COINTELPRO: What the (Deleted) Was It?

Public Eye Magazine, vol. one, number two 1978

by Mark Ryter

  [Government] documents on COINTELPRO, the FBI's grand scheme to annihilate organized dissent, [have forced] major changes in perspectives on America's recent political history. The 53,000 pages in the public domain show a daily mapping of a once secret program which played havoc with any group actively opposing American policy through much of the Post World War II era. They reveal a program which manipulated so many events, political processes, and national institutions, that it must be considered one of capitalism's chief editors over the last two decades which did everything possible to erase Left politics from the historical record.

  Though most evidence of flagrant illegality like burglary and wiretapping has been blotted out, the 15 year COINTELPRO record is an o'erbrimming bag of dirty tricks. Whatever it took to discredit a group short of "embarrassing the Bureau" was fair game. Informants told of personal and political disputes, natural in themselves, which the FBI then inflamed with selective anonymous mailings.

  By amassing detailed data of a group's planned activities and the backgrounds of key members, COINTELPRO could unleash repression through its collaborators elsewhere in the government and in the media without ever soiling its own hands. In this way, the FBI's super-secret program sabotaged events and ruined reputations all along the left/liberal part of the spectrum. VIa COINTELPRO, the Bureau drove wedges between the Black Panther Party and the Students for a Democratic Society, as it did between the Old and the New Left generally.

  The damage done by the program can be seen everywhere, behind canceled Marxist lectures, groups deprived of official university recognition, and jobs suddenly lost to "excessive tardiness." Most shockingly, though, was the toll taken on America's black community where COINTELPRO became a death warrant for some of its most courageous and inspiring leaders.  

COINTELPRO Minus Zero: No Limit  

In August 1956, when the Bureau opened COINTELPRO under the caption, Communist party USA, there was no intention to limit investigations in this way. For during the previous 35 years, J. Edgar Hoover had rounded up, antagonized, and publicly defamed resident aliens, militant factory workers, and civil rights activists - all under the pretext that they had been, might still be, or sympathized with Communists. According to the Bureau's own Cold War figures, it kept 432,000 files  on "subversives," but could identify only 80,000 CP'ers. Two months into COINTELPRO, the message was equally over-broad:

  Develop plans to prevent the CP from gaining control over any [emphasis mine] new broad mass socialist organization which may be formed. The formation of such an organization is being given some consideration by leaders of socialist, pacifist and revolutionary organizations."

  This wide latitude in conducting investigations made a target out of anyone connected with even the most apolitical groups proposing change.

  In its search for even the slightest trace of communism, the FBI carried its COINTELPRO license far beyond the limits of America's legal system, violating freedom of speech and assembly on a daily basis and invading the privacy of hundreds of citizens just as often. The Bureau displayed an utter contempt for the constitutional dictum that the activities of church and state be kept separate. In one case, after learning that the black Hartford Avenue Baptist Church (HABC) in Detroit was permitting Michigan CP'ers to hold meetings there, the FBI Director flew into a fury, proposing a 16 point program against the HABC. COINTELPRO was aimed first at establishing the identities and backgrounds of all trustees, officers, leaders and employees of the church, then defaming the lot of them throughout the black community and in the press.

  By the early 60's, the expansive paranoia was firmly embedded in Bureau-think. Under "Disruption of Communist Activities in Mass Organizations, for example, most of the 59 SAC offices were ordered to employ "aggressive and imaginative" counterintelligence techniques in tracking groups as varied as the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, the Chicago Council of Soviet American Friendship, and the women's International league for peace and Freedom. the FBI's top cops were especially edgy about groups organized to abolish the House Committee on Un-American Activities. For, to Hoover's mind, HCUA offered legislative defense against the otherwise rampaging communists. A memo dated January 11, 1961 states:

  Should the communists be successful in having the HCUA abolished, it is believed the next target would be the FBI. Therefore, the HCUA, in addition to carrying out its objective of exposing communists, is a buffer between the communists and the FBI."

  Not only was the FBI manipulating the democratic processes that were jeopardized by the creation of HCUA, but they, hand in hand, were creating new tactics and procedures to crush progressive politics as new groups emerged, not after they may have broken some extra-democratic laws like the Communist Control or the Internal Security Acts of 1950.

  The FBI began exchanging lengthy descriptions of burgeoning student activism on the eve of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. Memoranda written in 1963 reveal an FBI chief fascinated by the "left student." SAC Chicago reported that leftists, while in the 5% minority at most midwestern colleges, "organize to be effective and give spark and life to the campus." In the same document, though, the Special Agent bewails the activity of protesters who were "unappreciative of their heritage." Many of them were under constant COINTELPRO surveillance, and subjects in the Bureau's centralized Security Index.

  As the student left gained in ranks and momentum during the later 60's, the FBI's local offices came up with varying explanations. One office would attribute the increased activism to an excess of academic freedom, another would un-layer a conspiratorial onion, finding campus unrest at the top, communist propagandists in the middle, and the "general problem of communist agitation" at the phantom core. Eventually, the Bureau and its offices became grudgingly resigned to accepting the New Left as a phenomenon in itself - uncontrolled and uncontrollable. Hoover's mental picture thus framed, he assumed a stern en loco parents attitude, disciplining the "violent, depraved and dishonest" New left by helping local police set them up for drug busts and other state arrests. Many leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society, targets on the "Key Activist" list, literally came under parental pressure after Mom and Dad got a bureau post card signed, "a concerned mother."

  From 1968 on, the FBI had every major city and college campus covered for evidence of New left activity. Targeted groups included the SDS chapter in Hawaii, Ramparts magazine, the People's law office in Chicago, and Angela Davis among many, many others. A memo dated July 8, 1968, shows SAC Chicago with informers at 35 area colleges, the University of Chicago and Illinois Tech among them.

  But the Bureau never abandoned its hunt for CP'ers. Its CPUSA operation continued throughout COINTELPRO. The CP documents themselves constitute over half the total number released last fall. According to the FBI's filling system, Leftists were often targeted under the caption CPUSA, just as "communist influence" was often seen as the ideological source of student demonstrations classified as "New Left." This switch-hitting filing system reflects the priorities of counterintelligence, to keep the political lines between groups and factions forever fuzzy. so whenever members of different groups, such as the NAACP and the CP, got caught in the crossfire of political recrimination, it was the purposes of COINTELPRO, not the goals of a more perfect society which were ultimately served. This is another way the FBI helped promote social and political stagnation over the history of an era.  

COINTELPRO Propaganda  

Integral to COINTELPRO's virile anti-communism was its subtle yet sophisticated propaganda operation, designed to keep the left squabbling and the public polarized. The voluminous documents point to an even larger amount of paper churned out by the FBI in cooperation with right wing groups, "friendly" media contacts, and private intelligence-gathering groups to keep the names and doings of political people constantly suspect. Tens of thousands of anonymous letters, some containing the worst examples of scurrilous rumor-mongering, were also sent out to deliberately distort opinions and, in massive effort, sabotage the opinion-making process itself.

  Anonymous mailings were at their height early in the program. SAC New York alone, according to our estimated minimum tally, sent out 653 such letters in 1959 and 376 in 1963. As Tim Butz observed in Counterspy magazine, the FBI employed Psy-War" tactics borrowed from the military to enclose the Communist party within its narrow ranks and split it open from within. Applying its domestic version of Containment, the FBI would influence a "neutral" party such as an assembly hall proprietor, make contact as a "concerned citizen," then await the canceled Party event. At the same time, COINTELPRO attacked the inner body politic by using an alienated "concerned comrade" whose rumors caused sensitive contemporary issues to fester in personal pettiness.

  In 1965, as part of a continuing effort to keep the CP from organizing among young people, the FBI saturated the Cleveland area with 300 copies of a pamphlet critical of the W.E.B. Dubois Clubs of America. The booklet, written by the right-wing Catholic War Veterans, was sent to libraries, book shops, news media sources, religious organizations, the YMCA, and "various logical individuals." An earlier memo had made the FBI's designs on the DuBois Clubs clear: "Neutralize it while still in the embryo stage."

  By 1968, the scope of the FBI's mailing campaign was reduced and its sights set on black and student groups. One letter was designed to drive the Black Panthers from the Students for a Democratic Society and pit both against the Revolutionary Youth Union. The technique, sometimes called "agent-baiting," is used here to discredit an individual already suspected (falsely) by all three groups. "Marx Karl," said the Bureau could be easily identified as Michael Klonski. The mistakes are the Bureau's deliberate work:

Who is Marx Karl?????????

