Cointelpro: The FBI's Covert War against America
Cointelpro: The FBI’s Covert War against America
In our innocence, we believed the FBI always stood for truth, justice, and the American way. But then Director J. Edgar Hoover gave his agents carte blanche to go after certain radical movements.
To counter the growing radical movements of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the FBI and the police pushed back the borders of their legally authorized powers in what they believed were justified violations of constitutionally guaranteed individual freedoms. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover ordered his field agents to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit and otherwise neutralize” specific target groups. Among the groups deemed disruptive to the fabric of American society were the American Indian Movement, the Communist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, black nationalist groups, Students for a Democratic Society, and a sweeping range of antiwar, antiracist, environmentalist, feminist, and lesbian and gay groups. Martin Luther King Jr. came under special attack, as did any organization that sought social or racial justice, such as the NAACP, National Lawyers Guild, American Friends Service Committee, and many others.
Covert operations were employed in the extreme. The assigned purpose of the field agents were not merely to spy on organization leaders and to report any “un-American activities,” but to discredit them personally and attempt to smear their reputations.
For those individuals who have always regarded the FBI as following the highest of standards and steadfastly defending truth, justice, and the American way, it will come as a deep disappointment to learn that FBI agents acting on Hoover’s orders carried out such foul and illegal activities as the following:
- regularly planted false and libelous stories about radical leaders in the media;
- forged signatures on personal correspondence and public documents;
- published and distributed bogus leaflets in the names of their target groups;
- made anonymous telephone calls and inflammatory calls to important individuals claiming to be the leaders of the targeted groups seeking social or racial justice;
- advertised meetings of various groups, publishing incorrect dates and times;
- posing as members of radical or civil rights groups, set up phony cells in order to get information on the kinds of individuals attracted to such organizations;
- made false arrests in order to establish criminal records for the leaders and members of the targeted groups;
- gave perjured testimony and provided fabricated evidence in courts, resulting in wrongful convictions.
- In order to frighten some targeted groups—especially black, Puerto Rican, and Native American activists—FBI agents and police officers threatened physical violence, conducted break-ins and destruction of groups’ headquarters, and administered vicious beatings.
Early in 1971 the Citizens Committee to Investigate the FBI accomplished the removal of secret files from an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and released them to the press. The FBI’s domestic counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) was exposed. In that same year, the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret government files on the Vietnam War, were brought into the light of public scrutiny. A number of FBI agents began to resign from the bureau and reveal additional distasteful details of COINTELPRO. High-ranking government officials were made uncomfortably aware that the FBI had employed “dirty tricks” on American citizens solely because they espoused antiwar views or conducted marches and sit-ins for social and racial justice. The organized attacks on individuals’ rights, reputations, and lives were denounced as acts of official terrorism.
Senate and House committees conducted rigorous and extensive inquiries into the methods of government intelligence-gathering and covert activities. These hearings revealed far-reaching illegal programs involving the FBI, CIA, U.S. Army Intelligence, the White House, the attorney general, and state and local law enforcement against groups of citizens who opposed domestic and foreign policies.
Although the exposure of COINTELPRO brought about a period of temporary reform of government abuses in the 1970s, government secrecy has been restored. The Freedom of Information Act that was so useful in uncovering such programs as COINTELPRO was basically eliminated through administrative, judicial, and legislative actions taken under the Reagan administration. Civil rights attorneys warn that many of the covert illegal activities conducted under COINTELPRO were legalized by Executive Order 12333 on December 4, 1981. And, chillingly, that which was legalized is probably still being performed.