COINTELPRO in the 80s
excerpted from the book
WAR AT HOME
by Brian Glick
Government harassment of U.S. political
activists clearly exists today, violating our fundamental democratic
rights and creating a climate of fear and distrust which undermines
our efforts to challenge official policy. Similar attacks on social
justice movements came to light during the 1960s. Only years later
did we learn that these had been merely the visible tip of an
iceberg. Largely hidden at the time was a vast government program
to neutralize domestic political opposition through "covert
action" (political repression carried out secretly or under
the guise of legitimate law enforcement).
The 1960s program, coordinated by the
FBI under the code name "COINTELPRO," was exposed in
the 1970s and supposedly stopped. But covert operations against
domestic dissidents did not end. They have persisted and become
an integral part of government activity. ...
Domestic Covert Action Has Persisted Throughout
The 1980s ... [were] marked by the rise
of right-wing political power and new forms of popular opposition
to reactionary government policy. Under these conditions, the
danger of domestic covert action is greater than ever.
Since the vast majority of COINTELPRO-type
operations stay hidden until long after the damage has been done,
those we are already aware of represent only the tip of the iceberg.
Far more is sure to lurk beneath the surface. - Most of today's
domestic covert action can be kept concealed because full government
secrecy has been restored. The Freedom of Information Act, a source
of major disclosures about COINTELPRO, was drastically narrowed
in the 1980s through administrative and judicial reinterpretation
as well as legislative amendment. Thousands of government files
were shielded from public scrutiny under presidential directives
that vastly expand the range of information classified "top-secret."
Government employees now face censorship even after they retire,
and new laws make it a federal crime to disclose "any information
that identifies an individual as a covert agent."
While restoring full secrecy, the Reagan
administration invested covert action with a new legitimacy. In
the past, such operations were acknowledged to be improper and
illegal. The Senate Intelligence Committee condemned COINTELPRO
as "a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at
preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and
association." From its inception, the CLA was barred by law
from performing "internal security functions." Top government
officials took care to insulate themselves so they could deny
involvement if an unseemly operation came to light. These conditions
established a kind of speed limit, a set of restrictions which
the agencies felt free to exceed, but only by a certain margin.
In the 1980s even this ceiling was lifted.
Reagan and his cohorts openly embraced the use of covert operations
at home and abroad. They endorsed such action, legalized it, sponsored
it, and raised it to the level of patriotic virtue.
Within months of taking office, Reagan
pardoned W. Mark Felt and Edward S. Miller, the only FBI officials
convicted of COINTELPRO crimes. His congressional allies publicly
honored these criminals and praised their work. The President
continually revived the tired old Red Scare, adding a new "terrorist"
bogeyman, while Attorney General Meese campaigned to narrow the
scope of the Bill of Rights and limit judicial review of the constitutionality
of government action.
From the National Security Council's offices
in the White House basement, Lt. Col. Oliver North proudly funded
and orchestrated break ins and other "dirty tricks"
to defeat congressional critics of U.S. policy in Central America
and neutralize grassroots protest. He ran elaborate networks of
paper organizations set up by former government covert operatives
who regrouped to do the same work for more money in the "private
sector. " Special Prosecutor Walsh found evidence that North
and Retired Air Force Gen. Richard Secord (architect of 1960s
U.S. covert action in Cambodia) used Iran-Contra funds to harass
the Christic Institute, a church-funded public interest law group
which specializes in exposing government misconduct. North also
helped Reagan's cronies at the Federal Emergency Management Administration
develop contingency plans for suspending the Constitution, establishing
martial law, and holding political dissidents in concentration
camps in the event of "national opposition against a U.S.
military invasion abroad."
Much of what was done outside the law
under COINTELPRO has since been legalized by Executive Order No.
12333 (December 4, 1981) and new Attorney General's "Guidelines
on General Crimes, Racketeering Enterprise and Domestic Security/Terrorism
Investigations" (March 7, 1983). For the first time in U.S.
history, government infiltration "for the purpose of influencing
the activity of' domestic political organizations has received
official sanction (E.0.12333, §2.9). This prerogative is
now extended to the FBI and anyone acting on its behalf. It provided
a legal pretext for the Bureau's attacks on CISPES and other opponents
of U.S. policy in Central America.
The new executive order asserts the President's
right to authorize CIA "special activities" (the official
euphemism for covert operations) redefined to include activity
anywhere "in support of national foreign policy objectives
abroad" (§1.8(e), §3.4(h)). It legalizes "counterintelligence
activities...within the United States" on the part of the
FBI and the CLA, Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines (§1 .8(c),
§1.1 2(d)). "Specialized equipment, technical knowledge,
or assistance of expert personnel" may be provided by any
of these agencies "to support local law enforcement"
(§2.6c). All are free to mount electronic and mail surveillance
without a warrant, and the FBI may also conduct warrantless "unconsented
physical searches" (break-ins) if the Attorney General finds
probable cause to believe the action is "directed against
a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power" (§2.4,
§2.5). This signals open season on CISPES, sanctuary churches,
anti-apartheid groups, and anyone else who maintains friendly
relations with a country or movement opposed by the administration
or who dares to organize protest against U.S. foreign policy.
Given how much is at stake, we can hardly
afford to ignore these many signs of danger. The FBI and police
have now been fully rehabilitated. The CIA and military have assumed
an expanded homefront role. Covert action has been legalized and
endorsed at the highest levels of government. Official secrecy
has been restored. Government harassment of domestic dissidents
continues unabated. Evidence of current infiltration and clandestine
disruption is surfacing at an alarming rate. Taken together, these
developments leave us only one safe assumption: full-scale covert
operations are already underway to neutralize today's opposition
movements before they can reach the massive level of the 1960s.
excerpted from the book
War at Home
by Brian Glick
South End Press
116 Saint Botolph Street, Boston, MA 02115
Third World in United States