- Historic Sites
The Fbi Unbound
How the Bureau got those restrictions that so many people today want to see abolished
September 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 5
There were also programs of disruption and harassment aimed at “white hate groups” and “black nationalist hate groups.” The former was set up after President Johnson urged Hoover to “put people after the [Ku Klux] Klan,” following the murder of three young civil rights workers in Mississippi in June of 1964. Klan members received anonymous postcards that identified them (“Someone is peeking under your sheet,” said one), a snitch jacket resulted in one assistant grand dragon’s ouster, and the wives of several Klan leaders got anonymous letters accusing their husbands of adultery. In one spectacular case an infiltrator, Gary Rowe, was actually present with three Klansmen in an automobile when one of them fired the shot that killed Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights activist, on an Alabama highway. His testimony later got the others convicted, hut it highlighted the dilemma of many a police spy: the possibility of having to take part in an actual crime in order to stay undercover.
The COINTELPRO designed to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize… black nationalist hate type organizations” was created after the inner-city riots of 1967. A Hoover memorandum explained that “Negro” youths must be “made to understand that if they succumb to revolutionary teaching, they will be dead revolutionaries.” Nonviolent groups like SCLC, CORE, and SNCC were targeted even before the emergence of the overtly armed Black Panthers.
A New Left COINTELPRO was created after radical students took over the Columbia University campus in mid-1968, although the entire anti-Vietnam War movement had been under FBI scrutiny from 1965 on, at President Johnson’s behest. Some two thousand agents ultimately were involved, using the now familiar techniques against both possible perpetrators of violence (like the members of the Weather Underground) and any organization that was part of what the FBI called a “loosely bound, freewheeling, college-oriented movement” of war protesters. With the New Left heavily infiltrated, some of its leaders did become suspicious, secretive, and undemocratic, leading to eventual fragmentation and decline. However, the New Left COINTELPRO boomeranged when a still unidentified group broke into the Bureau’s offices in Media, Pennsylvania, in March of 1971. Turning the tables, they stole and then selectively leaked dozens of documents to friendly government and media sources, revealing the nature of COINTELPRO harassment and surveillance operations. Under a cascade of negative publicity, Hoover canceled all COINTELPRO operations in April.
In 1972, the year Hoover died, NBC and CBS began the ultimate exposure of COINTELPRO by forcing the Bureau to release documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Subsequently, President Ford ordered a probe; next, subcommittees of both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees undertook their own investigations, which were later pursued by special Select Committees on Intelligence Activities. By 1976 the story was pretty much in the open. A new Attorney General, Edward Levi, set up new guidelines and monitoring agencies. Their essence was that the FBI might launch domestic intelligence investigations against groups that threatened the government or the civil rights of individuals with “slightly less substantive information than…required to initiate a criminal investigation,” but it was “intolerable” to monitor individuals or groups for holding “unpopular or controversial political views,” and no one should be fully investigated unless “directly involved in violence or engaging in activities which indicate he or she is likely to use force or violence in violation of a federal law.”
Domestic intelligence investigations dropped from thousands to less than a hundred. The entire COINTELPRO file of fifty-two thousand documents was made public. There was an apparent resurgence of COINTELPRO -like activity in 1983, when a special investigation was directed against the Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador, an organization protesting Reagan administration policies in Central America.
But a new day had dawned. The operation was stopped in 1985; three years later Director William Sessions imposed disciplinary sanctions against six Bureau employees who had been involved. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence investigated and concluded that the “serious failure” in FBI management had led to unjustified “investigations of political expression and dissent,” with a “debilitating effect upon our political system.” Presumably the debilitation came from fear of dissent. But one might note in 1995 that it also comes from suspicion of secret plotting and wrongdoing by the FBI or other government agencies. In any case, the COINTELPRO tale is the shadow behind the restrictions on the FBI that are now under assault.