Elon Musk has opened the floodgates to expose the FBI’s latest war on Americans’ freedom of speech. The FBI massively intervened to pressure Twitter to suppress accounts and tweets from individuals the FBI disapproved, including parody accounts. The FBI and other federal agencies also browbeat Facebook, Instagram, and many other tech companies.
Thus far, most of the American media has ignored or downplayed the story, known as the Twitter Files. Since many of the individuals who the FBI got squelched were pro-Trump, the violation of their rights is a non-issue – or a cause for quiet celebration. At this point, it is difficult to know whether the scant reaction to the Twitter Files is the result of political bias, collective amnesia, or simply a total ignorance of American history.
The history of the FBI provides perhaps the best guide to the abuses that may be now occurring. From 1956 to 1971, the FBI carried out “a secret war against those citizens it considers threats to the established order,” a 1976 Senate report noted. The FBI’s Operation COINTELPRO involved thousands of covert operations to incite street warfare between violent groups, to get people fired, to portray innocent people as government informants, to destroy activists’ marriages, and to cripple or destroy left-wing, black, communist, white racist, and anti-war organizations. The FBI let no corner of American life escape its vigilance; it even worked to expose and discredit “communists who are secretly operating in legitimate organizations and employments, such as the Young Men’s Christian Association and Boy Scouts.”
While many people are aware of how the FBI hounded Martin Luther King, Jr., and pressured him to commit suicide, that was not even the tip of the iceberg of the FBI’s racial persecution. Almost any black organization could be targeted for illegal wiretaps. One black leader was monitored largely because he had “recommended the possession of firearms by members for their self-protection.” At that time, some southern police departments and sheriffs were notorious for attacking blacks who stood up for their civil rights.
The FBI office in San Diego instigated violence between the local Black Panthers and a rival black organization, US (United Slaves Inc.). Agents sent forged letters making accusations and threats to the groups purportedly from their rivals, along with crude cartoons and drawings meant to enrage the recipients. Three Black Panthers and one member of the rival group were killed during the time the FBI was fanning the flames. A few days after shootings in which two Panthers were wounded and one was killed, and in which the U.S. headquarters was bombed, the FBI office reported to headquarters: “Efforts are being made to determine how this situation can be capitalized upon for the benefit of the Counterintelligence Program.” The FBI office bragged shortly thereafter: “Shootings, beatings, and a high degree of unrest continues to prevail in the ghetto area of southeast San Diego…. it is felt that a substantial amount of the unrest is directly attributable to this [FBI] program.”
The FBI set up a Ghetto Informant Program that continued after COINTELPRO and that had 7,402 informants, including proprietors of candy stores and barbershops, as of September 1972. The informants served as “listening posts” “to identify extremists passing through or locating in the ghetto area, to identify purveyors of extremist literature,” and to keep an eye on “Afro-American type bookstores” (including obtaining the names of the bookstores’ “clientele”). The informants’ reports were stockpiled in the FBI’s Racial Intelligence Unit. The FBI also created a national “Rabble Rouser” Index, a “major intelligence program . . . to identify ‘demagogues.’”
The FBI targeted the women’s liberation movement, resulting in “intensive reporting on the identities and opinions of women who attended” women’s lib meetings. One FBI informant reported to headquarters of a meeting in New York: “Each woman at this meeting stated why she had come to the meeting and how she felt oppressed, sexually or otherwise… They are mostly against marriage, children, and other states of oppression caused by men.” Women’s lib informants were instructed to “go to meetings, write up reports… to try to identify the background of every person there… [and] who they were sleeping with.” The Senate report noted that “the intensive FBI investigation of the Women’s Liberation Movement was predicated on the theory that the activities of women in that Movement might lead to demonstrations and violence.”
The FBI took a shotgun approach toward protesters partly because of its “belief that dissident speech and association should be prevented because they were incipient steps toward the possible ultimate commission of an act which might be criminal.” Some FBI agents may have viewed dissident speech or protests as a “gateway drug” to blowing up the Washington Monument. The Senate report noted that the clearest FBI COINTELPRO constitutional violations consisted of “targeting speakers, teachers, writers or publications, and meetings or peaceful demonstrations…. The cases include attempts (sometimes successful) to get university and high school teachers fired… to prevent the distribution of books, newspapers, or periodicals; to disrupt peaceful demonstrations, including… most of the large antiwar marches.”
