. Edgar Hoover rose to national prominence when he was appointed chief of the General Intelligence (anti-radical) division of the Justice Department in 1919, shortly before the notorious "Palmer raids," in which some 4,000 alleged radicals were rounded up in 33 cities in 23 states, while the Washington Post editorialized that "there is not time to waste on hairsplitting over infringement of liberty" in the face of the Bolshevik menace. Over 200 aliens were subsequently deported. The liberal Attorney General Palmer proclaimed that "the government is now sweeping the nation clean of such alien filth," with the over-whelming support of the press, until they perceived their own interests were threatened. The "Red Scare" served to control labor militancy, dismantle radical parties, frighten liberals, and buttress an interventionist foreign policy. Hoover's FBI undertook the very same tasks, and has conducted them with considerable success.

  The FBI casts a wide net. For example, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was infiltrated from 1920 to 1943 (NY Times, June 19, 1977, p. 26 and in the 1950's was secretly cooperating with the FBI in its programs of political and doctrinal control. Even the slightest departures from orthodoxy are not likely to escape the vigilant eye of the Bureau, as political activists have had many opportunities to discover. To site one minor case of which I have personal knowledge, in 1969 I had two teaching assistants who were active in the civil rights and peace movements in an undergraduate humanities course at MIT. The Boston office of the FBI undertook to block their re-appointment, making sure to keep its activities confidential so that "the bureau's interest in this matter will be fully protected." An internal memorandum to the Director states that "an established source of the Boston office" at MIT (name blacked out) advised the Bureau that as a result of its efforts, "he was able to have their re-appointments to the staff of MIT canceled." In fact, the Bureau's efforts were irrelevant in this case, but the example illustrates very well the nature of its concerns, while raising interesting questions about our academic institutions.

  In other cases the FBI went a few steps further. A former student of mine, also active in the peace movement, was teaching at San Diego State College in 1971. According to a report submitted to the church Committee by the ACLU, the FBI provided defamatory information about him to the college administration (and also gained access to confidential college records). Three public hearings were held under college auspices. He was exonerated each time, then summarily dismissed by the chancellor of the California state college system, Glenn Dumke, one of the numerous examples of the treachery of the universities in those years. During this period the same student was the target of an assassination attempt by a secret terrorist army organized, funded, armed and directed by the FBI, which concealed evidence of the crime and prevented prosecution of the FBI agent in charge and the FBI infiltrator who led this organization in its rampage of fire-bombing, shooting, and general violence and terror aimed at the left, all with the full knowledge and cooperation of the Bureau.

  In this case, the intended victim of the FBI assassination attempt escaped injury, though a young woman was seriously injured. Others were not so lucky. The most notorious case is that of Black panther leader Fred Hampton, who, along with Mark Clark, was murdered in a pre-dawn gestapo-style police raid - the phrase is accurate - in December 1969, with the complicity of the FBI, which had turned over to the police a floor plan of his apartment supplied by an FBI provocateur who was chief of Panther security. the floor plan no doubt explains the remarkable accuracy of police gunfire, noted by reporters. Hampton was killed in bed, possibly drugged; according to eyewitnesses, murdered in cold blood.

  The FBI prank followed an earlier effort to have Hampton murdered by a criminal gang in the Chicago ghetto, the Blackstone Rangers. The Rangers were sent an anonymous letter by the local FBI office informing them that the Panthers were intending to murder their leader, but this effort to incite violence and murder failed. In other cases, the Bureau was more successful. Internal memoranda gloat over the success of the Bureau in fomenting gang warfare and violence in the ghetto, and disrupting such subversive activities as free breakfast programs for poor children in churches.

  The record, which is by now extensivee, demonstrates that the FBI was committed to attacking the civil rights movement, blocking legal electoral politics, undermining the universities and cultural groups (e.g., the largest black cultural center in the West, in the Watts ghetto), and disrupting political activities of which it disapproved by any means required, including the extensive use of provocateurs, arson, bombings, robbery and murder. Under COINTELPRO alone, its targets included the Communist Party, the socialist Workers party, the Puerto Rican Independence Movement, the various Black movements of the 1960's, and the entire "New left." Though the left was not the sole target of the national political police, it was by a large measure the primary target. In scope of activities and level of violence, the criminal programs of the FBI far exceed anything known in other industrial democracies, and surely merit a prominent place in any investigation of "American exceptionalism" that deserves to be taken at all seriously.

  There have been a few studies of these activities of the FBI, which surely is one of the more significant criminal organizations in the United States: for example, N. Blackstock, ed., COINTELPRO, Vintage, 1976; M.H. Halperin, J.J. Berman, R.L. Borosage and C.M. Marwick, The Lawless State, Penguin, 1976. But these studies have received little attention, and in fact the documentary record itself, despite its quite appalling nature, has barely created a ripple.

  It is striking that the major revelations concerning FBI criminal activities appear precisely at the time of the exposure of the Watergate episodes, frivolous in comparison. It is interesting to contrast the concern accorded to Watergate and to the crimes of the national political police - which I stress again were incomparably more violent, far-ranging and significant in their effect on the cultural and political climate of American life. History has provided us with a controlled experiment to determine whether Nixon's critics were motivated by a concern for civil and human rights, or by the fact that Nixon, like Joseph McCarthy before him, was directing his weapons at the powerful, always an illegitimate target. The results of this experiment are quite clear-cut and leave little doubt that the furor over Watergate was largely an exercise in hypocrisy.

  Quite generally, what Halperin et. al. correctly call "the crimes of the U.S. intelligence agencies" have been ignored or dismissed, even by analysts who focus on the period of the worst excesses and who are particularly concerned with dissent, activism and its limited impact in the United States. To cite one example, Godfrey Hodgson's much acclaimed 500 page study American in Our Time (Doubleday, 1976) has two trivial references to the FBI and no references at all to COINTELPRO, though he devotes much attention to the fortunes of the civil rights movement, the peace movement, and the American left in general. This unwillingness to take seriously the major role in the repressive forces of the American state is quite typical. It bears comparison to the general reaction to the discovery that the CIA had repeatedly attempted to murder Castro (among other) and was responsible for poisoning of livestock and repeated terrorism directed against Cuba, after the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. One can imagine the outrage had it been discovered that Castro was responsible for anything remotely comparable. But when the victims are Cubans and the perpetrators American planners and their agencies, it can all be relegated to (admittedly silly) fun-and-games.

  The essay that follows gives welcome insight into the systematic campaigns of intimidation, disruption and violence that have been waged against popular movements or scattered individuals that stray beyond a narrow consensus. It is a record that will not be put lightly aside by anyone who hopes to understand the nature of American society.

Noam Chomsky


March 12, 1978

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