J. Edgar and the Birth of US Counterterrorism

J. Edgar Hoover was an authoritarian son of a bitch. His hatred of the Other in US society was a major factor in his approach to law enforcement in the United States. Despite the myths surrounding the founding of the Federal Bureau of Investigation(FBI) –the agency he essentially created and championed—as an anti-crime force designed to capture gangsters and bank robbers, the truth is that its genesis lay in the arrests, roundups and eventual deportations of anarchists and other antiwar and anti-capitalist forces in the early twentieth century. Over a hundred years since its founding, the agency is still best known for its political persecution of US citizens organizing against the policies of the US government.

Perhaps the best known of those operations is the series of covert actions, eavesdropping, spying and otherwise using its power to disrupt and destroy the groups it had targeted known as COINTELPRO. For a covert government operation, COINTELPRO’s details are fairly well known today. This is in large part due to the late Senator Frank Church and his staff who conducted several weeks of congressional hearings in the mid-1970s. Those hearings exposed the lengths the FBI and other federal agencies went through to destroy the Black liberation movement, other third world movements, the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement and even the women’s and gay liberation movements. Although the operation titled COINTELPRO had pretty much ended by the time Mr. Church conducted those hearings, these types of activities by the FBI did not. Indeed, as books by Aaron Leonard and others attest, various leftist and Black liberation groups were heavily surveilled and infiltrated throughout the 1970s. Other texts have confirmed the infiltration of groups opposed to the US wars in Central America in the 1980s and of certain radical environmental groups into the 1990s. Although less documentation exists, it is fair to assume that groups organizing against NAFTA and the World Trade Organization were also infiltrated by the FBI in the 1990s and early 2000s. Once the 9-11 attacks occurred and the PATRIOT Act was passed, the level of FBI activities in this regard increased exponentially. A big difference is that now many of the actions FBI agents undertook while COINTELPRO was in place were illegal and now they are not. The PATRIOT Act and subsequent laws made certain of that.

Recently, a book titled Nixon’s War at Home: The FBI, Leftist Guerrillas, and the Origins of Counterterrorism was released. As the title suggests, the text is about the birth of counterterrorism as a weapon of the US state. The author Daniel Chard is a history professor currently at Western Washington University in Bellingham. His central argument in this book is that the federal government’s obsessive battle against ultra-left organizations engaged in violence during the late 1960s and 1970s was not only the beginning of counterterrorism as a strategy, but in fact the first time it was named as such. Chard’s argument is essentially sound. He discusses the attempt by the Nixon White House to centralize control of all US law enforcement and intelligence agencies under the President. This attempt is an established fact; the name of this plan was the Huston Plan after its author, Tom Huston, a young ideologue who hated the antiwar and Black liberation movements as much as the rest of the Nixon White House. The plan failed in its original conception, in large part because FBI Director Hoover feared losing his power. This is well-documented and Chard enhances this understanding. However, this is also where I differ from Chard’s explanation.

Chard writes that Hoover had ordered his agents to stop breaking the law in their pursuit of antiwar, Black liberation and other left-leaning radicals. No more break-ins, no more hiring underage informants, no more illegal arrests. This, according to Chard, was a primary reason Nixon wanted to centralize control of the FBI and other agencies in his White House. Also, according to Chard, Hoover was opposed to the illegal actions, at least on some level. The facts on the ground challenge this perception. FBI agents working with local police department Red Squads had never truly stopped such actions. The fact that Hoover had publicly ordered them stopped temporarily was more of a public relations stunt than an actual fact. There is a chance that Hoover’s supposed hesitancy to commit illegal acts from 1968 to 1970 is true. However, an equally valid interpretation of that period is that Hoover knew better than most how to practice plausible deniability and merely pretended to be against such acts. Furthermore, once Hoover was able to quash the Huston Plan, he once again gave orders allowing illegal acts, especially in the pursuit of the Weatherman/Weather Underground Organization(WUO), the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. As Chard describes the FBI actions in its pursuit of the WUO from 1970 on, he had few if any qualms about using such tactics as long as they weren’t traceable to an order from Hoover himself.

It is this understanding of Hoover’s actions and supposed motives that leads Chard to make what can best be called suppositions that contradict one another. In his concise historical summary of the Black Panther Party, Chard claims there was no federal government conspiracy against the Panthers and then, in my estimation, spends several pages describing one. If anything, Chard’s history takes the FBI at its word much too often. For example, he claims there is no direct evidence linking the FBI to the murders of Panthers Bunchy Carter and John Huggins by members of the cultural nationalist organization United Slaves (US). His proof for this statement are documents written by the FBI, as if the FBI is known for its truthfulness regarding its own criminality. As a writer who has written a bit about this particular bit of US history, I find a dependence on FBI and other law enforcement documents somewhat unreliable, often because of the prejudices and suspicions of individual agents and the Bureau itself.

Furthermore, Chard’s focus seems to rely on a very particular definition of conspiracy. His approach appears to be looking for so-called smoking guns drawing direct links between certain individuals and the counterintelligence operations. This is apparent in his discussion of the murders of Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Indeed, his refusal to draw what to most is a fairly clear line from that murder to the FBI war on the Black Panther Party because there’s no clear documentary evidence left this reader wondering. After all, why would Hoover or any other agent leave a trail that might lead to their indictment for murder? The specificity Chard seems to be seeking is not only almost impossible to prove because of an intentional lack of an evidentiary trail to the top of the FBI, it also suffers from a refusal to acknowledge a common perspective that links, for example, the murders of Black revolutionaries in the USA with CIA murder of other revolutionaries overseas. Instead, Chard maintains a literal interpretation which treats these actions as completely separate phenomena; an approach that misses the fact that there truly was an international movement against US imperialism in the period being discussed that the US was determined to quash.

Despite the differences I have with some of Chard’s text, he is absolutely spot on when he points out the hypocrisy of the Nixon White House and the FBI’s use of murderous violence while condemning violent acts by armed struggle groups. Likewise, his argument that it was the FBI’s determination to destroy groups like the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army is where the concept of counterterrorism was conceived makes sense. So does his discussion of what were once illegal means to combat it. The recent history of similar tactics being used by US law enforcement agencies in their current war on terror proves that.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com