FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The FBI’s Dirty Secrets

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.

Mark Weisbrot is co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is co-author (with Dean Baker) of Social Security: The Phony Crisis (University of Chicago Press).

 

 

More articles by:

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. and president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of  Failed: What the “Experts” Got Wrong About the Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015).

January 17, 2019
Stan Cox
That Green Growth at the Heart of the Green New Deal? It’s Malignant
David Schultz
Trump vs the Constitution: Why He Cannot Invoke the Emergencies Act to Build a Wall
Paul Cochrane
Europe’s Strategic Humanitarian Aid: Yemen vs. Syria
Tom Clifford
China: An Ancient Country, Getting Older
Greg Grandin
How Not to Build a “Great, Great Wall”
Ted Rall
Our Pointless, Very American Culture of Shame
John G. Russell
Just Another Brick in the Wall of Lies
Patrick Walker
Referendum 2020: A Green New Deal vs. Racist, Classist Climate Genocide
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
Uniting for a Green New Deal
Matt Johnson
The Wall Already Exists — In Our Hearts and Minds
Jesse Jackson
Trump’s Flailing will get More Desperate and More Dangerous
Andrew Stewart
The Green New Deal Must be Centered on African American and Indigenous Workers to Differentiate Itself From the Democratic Party: Part Three
January 16, 2019
Patrick Bond
Jim Yong Kim’s Mixed Messages to the World Bank and the World
John Grant
Joe Biden, Crime Fighter from Hell
Alvaro Huerta
Brief History Notes on Mexican Immigration to the U.S.
Kenneth Surin
A Great Speaker of the UK’s House of Commons
Elizabeth Henderson
Why Sustainable Agriculture Should Support a Green New Deal
Binoy Kampmark
Trump, Bolton and the Syrian Confusion
Jeff Mackler
Trump’s Syria Exit Tweet Provokes Washington Panic
Barbara Nimri Aziz
How Long Can Nepal Blame Others for Its Woes?
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: When Just One Man Says, “No”
Cesar Chelala
Violence Against Women: A Pandemic No Longer Hidden
Kim C. Domenico
To Make a Vineyard of the Curse: Fate, Fatalism and Freedom
Dave Lindorff
Criminalizing BDS Trashes Free Speech & Association
Thomas Knapp
Now More Than Ever, It’s Clear the FBI Must Go
Binoy Kampmark
Dances of Disinformation: The Partisan Politics of the Integrity Initiative
Andrew Stewart
The Green New Deal Must be Centered on African American and Indigenous Workers to Differentiate Itself From the Democratic Party: Part Two
Edward Curtin
A Gentrified Little Town Goes to Pot
January 15, 2019
Patrick Cockburn
Refugees Are in the English Channel Because of Western Interventions in the Middle East
Howard Lisnoff
The Faux Political System by the Numbers
Lawrence Davidson
Amos Oz and the Real Israel
John W. Whitehead
Beware the Emergency State
John Laforge
Loudmouths against Nuclear Lawlessness
Myles Hoenig
Labor in the Age of Trump
Jeff Cohen
Mainstream Media Bias on 2020 Democratic Race Already in High Gear
Dean Baker
Will Paying for Kidneys Reduce the Transplant Wait List?
George Ochenski
Trump’s Wall and the Montana Senate’s Theater of the Absurd
Binoy Kampmark
Dances of Disinformation: the Partisan Politics of the Integrity Initiative
Glenn Sacks
On the Picket Lines: Los Angeles Teachers Go On Strike for First Time in 30 Years
Jonah Raskin
Love in a Cold War Climate
Andrew Stewart
The Green New Deal Must be Centered on African American and Indigenous Workers to Differentiate Itself From the Democratic Party
January 14, 2019
Kenn Orphan
The Tears of Justin Trudeau
Julia Stein
California Needs a 10-Year Green New Deal
Dean Baker
Declining Birth Rates: Is the US in Danger of Running Out of People?
Robert Fisk
The US Media has Lost One of Its Sanest Voices on Military Matters
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail