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Ashcroft’s Cointelpro



Disclosure of a confidential memorandum sent by the FBI to local police disclosing a massive program of infiltration and surveillance of lawful anti-war and anti-WTO protest movements confirms what most progressives and leftists in the U.S. knew already–that the Bush Administration and the Ashcroft “Justice” Department have ushered in a full-fledged return to the Nixon-era practice of employing police-state tactics against opposition movements.

The disclosure also led to a remarkably light-weight and historically shallow and inaccurate report on those Nixon years by the New York Times.

The Times, in an article on Sunday by Eric Licktblau, quite appropriately draws a parallel between the current surveillance efforts of the FBI and the abuses of the national security establishment during the 1960s and ’70s, but it minimizes the abuses of that earlier era, and further implies that the abuses ended in 1971.

In fact, Cointelpro, a campaign designed, in the FBI’s own words, to “neutralize” and “disrupt” such target organizations as the Communist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, the Black Panther Party, etc., and the individuals within them, began officially in 1956, and never really ended. Indeed, the FBI’s campaign of surveillance, disruption, character assassination and outright murder were expanded well beyond the agency’s own actions to include local police “red squads,” the Defense Intelligence Agency, the CIA, and the National Security Agency, as well as other government agencies.

The Times article describes Cointelpro as a program designed “to harass and discredit Hoover’s political enemies.” This hardly does justice to the scope and scale of the program.

Hoover did, reportedly, attempt to monitor and undermine his personal enemies, who included a number of politicians in Washington, and he seemed to have a personal vendetta going against Martin Luther King and some other civil rights leaders. But Cointelpro was much more than a device to deal with Hoover’s personal foes. It was a broad campaign against organizations that threatened the interests of the state, of presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, and it bred countless other extra-legal operations, including Nixon’s notorious legion of White House Plumbers.

The scale of the Cointelpro campaign and its less publicized offspring of later years (most of Cointelpro’s nefarious activities, exposed during Senate hearings in the early ’70s, were made legal by executive orders issued by President Reagan in 1981 during his first year in office), was mind-boggling. I discovered, for example, when I obtained my own FBI file, that in 1969, when I was still 19, I was the subject of an FBI Cointelpro investigation that made use of an agency informant in my school administration at Wesleyan University, simply because of my membership in SDS and the Resistance, an organization that was providing information about resistance to the draft. I also discovered that the Justice Department in Washington was directing the US Attorneys Office in Hartford, CT to have me arrested and jailed for public burning of my draft card in 1969. And I wasn’t a leader of anything–just a footsoldier in the antiwar movement.

The sorry and frightening truth is that Cointelpro was a massive, and probably hugely successful, campaign by the state to use secret police tactics to destroy a popular movement and its leaders, and to intimidate the public from exercising their constitutionally protected right to protest and organize in opposition to the government and its policies. Furthermore, while as a program with a name, Cointelpro ended in 1971, that campaign of disruption and surveillance has continued uninterrupted through to the present.

It is, for example, well known and documented that the FBI, during the Reagan years, was infiltrating and disrupting CISPES, one of the main organizations opposing U.S. intervention in Central America. Similarly, local police red squads, such as the Public Disorder Intelligence Division of the Los Angeles Police Department, with close ties to the FBI, was massively infiltrating and spying on as many as 200 organizations, ranging from the Peace & Freedom Party to the National Organization for Women and the Los Angeles Democratic Party as late as 1979, with much of the information collected being turned over to the FBI or a national data base operated by a shady firm with national security links called Western Goals, Inc. That LAPD spy unit wasn’t disbanded in the ’80s; it just changed its name, and many other local police red squads continued to operate at least into the 1990s. Indeed there is reason to believe that the FBI, barred for many years from infiltrating legal opposition organizations in the domestic U.S., deliberately made use of local police departments to gather information on such organizations.

While the Times report on the FBI’s latest domestic spying activities against anti-war and anti-globalization activists is reasonably good, the self-described newspaper of record does a disservice to history and to it s readers by minimizing the nature and reach of Cointelpro and its successor programs.

Dave Lindorff is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. A collection of Lindorff’s stories can be found here:


Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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