Lentis/COINTELPRO: The FBI, Civil Rights, and Domestic Surveillance

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

COINTELPRO, or Counter Intelligence Program, was a domestic surveillance initiative operated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) from 1956 to 1971.[1] COINTELPRO utilized both legal and illegal tactics to monitor, discredit, and infiltrate domestic political and social groups that the government deemed posed a threat to United States national security. COINTELPRO was founded to stop the US Communist Party, but eventually expanded to other social and political groups. The primary goal of this program by the FBI was to protect national security and maintain order by diminishing power and credibility of groups that were advocating for platforms different than that of the United States national government.

Origins[edit | edit source]

COINTELPRO started in 1956 with the goal of stopping the Communist Party's activities. The main driving factor for the start of the program was the Cold War, which made the FBI want to further protect national security from foreign threats.[2] To do this, they decided to stop political opposition within the United States by using surveillance and control tactics. The program targeted a wide variety of protest groups that opposed political and social views of the national government. Although the program started as a way to make sure that people were not following communist beliefs, the law enforcers soon realized that the usual ways of enforcing laws were not being as effective as possible. To strengthen restrictions, they decided to use the fact that they had information for all domestic citizens as a way to illegally make sure that domestic parties did not bring foreign threats.

The FBI initially focused on stopping the Communist Party, but it eventually spread to other political groups that had any opposition to the FBI's beliefs.[2] These groups included feminist groups, civil rights groups, environmentalist organizations, and independence movements. The FBI had the goal of protecting national security while also reducing domestic violence from these different types of groups, but in the process of doing this, the FBI used illegal tactics and method of surveillance that clearly violated first amendment rights.

Methods of Surveillance[edit | edit source]

The FBI used a series of different methods to control political activist groups.[3] The first method was disrupting activists, where the FBI would interrupt events, label activists as foreign agents, and stop new members from joining activist groups.[3] The FBI also promoted false media, which involved adding false stories, sending false letters, creating false events, and publishing leaflets that lead to misinformation.[4] In addition, the FBI used the legal system to hurt activists, by issuing subpoenas, giving false testimony, and creating fake evidence, with the end goal of sending innocent activists to jail. In order to further control the public, the FBI used physical force, including break-ins, vandalism, assault, and physical harm, with the goal of hurting people that opposed the FBI's beliefs.[4] Lastly, the FBI controlled media, by creating documentaries to hurt the image of different activist groups, and publishing newspapers with the end goal of promoting negative media to hurt the image of different revolutionary organizations. Through these different methods, the FBI was able to reduce trust between different revolutionary organizations, which lowered the chances of the groups merging, and thus helped the FBI continue to maintain power over the groups.

For example, one of the civil rights groups that the FBI focused on was called the Black Panthers.[4] The FBI created a fake letter and sent it to the US Organization, claiming that the Black Panthers had negative intentions with the US Organization, then put down a series of different cartoons in different Black communities that put supporters of the Black Panthers against those of the US Organization. In addition, the FBI worked with different police departments to do repeated raids on the homes of different members of the Black Panthers.[5] Beyond these examples, the FBI created a group of individuals who used to be Minutemen, put them together, and created an organization called the Secret Army Organization, with the main goal of intimidating members of the Anti-War Movement.[5]

The main problem with COINTELPRO was that the FBI consistently broke the law with these different methods of surveillance. As a result, different groups that were mainly harmless were harassed for no real reason, and illegal methods were used to get information about American citizens, which violated their right to privacy. The purpose of government officials is to enforce the law, not break it, but in this case, many of them continuously broke the law.[2] The system of checks and balances was not very effective in this case, since the Executive Branch never supervised the intelligence agencies, Congress did not have much oversight, and many of the domestic surveillance issues never got to the Judicial Branch and the court system.[6]

Social Groups[edit | edit source]

Civil Rights Movement[edit | edit source]

COINTELPRO especially monitored the civil rights movement happening in the United Sates between in the 1950s and 60s, in which Black Americans advocated for equal rights under law.[7] The FBI classified many of these groups as “Black Extremist” and a threat to national security, which they used as justification to gain government license for the surveillance.[8] COINTELPRO surveilled and monitored prominent civil rights groups, like the Black Panther Party and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and used intimidation and threats to keep groups in line.[9]

COINTELPRO administered an anonymous threatening letter to prominent civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964. The letter began with an attack on King’s character, stating “like all frauds your end is approaching.” The letter ended with an ominous warning: “King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do so.”[10] The FBI targeted King to “neutralize him as an effective civil rights leader,” and this letter is one example of the intimidation tactics used by COINTELPRO on targeted groups.

Feminist Movement[edit | edit source]

In the 1960s and 70s, a second wave of feminist movements was happening in the United States, later coined as “Contemporary Feminist Movements” or the “Women’s Liberation Movement.” In early 1970, the FBI began to survey prominent feminist advocates. In a released FBI file on women’s liberation leader Roberta Salper, COINTELPRO considered the feminist movement a “new organization to promote revolutionary changes, not only in universities, but in the social system of the US.” As with many of COINTELPRO’s surveillance targets, they deemed the feminist movement as a deviation from the platform of the national government and a threat to domestic security and order.

Political Involvement[edit | edit source]

The official purposes of COINTELPRO were to protect national security and prevent violence.[11] However, the senate committee that investigated COINTELPRO insisted in an unofficial purpose to "maintain political and social order." In the context of the 1950s and 60s, This meant operations against communist groups, civil rights groups, and the "New Left". In fact, any deviation from the norm could be seen as a form of sociopolitical disorder, marking most advocacies as target groups for COINTELPRO. In fact, the senate committee found that at least 18% of COINTELPRO targets were noncriminal. During the years of organized crime in the 1920s and 30s, maintaining social order was a valiant effort. However, in the 50s & 60s with activists like Martin Luther King Jr., this effort quickly became a political witch-hunt. Maintaining social order became an act of self preservation rather than an initiative to protect the public.