Help Root Out the Pig Collaborator

  Attached XXXX work of pig fink show the presence of sell-out of revolution by opportunist leech. Found this paper on the curb in front of the Haymarket beside a white car. Will organize a People's Tribunal to try Marx Karl and sentence to Tribunal Justice. Conducting my own investigation. HELP EXPOSE COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARY PIG SPY MARX KARL.

  In addition to its disruptions of the New Left, COINTELPRO continually tried to shape public opinion, largely through the Bureau's extensive contacts in the press. It is here where the Left's history was literally written to the FBI's liking. As communicated in numerous memos, offices from coast to coast cultivated "reliable" sources throughout the print and broadcast media. On April 28, 1965, a three page note to the Director confirmed 25 of the FBI's "friendly" sources in the Chicago area. They include the Daily News, the Sun Times the Joliet Herald, NBC, CBS, and WGN. By planting articles, briefing reporters, and playing one newspaper off another, the FBI created a new class of propaganda consumers.

  The FBI was particularly concerned that the public view New Left activities in a harsh light. But as the direct evidence was often flimsy, the search was on for guilt-by-Communist-association. In 1970, for example, an article on an SDS chapter in Philadelphia appeared in that city's Evening Bulletin noting a member's communist roommate. The FBI's relationship with the writer was close. As SAC Philadelphia explained it to the Director:

  "No pre-publication review for accuracy was made by this office, although the authors checked from time to time to insure that the article would not interfere with any current investigation."

The memo glaringly shows a heavy hand the FBI had in influencing public opinion; this journalist is one of many who willingly offer the FBI censorship authority, bringing the opinion making process a notch closer to government control, as always, for some unknown reasons of state.  

Toward a Higher Stage of Violence

  "The purpose of this action is to disrupt the Black Panther Party and it's immaterial whether facts exist to substantiate the charge."

  "Cripple the Black Panthers."

  These commandments from Bureau headquarters set the fierce tone for the most vicious COINTELPRO phase. With the historic stage set for black people to assume a self-determining part, the FBI set out equally determined to stop it. From 1967 on, the memos show an FBI gripped by the hysteria of a race war and its won inevitable role in escalating it. During this period, special agents whose every suggestion once came under stern Bureau scrutiny were now encouraged to freely experiment with ghetto subjects whose very lives were often at stake. Mailings done in this phase exploited the explosive atmosphere which constantly swirled around swirled around the Panthers at that time. Regarding one such letter, signed a "Concerned Sister," a top Bureau aide commented dryly:

  "It raised the proposition that the death of BPP member Michael Baynahm was not by suicide but in reality a murder arranged for by national BPP headquarters. BPP in Detroit has been concerned over his death and nervous in view of recent Panther murders throughout the country."

  The FBI's indifference to a plan which could only have turned high passions to violence illustrates the Bureau's unabashed racism. The same tone comes through in numerous other memos ordering self-destruction through division of coalitions between Panthers and the United Slaves; the Panthers and the Blackstone Rangers; the Panthers and the NAACP; the Panthers and Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But the Bureau could not accomplish its anti-black mission without resorting to much more brutal, insidious tactics than it had before. Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark became the most prominent victims of this COINTELPRO approach in 1969 when they were killed in a pre-dawn raid on Hampton's home.

  A combination of informant infiltration, other Bureau surveillance methods, and close cooperation with local police allowed the state's repressive forces to practically encircle the black activist community in a 24 hour dragnet. The memos are filled with tales of prearranged raids on Panther headquarters set up by passing information between the bureau's ghetto "listening post" and law enforcement personnel, many of whom were trained with FBI propaganda films.

  Officially on record as committed to violence prevention, the Bureau in practice used police methods contemporaneously cited as violence causing. In 1967, coincidentally the year COINTELPRO's anti-black phase began, the Kerner Report on Civil Disorders came out citing police actions generally as have "great tension-creating potential" in the black community. The widely acclaimed study of inner city protest also stressed that "arrests on suspicion," an important goal of FBI/police collaboration, were a specific spur to violence.

  The FBI ignored these thoroughly researched findings, choosing instead to rationalize disruption of black groups as its most reliable violence-suppressing tool. In one case, however, the Bureau unwittingly revealed the fallacy of such thinking. A memo, written on April 5, 1971 from SAC New York noted that disputes between the factions led by Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver were "apparently instrumental in the shooting and killing of Robert Webb," a Cleaver supporter.

