September 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 5
In the grim aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, the historian’s antennae quickly picked up signals from the White House and Congress of an intent to use some recent history to justify changes in the government’s rules of engagement with violence-prone organizations. Assorted leaders, starting with the President, promised to seek stronger powers for federal law enforcers, particularly the FBI, to penetrate clandestine antigovernment groups and thwart bombers before they strike. Behind the rhetoric was a claim that the Bureau’s “domestic intelligence” functions had been too sharply cut back by an excess of zeal for civil liberties in the post-Watergate atmosphere of the mid-1970s. Now, the argument runs, clear and present danger demands a restoration of balance.
This column may not be the place to add another voice to the debate about when, if ever, there are justified limits on the Bill of Rights, but it’s very much within the mandate to set down some of the facts that led to the congressional investigations, media exposures, and administrative punishments of the Federal Bureau of Investigation some twenty years ago. The information is easily available in press files and government reports, but much of it is conveniently gathered in Spying on America: The FBI’s Domestic Counter-Intelligence Program , by James K. Davis, published in 1992. Davis is no knee-jerk enemy of the Bureau, and in fact is co-author of a 1987 autobiography of one of its former directors, Clarence Kelley.
The story properly begins just before World War II, in 1936, when Franklin D. Roosevelt asked J. Edgar Hoover to begin gathering information on possible subversive activities by Communist and fascist organizations in the United States. To avoid legal and political problems, it was to be done secretly, under the authority of the Department of State. FDR thus became the first of six successive Presidents to allow the FBI to keep part of its work hidden.
Hoover was very willing to comply. The Bureau’s size and appropriations grew steadily, and during the years of actual wartime, it could point to a successful record of thwarting espionage and sabotage on the home front. The Cold War’s onset opened a new public role for the “G-men”; they now became frontline fighters against Communism, running field checks and investigations of federal workers under the Truman Loyalty and Security program begun in 1947.
By 1956 the Communist Party of the United States of America had shrunk to about twenty-two thousand members from a wartime high of eighty-five thousand. Nevertheless, Hoover worried about a resurgence of the CPUSA and determined to prevent this by breaking up its remnants from within. At a meeting of the National Security Council on March 8, he asked for authority to institute a “counterintelligence program” ( COINTELPRO ). The President asked him directly what he had in mind, and his answer deserves full quotation from Davis’s summary: “surreptitious entry…safecracking; mail interception; telephone surveillance; microphone plants; trash inspection; infiltration, disorganization and penetration of groups; falsely labeling group members as government informants; using informants to raise controversial issues within groups; encouraging the IRS to investigate target groups; encouraging street warfare between certain groups; using misinformation to disrupt target group activities; mailing anonymous letters to target group spouses in which allegations of infidelity are made; mailing reprints of controversial newspaper articles to encourage group disruption.”
The heads of the entire U.S. security establishment were all present. None raised a single question about these methods, and COINTELPRO was launched. Or rather, COINTELPRO s, for there were several of them with different enemies. They were kept strictly secret within the Bureau, but no activities were approved without the knowledge of Director Hoover. The CPUSA COINTELPRO got to work first. In addition to phone taps and thefts of records, informants were insinuated into the party ranks. Operatives seeded rallies with hecklers, planted negative news stories, and canceled halls already rented for meetings. A “snitch jacket” was placed on William Albertson, a member of the party’s National Committee, meaning that the FBI planted a document where another party member was sure to find it, falsely implying that Albertson was an informant. He was, as hoped, thrown out of the party. In all, some 1,500 paid informants were used and 1,338 “actions” were taken in a fourteen-year period. By 1971 the party’s ranks had dwindled to three thousand, of whom a large proportion probably were FBI plants.
Naturally, there were people then and now who would insist that this was no less than the Communist party deserved or national security required. But COINTELPRO activities went well beyond the classic undercover police function of collecting evidence leading to the arrest and trial of lawbreakers. What was more, the targets included organizations merely suspected by Director Hoover of having been penetrated by Communists, such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. With the consent of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, King was subjected to no fewer than five thousand wiretaps on his travels around the country. They showed no Communist connections, but recordings were made of “extracurricular” sexual activities on the road, and the tapes were mailed to King anonymously with the suggestion that he commit suicide to avoid disgrace.
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.