As Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Justice Department, the FBI, CIA–and soon to be unleashed mega-snoop bureau of gargantuan dimensions, the Department of Homeland Security–begin to once again plot the invasion of our civil liberties, I wonder how many baby boomers remember the days of COINTELPRO. Or, more precisely, how many of them have amnesia when it comes to recalling the historical facts of what the government did to a lot of us some thirty odd years ago.
Beyond the obscure reaches of the alternative press–alive and well, thanks mostly to an unhampered (for the moment) Internet–we hear few voices within the tidy bulwarks of the corporate press reminding us of the way things were in the late 60s and early 70s. On occasion, a corporate columnist will pen his astute and widely published opinions, comparing Ashcroft’s proposed TIPS program to the Stasi, but nary a soul mentions COINTELPRO, or how the CIA, in violation of its charter, spied on Americans, or how the NSA listened in on millions of telephone calls and read countless telegrams in direct violation of the constitutional principles our so-called leaders claim to cherish, especially around election time.
For those of us too young to remember–or those of us old enough to remember but suffering from amnesia–COINTELPRO is snoop parlance for “counterintelligence programs,” in other words a series of highly orchestrated, secret, often vicious (and, occasionally, deadly) FBI initiatives launched in the 1960s and early 70s, actions designed, in the words of the FBI, to “disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize” the civil rights, anti-war, and student movements, most engaged in the long-standing American tradition of organized disagreement against the government. In many instances, this disruption and misdirection came at the hands FBI-planted provocateurs, more than a few of them who were criminals, sociopaths, and even psychopaths.
The FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover’s able hand, engaged in the most scurrilous of tactics, including blackmail, dissemination of false accusations (which resulted in people being fired from jobs and tenured professors being sacked), the publication of bogus and harmful literature (which we now quaintly and euphemistically call “disinformation”), and even, as in the case of Peter G. Bohmer, an economics professor at San Diego State University, in an assassination attempt carried out by an FBI-sponsor terrorist group (known as the Secret Army Organization, which was “over the top” in its violent zeal to attack those deemed too militant by the government; regardless, the FBI waited more than six months to take action in the matter).
In addition to these tactics, the FBI encouraged the IRS to release confidential tax information on anti-war and black movement activists, which often resulted in audits and prosecutions. The IRS, eagerly encouraged by the FBI, set up a Special Services Staff to investigate and possibly audit not only such un-American organizations as the ACLU, American Library Association, American Jewish Congress, Common Cause, and National Education Association, but also the New York Review of Books and Rolling Stone (as well as more than a few rock concert organizers and, remarkably, then New York mayor John Lindsay).
So sleazy, backhanded, and vicious was COINTELPRO that actress Jean Seberg miscarried and eventually committed suicide after the FBI provided bogus information concerning her pregnancy to a gossip columnist–the Bureau, known for its racism, said the father of the child was a Black Panther, which Seberg’s husband vehemently denied. The FBI considered Jean Seberg’s “neutralization” (for her support of the Black Panthers) successful.
Other forms of indirect violence against Americans dissenting government policy were also deemed appropriate by the FBI. For instance, the agency worked closely with police departments and “red squads” across the country, encouraging them to attack peaceful crowds, tear-gas private residences, beat movie-goers, vandalize churches, break the cameras of news photographers, and generally engage in behavior expected of Latin American paramilitary goons.
COINTELPRO was, in large part, a success. By 1972, the anti-war and black liberation movements were in complete disarray. Police pressure, mass false arrests, specious federal grand jury investigations, and flimsy if not entirely bogus conspiracy trials had all taken their toll. According to the Church Committee, which was convened to investigate FBI abuses, there were 290 separate COINTELPRO actions from 1968 until 1971, when the program supposedly terminated. Approximately 40 percent of these actions were specifically designed to keep activists from speaking, teaching, writing, and publishing, contrary to the principles of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which the government is sworn to uphold.
All of this, of course, may seem improbable, especially in a democracy. But don’t take my word for it–read Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall’s book, The COINTELPRO Papers (South End Press, 1990), a collection of actual FBI documents. Many of the confidential documents in the book were removed from an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, in 1971; others were released through FOIA requests.
Even though COINTELPRO was “officially” closed down in 1971, the FBI has continued to spy on and harass Americans exercising their constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech and peaceful dissent. From 1983 to 1985, the agency spied on the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), an organization critical of US policy in Central America. In 1991, a federal district court ruled that the FBI had violated a 1981 consent decree which outlawed political surveillance in Chicago. A year later, the FBI was ordered to expunge the names of all Chicago CISPES members from its files on “international terrorism.”
Attorney Michael Krinsky, of the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, cites the CISPES case as proof that COINTELPRO never really ended. The FBI files kept on CISPES, explains Krinsky, “show a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object–the destruction of the people’s right to know and to assemble in order to express opposing views on public policy… The FBI is still reaching into the Hoover-era bag of tricks to fight dissent. They are feeding their fantasies that the Red Menace is everywhere. It is an obsessive belief they share with Reagan–and like all fantasies, facts do not put it to sleep.”
It does not take a rocket scientist to deduce the obvious: the “abuses and usurpations” fomented by the FBI over the last fifty years will, under the scary and unprecedented aegis of George W. Bush’s war on terrorism, increase dramatically in the days to come. In the place of Reagan’s “Red Menace,” we now have “evil” Arab terrorists who are at war with “civilization” (read: they are opposed to US imperialism).
How long before those of us who, as well, are opposed to the imperialistic policies of the US government will fall under the steady purview of not the FBI–which, if we are to believe what the corporate media tells us, are not up to the task of rooting out “evildoers”–but rather Bush’s super-snoop agency, the Department of Homeland Security, enabled as it will be by the loosening of legal fetters and empowered under mandates thrown down by the US Patriot Act? How long before the cable guy spies on us, reporting us to the TIPS hotline for “subversive” literature on our book shelves? Or the Green poster on our wall? Is the time far away when our computers will be hacked, our hard drives scanned for keywords, when Magic Lantern records our every keystroke, our email and web destinations probed, logged, and archived by the likes of Carnivore or one of its descendents? Can we expect–as we mobilize against Dubya’s war on Iraq, or the one against Iran or Syria that may follow in this interminable war on terrorism–to be arrested as “enemy combatants,” spirited away in the night, “disappeared” like Jose Padilla who, after all, did not actually commit any perceivable illegalities but only engaged in a thought crime? Are we to take Ari Fleischer at his word–we must now watch what we say and what we do?
It now appears–for those of us who never allowed historical amnesia to sweep over us–that COINTELPRO never really “officially” died. It is alive and well, growing in strength, and amply mandated not only in the guise of the so-called (and vastly Orwellian) US Patriot Act, but in the hearts of too many of our leaders as well.
Amnesia is no longer an option. Kurt Nimmo is a photographer and multimedia developer in Las Cruces, New Mexico. He can be reached at: email@example.com