  COINTELPRO hit the black community like sparks dancing on hot coals and many SACs knew it. A Special Agent in San Francisco was so unnerved by the Bureau's plotting that, on one occasion, he invited certain censure from Hoover, demurring: "We must bear in mind that if the plan is successful, a gang-type murder may be the result." The Bureau's reply is typically absent from the files.  


  The COINTELPRO documents paint informants in one of three colors:

  Black and White: "Chicago has advised that the squib about Lightfoot's activities is based on information furnished by three different informants.

  Ghostly gray: ___________ is in an important position where he can influence many people within ___________ as well as exerting an influence on institutions associated with the Foundation. In such a position he is able to do more harm than many current, active members.

  Black out: -----------------------------------------------------------------

  Informers go unnamed, their provocateur role covered up, and the part they played in inciting violence deleted. Their effects on internal group procedures are also unknown. yet the Bureau's espionage agents were an essential component in FBI operations against political dissent. FBI spies followed precise orders as to what to advocate in group seminars which dealt with issues from the Sino-Soviet dispute to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961. One informer conspicuously absent from the memos is William O'Neal, the agent whose floor plan of Fred Hampton's apartment helped the police and the FBI kill the young black leader. O'Neal rose to become the Panther's Security Chief in Chicago. A well-paid agent provocateur, O'Neal was a chronic schemer, making electric chairs and bombs his destructive playthings.

  Informers were copious infiltrators of many groups, doing their dirty tricks in such high proportions to bona fide members that the commonly cited ratio of agents to membership in the CP once reached 1 to 5.7. But the truly astounding fact is that government spies so often achieved top positions in their penetrated groups. Informers were high up in the Illinois CP, the Socialists Workers Party, the Black panthers, and many New Left groups. At one point, a memo gleefully anticipated an upsurge in derring-do at the University of Colorado where an informer had just been elected to SDS's Steering Committee.

Fomenting dissension in all FBI operations was the informer's role. During its investigation of CP influence in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, for instance, the Bureau gave its instructions for a complete carving of the group into its political organs: (1) have CP informants question CP'ers in the FPCC on the credibility of Socialist Workers Party members, (2) Have SWP informants attack the highly placed CP'ers for keeping out potential newcomers, (3) send an anonymous letter which criticizes the CP for not helping the FPCC broaden its political base, (4) Publicize the FPCC's communist ties.

  As this set of orders make explicit, informers were the FBI's counter-activists in the activist community. They sowed dissension's seeds and carefully nurtured them. In statistical terms as well, their contribution to COINTELPRO was unequaled. According to a government study prepared in 1976 by the Comptroller General, informers accounted for almost half of all data gathered, out of a list of sources which included other FBI investigators (17%) and the police (12%).

  Whatever the criteria, though, informers are inherently corruptible, loyal to no one, and an enemy to political movements. Today, after much of the informer's disruptive, often illegal work has become public knowledge, not even official constraints have been applied to their activity. In a bill recently proposed to reorganize the national intelligence bureaucracy, the Senate has defined informers as "nonintrusive" and therefore a legitimate intelligence-gathering tool.  

Target: Human Diversity

  COINTELPRO was a war not just on dissent but on human diversity itself. Many of the tactics used to fracture political coalitions directly interfered with the basic process by which people of differing backgrounds, races, and political inclinations organize themselves. To keep its legion enemies off balance, the Bureau constantly whispered resentment of the different and unorthodox into the ears of college administrators, political comrades, anyone who might use such misinformation for disruptive purposes.

  The Bureau promoted intolerance on college campuses, using administrators to curtail or cancel utterly harmless group activities. Dozens of colleges, from Arizona State University to Harvard, were re-educated according to the Bureau's prejudicial pedagogy on individuals whose affiliation once put them on the House Un-American Activities Committee's "subversives" list. Using this "public source data," the Bureau sought to "neutralize" the effect of scheduled speakers and teachers eligible for tenure. To accomplish this, the Bureau once ordered 6000 copies of the "Anarcho-Communist Coalition" for mailings. The pamphlet was written by the ultra-right American Security Council.