The FBI's acts of political manipulation begin prior to COINTELPRO. Declassified FBI documents that date back to the end of WW2 (1945) indicate persecution of public figures in order to purport McCarthyism.[12] The fight against communism was mostly a nonpartisan issue, but McCarthyism tended to favor republicans over democrats;[13] Truman specifically was despised by McCarthyites for being soft with communists.[12]

J. Edgar Hoover[edit | edit source]

J. Edgar Hoover was the FBI's director during COINTELPRO, on the back end of his 48 year career as the FBI's (formerly BI) director.[14] During his early years as the FBI's director, he made sweeping changes to the department and cracked down on organized crime under the guise of moral superiority.[15] This cemented Hoover and the FBI as American icons of justice. He was however, notorious for overstepping his duties as the FBI director, even trying to suspend habeas corpus for a mass jailing that would "protect the country against treason, espionage, and sabotage."[16] These previous examples of Hoover breaking due process questions COINTELPRO's legitimacy. If COINTELPRO was an isolated issue, it may be viewed as Hoover's response to the red scare. However, in the context of his past actions, the operation's origins feel dubious. Time magazine's piece on Hoover quotes some of his former aides saying that "the party [communism] was never a genuine internal threat", and that Hoover insisted it was a good target to "ensure financial and public support for the FBI."[17] COINTELPRO then may be viewed as an initiative by Hoover to amplify the effects of the red scare, part of a larger operation that took advantage of the fear of U.S. citizens to bolster support for himself and his organization. Hoover may not be the only responsible party for COINTELPRO, but his actions as the FBI's director mark him as the main culprit.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

COINTELPRO is only one example of what could be a bigger problem in America. Appointed officials and Bureaus like the FBI and CIA have limited accountability because of their ability to carry out operations not available to the public. Unelected officials acting on behalf of citizens without the citizens' knowledge is counterproductive to democracy, and incidents like COINTELPRO are proof of this. In fact, there are parallel examples that show this to be a continuing issue. Hoover's desire for mass jailing is analogous to the unjust imprisonment of Muslims in Guantanamo Bay. The FBI's Investigation of Trump in the 2016 election was supported by the DoJ,[18] but legal discrepancies have recently surfaced,[19] questioning the validity of the investigation. Further investigation into the corruption of the FBI and similar bureaus is warranted, as the efficacy of our democracy depends on it.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. COINTELPRO. FBI. https://vault.fbi.gov/cointel-pro.
  2. a b c More About FBI Spying. American Civil Liberties Union. https://www.aclu.org/other/more-about-fbi-spying.
  3. a b FBI Surveillance of the War Resisters League during the Vietnam War, 1965–1973 - Perrotta - 2021 - Peace & Change - Wiley Online Library. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/pech.12439.
  4. a b c Churchill, W. & Wall, J. V. The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI's Secret Wars Against Domestic Dissent. South End Press, 1990. https://books.google.com/books/about/The_COINTELPRO_Papers.html?id=DFlIcxsGUEIC.
  5. a b Churchill, W. & Wall, J. V. Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. South End Press, 2002. https://books.google.com/books?id=uP8YRoyyNVwC.
  6. Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with respect to Intelligence Activities (PDF). 1976. p. 5-10. https://www.intelligence.senate.gov/sites/default/files/94755_II.pdf.
  7. Morris, A. D. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement. (Simon and Schuster, 1986). https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=7vyHY9DWcu8C.
  8. COINTELPRO Black Extremist Part 01 of 23. FBI. https://vault.fbi.gov/cointel-pro/cointel-pro-black-extremists/cointelpro-black-extremists-part-01-of.
  9. Mian, Z. N. ‘Black Identity Extremist’ or Black Dissident?: How United States v. Daniels Illustrates FBI Criminalization of Black Dissent of Law Enforcement, from COINTELPRO to Black Lives Matter Notes. Rutgers Race & L. Rev. 21, 53–92 (2020). https://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?collection=journals&handle=hein.journals/rrace21&id=69&men_tab=srchresults.
  10. What an Uncensored Letter to M.L.K. Reveals - The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/16/magazine/what-an-uncensored-letter-to-mlk-reveals.html.
  11. United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. https://www.intelligence.senate.gov/sites/default/files/94755_III.pdf.
  12. a b O’Reilly, K. The FBI and the Origins of McCarthyism. The Historian 45, 372–393 (1983). https://www.jstor.org/stable/24445173.
  13. Editors, H. com. ‘Red Scare’ dominates American politics. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/red-scare-dominates-american-politics.
  14. J. Edgar Hoover, May 10, 1924 - May 2, 1972. Federal Bureau of Investigation. https://www.fbi.gov/history/directors/j-edgar-hoover.
  15. Biography: J. Edgar Hoover | American Experience | PBS. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/eleanor-hoover/.
  16. FBI’s Hoover planned mass U.S. jailings - report. Reuters (2007). https://www.reuters.com/article/idINIndia-31092520071223.
  17. From TIME’s Archives: The Truth About J. Edgar Hoover - TIME. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,879566-1,00.html.
  18. What’s known about surveillance of Trump campaign aides | AP News. https://apnews.com/article/north-america-donald-trump-hillary-clinton-george-papadopoulos-politics-f9b05595332242e9809f739d9a185177.
  19. Ex-FBI lawyer admits to false statement during Russia probe | AP News. https://apnews.com/article/election-2020-b9b3c7ef398d00d5dfee9170d66cefec.