The FBI especially loathed any opposition to the Vietnam War. The FBI ordered field offices in 1968 to gather information illustrating the “scurrilous and depraved nature of many of the characters, activities, habits, and living conditions representative of New Left adherents.” FBI agents were told: “Every avenue of possible embarrassment must be vigorously and enthusiastically explored. It cannot be expected that information of this type will be easily obtained, and an imaginative approach by your personnel is imperative to its success.” One FBI internal newsletter encouraged FBI agents to conduct more interviews with antiwar activists “for plenty of reasons, chief of which are it will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across that there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”
An FBI memo warned that “the anarchist activities of a few can paralyze institutions of learning, [conscription] induction centers, cripple traffic, and tie the arms of law enforcement officials, all to the detriment of our society.” The FBI declared: “The New Left has on many occasions viciously and scurrilously attacked the Director [J. Edgar Hoover] and the Bureau in an attempt to hamper our investigation of it and to drive us off the college campuses.”
Other federal agencies also trampled citizens’ privacy, rights, and lives during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The IRS used COINTELPRO leads to launch audits against thousands of suspected political enemies of the Nixon administration. The U.S. Army set up its own surveillance program, creating files on 100,000 Americans and targeting domestic organizations such as the Young Americans for Freedom, the John Birch Society, and the Anti-Defamation League of B’Nai B’rith. Nixon aide Tom Charles Huston, testifying to Congress in 1973, lamented the FBI’s tendency “to move from the kid with a bomb to the kid with a picket sign, and from the kid with the picket sign to the kid with the bumper sticker of the opposing candidate. And you just keep going down the line.”
Throughout the COINTELPRO era, presidents, congressmen, and other high-ranking federal officials assured Americans that the federal government was obeying the law and upholding the Constitution. It took a burglary of an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, to break the biggest scandal in the history of federal law enforcement. After hundreds of pages of confidential records were commandeered, the “Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI” began passing out the incriminating documents to the media. The shocking material sparked congressional and news investigations that eventually (temporarily) shattered the FBI’s legendary ability to control its own image.
The Senate report on COINTELPRO concluded: “Only a combination of legislative prohibition and Departmental control can guarantee that COINTELPRO will not happen again.” But the Ford administration derailed legislative reforms by promising an administrative fix. In 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft threw out many of those reforms as part of “a concerted effort to free the [FBI] field agents… from the bureaucratic, organizational, and operational restrictions” imposed after their prior abuses. Ashcroft declared: “In its 94-year history, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been… the tireless protector of civil rights and civil liberties for all Americans.” The same tripe has been uttered by many Democrats and liberals in the last five years.
The FBI’s latest war on wrong-thinking Americans took off after the FBI helped fabricate the 2016 RussiaGate fraud. The 1976 Senate report noted that COINTELPRO’s origins “are rooted in the Bureau’s jurisdiction to investigate hostile foreign intelligence activities on American soil” and that the FBI used the “techniques of wartime.” William Sullivan, former assistant to the FBI director, declared, “No holds were barred…. We have used [these techniques] against Soviet agents…. [The same methods were] brought home against any organization against which we were targeted. We did not differentiate.” Senate investigators warned in 1976 that the “FBI intelligence system developed to a point where no one inside or outside the bureau was willing or able to tell the difference between legitimate national security or law enforcement information and purely political intelligence.”
In our time, FBI officials pressured Twitter to suppress Americans based on false claims of fighting foreign influence. The same pretext was used by the Department of Homeland Security to massively suppress Americans’ criticism of election procedures (especially mail-in ballots) for the 2020 presidential election. As the covert war against “misinformation” expands, the list of federally prohibited online thoughts is snowballing. DHS is targeting “inaccurate information on the… U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the nature of U.S. support to Ukraine,” The Intercept reported. How many other foreign policy debacles are Americans not learning about thanks to federal censorship?
One of the biggest “misses” in the media coverage of the Twitter Files is the stunning failure of Congress to expose the abuses that Elon Musk is revealing. A few months ago, FBI director Christopher Wray, facing vigorous questioning from Sen. Charles Grassley and others, walked out of a Senate oversight hearing, claiming that he had an urgent appointment he must keep. It was later revealed that Wray’s “appointment” was hopping on an FBI jet for a family vacation. Congress punished the FBI with a $570 million budget increase, plowing $11.3 billion into its coffers in the coming year.
Is Congress terrified of the FBI nowadays like congressmen were in the COINTELPRO era? In 1971, House Majority Leader Hale Boggs revealed the shameless kowtowing on Capitol Hill: “Our very fear of speaking out [against the FBI] … has watered the roots and hastened the growth of a vine of tyranny…. Our society cannot survive a planned and programmed fear of its own government bureaus and agencies.” Boggs vindicated a 1924 American Civil Liberties Union warning that the FBI had become “a secret police system of a political character.”
But old quotes provide no protection against new depredations. The Twitter Files prove that G-men have been off the leash for years. We still have no idea how far the FBI and other federal agencies have gone to suppress our freedom of speech. Until federal abuses are fully exposed, Americans would be damn fools to believe their constitutional rights are safe.
An earlier version of this piece was published by the Libertarian Institute.