  The [COINTELPRO] documents are shot through with evidence of a far reaching campaign to narrow the spectrum of though by extensively manipulating major American institutions. Besides the communications and educational process, the Bureau also covertly influenced labor unions, state legislatures, office of the governor, and other federal agencies. Though far right groups might seem to be the Bureau's natural allies, the FBI fooled with some of them, too. In the case of Breakthough, a group described by the Bureau as "militantly anti-communist" was covertly re-molded to fit the FBI's designs. To wit: "Operation Breakthrough was a plan to "take over and disrupt" the group.

Jews and blacks were frequent targets of the FBI's vilification campaign. For years, Jewish members of the CPUSA were hounded by articles like "Soviet Aims to Destroy the Identity of its Jews." Many of these mailings were dismissed as capitalist propaganda and articles shipped to the "wavering" member were likely to have a limited impact. Spreading racism was also a common Bureau tactic throughout the 60's. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Congress on Racial Equality were both piqued by the FBI's behind-the-scenes shenanigans.

  The FBI's most notoriously racist operation was the one conducted against the Black Panther Party, listed as the foremost among the Bureau-designated "Black Nationalist-Hate Groups." Under this program, the FBI headquarters laid out a comprehensive plan, which had it achieved its goals, would have decimated the group. Local SAC's were instructed to starve the group culturally and politically, neutralizing Panther leaders, shattering coalitions, isolating the group from its natural ghetto constituency, and disillusioning sympathetic young blacks. But the FBI's racism is most explicit where it cautioned against any mixing of the races whatsoever:

  Prevent militant black nationalists groups and leaders from gaining respectability [FBI's emphasis]. They must be discredited to the white community, both the responsible community and the "liberals" who have vestiges of sympathy for militant black nationalists simply because they are Negroes."

  The FBI was never above using debasing ridicule as a way to disorganize. In a memo dated March 21, 1965, Hoover's chief aid seemed to be gloating over a cartoon [that] mocked the Communist Party's basic principle of struggle against social class biases. Depicted is a manager from a Cleveland sausage factory firing a worker who is his party superior. Though the character in the picture was drawn in lifeless shades of gray-flannel-suit, the piece of hack art created a very real imbroglio. The cartoon went crashing through local party channels causing rage, embarrassment, and culminating in the controversial removal of the CP's Ohio Chairman.

  Through Operation Ridicule, the Bureau institutionalized its pranksterism and saw an opportunity to widen the much heralded generation gap into a chasm by portraying student activists as youthful profligates in newspaper articles and letters to the students' parents. But the rise of anti-establishment norms among the young went beyond the political, presenting a special challenge to COINTELPRO. One agent wrote:

  "It is felt that the nonconformism in dress and the use of obscenities and drugs tend to negate any attempt to hold these people up to ridicule. The American press has been doing this with no apparent curtailment of New Left activities. It is not felt just plain immorality means anything to them."  


  COINTELPRO was nothing if not vast. In terms of its tactics arsenal, the number of groups targeted, its manipulation of certain major American institutions, and simple longevity of the program, COINTELPRO has few equals in the annals of domestic secret police forces.

  But this is only part of what the tomes of the documents reveal. They also offer a glimpse into the qualitative impact the program had on the movement building for social, economic and political change, especially during the last decade. COINTELPRO warped opinions about scores of civil rights and anti-war groups. Of course, many political people who came under Bureau siege encourage the kind of criticism and spirited debate which often leads to factionalizing. But the Bureau took dissension and made a cult out of it. Not only did it exaggerate pre-existing feuds but it manufactured them. in this way COINTELPRO helped form divisive mis-perceptions by left groups of themselves even as it polarized the public from the left generally. To this extent, according to the proposition that history is inseparably human events and our interpretation of them, COINTELPRO hangs like a black cloud over the past generation's movements for a better society.

  But COINTELPRO did not end on April 27, 1971 as the FBI promised. The documents themselves prove it, such as the one dated a month later which reported that the New haven Black Panthers could be arrested at any time. Now, almost seven years later, organizations like the Panthers and the American Indian Movement are still enmeshed in legal wranglings with COINTELPRO overtones. The memos announcing COINTELPRO's end also allowed for its perpetuation. The program was discontinued, said the memo to all SACs, "to afford additional security to our sensitive operations,. Recommendations will be considered on an individual basis."

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