It seems that the FBI is likely to be rewarded for the missed warnings, fumbled intelligence, and bureaucratic foul-ups that preceded September 11. Attorney General John Ashcroft has announced that the FBI is changing its rules so that it can spy on domestic organizations, even where there is no evidence of specific criminal activity.
It is doubtful that the Administration could get away with these changes if the real functioning of the FBI as a political police force were better known. The press has referred to the agency’s COINTELPRO (from counterintelligence program) operation of the 1960s and 70s as though it were ancient history, a minor aberration of the FBI’s quirky and fanatical director J. Edgar Hoover.
In fact COINTELPRO was a massive operation to infiltrate, disrupt, harass, and otherwise interfere with the lawful activities of civil rights advocates, peace activists, religious organizations, and others. One of the FBI’s most famous and hated targets was the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In a covert operation that now reads like a B-grade movie script, the FBI actually made a serious effort to blackmail Dr. King into committing suicide.
Less well known is that FBI operations against law-abiding citizens did not end when these abuses were exposed in the 1970s. We know that they continued well into the 1980s, when the Reagan and then Bush (the elder) administrations faced mounting domestic opposition to their wars in Central America. Death squads in El Salvador were murdering religious workers and clergy, the Guatemalan military was carrying out what is now acknowledged as genocide against its indigenous population, and an army of terrorists was trying to overthrow the government of Nicaragua.
The US government was supporting and sponsoring all of these crimes with billions of dollars, and that did not sit well with many Americans. I was one of them, and joined a student group called the Latin American Solidarity Committee at the University of Michigan. Unbeknownst to us, the watchful eyes of the FBI were closely monitoring our actions.
So closely, in fact, that one of our members wrote a history of the group’s activities with the help of documents obtained from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act. We enjoyed seeing all of our names in print, and pored over the documents with a mixture of awe and laughter, amazed that the federal government could have taken our little student group so seriously as to keep track of everything we did and who attended our meetings.
As it turned out, this was part of a nationwide spying operation involving all 59 FBI field offices. The whole thing might be secret to this day, if not for fact that one of the Bureau’s informants had a change of heart. He had infiltrated a community of religious activists in Texas, and later said that he had second thoughts when his supervisor suggested that he sleep with a nun in order to discredit them.
The Dallas Morning News broke the story, and the FBI was forced to conduct an internal investigation. FBI director William S. Sessions (1987-93) told Congress that the investigation had left “no stone unturned” and that his G-men had stopped their “counter- terrorism” — yes, they actually called it that — operations by June of 1985.
Sessions was lying: documents released to our local group showed that their spying in Ann Arbor continued well beyond that date. But the press accepted that the FBI had changed its ways, and today the whole story of their illicit activities in the 1980s has disappeared into the memory hole.
That is a shame, because there is no evidence that the FBI ever reformed itself, and now we have two new reasons to worry about it. One is the blank check that Ashcroft has handed to the FBI, which threatens our civil liberties. The second is that after decades of crying “wolf” to justify its functioning as an American KGB, the FBI is now charged with protecting us from real terrorist threats.
There has never been an accounting of how much of the FBI’s resources have been devoted to policing the constitutionally protected activities of our citizens. Congress should demand this accounting as it examines the massive intelligence failure that preceded September 11.
Historians like to say that we ignore the past at our own peril; in the case of the FBI, it may be literally true.