COINTELPRO in the 60s
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
Covert Action Against the Domestic Dissidents of the 1960s
The first concrete evidence of COINTELPRO surfaced in March
1971, when a "Citizens Committee to Investigate the FBI"
removed secret files from an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania
and released them to the press.' That same year, agents began
to resign from the Bureau and to blow the whistle on its covert
operations.' These revelations came at a time of enormous social
unrest and declining public confidence in government. Publication
of the Pentagon Papers in September 1971 exposed years of systematic
official lies about the Vietnam War. Soon it was learned that
a clandestine squad of White House "plumbers" had broken
into Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office in an effort to smear
the former Pentagon staffer who had leaked the top-secret papers
to the press
The same "plumbers" were caught the following year
burglarizing the Watergate offices of the Democratic National
Committee. Nationally televised congressional hearings on Watergate
revealed a full-blown program of "dirty tricks" to subvert
the anti-war movement as well as the
Democratic Party by forging letters, leaking false news items
to the press, stealing files, and roughing up demonstrators. Lines
of command for these operations were traced to Attorney General
Mitchell and the White House, with the FBI implicated in a massive
cover-up involving President Nixon and his top staff. By 1971,
congressional hearings had already disclosed U.S. Army infiltration
of domestic political movements. Similar CIA and local police
activity soon came to light, along with ghastly accounts of CIA
operations abroad to destabilize democratically elected governments
and assassinate heads of state.
This crisis was eventually resolved through what historian
Howard Zinn describes as "a complex process of consolidation,"
based on "the need to satisfy a disillusioned public that
the system was criticizing and correcting itself."' In this
process, the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOLA) was amended
over President Nixon's veto to provide some degree of genuine
public access to FBI documents. Lawsuits under the FOLA forced
the Bureau to release some COINTELPRO files to major news media.
By 1975, both houses of Congress had launched formal inquiries
into government "intelligence activities."
The agencies under congressional investigation were allowed
to withhold most of their files and to edit the Senate Committee's
reports before publication. The House Committee's report, including
an account of FBI and CIA obstruction of its inquiry, was suppressed
altogether after part was leaked to the press. Still, pressure
to promote the appearance of genuine reform was so great that
the FBI had to divulge an unprecedented, detailed account of many
of its domestic covert operations.
Many important files continue to be withheld, and others have
been destroyed. Former operatives report that the most heinous
and embarrassing actions were never committed to writing. Officials
with broad personal knowledge of COINTELPRO have been silenced,
most notably William C. Sullivan, who created the program and
ran it throughout the 1960s. Sullivan was killed in an uninvestigated
1977 "hunting accident" shortly after giving extensive
information to a grand jury investigating the FBI, but before
he could testify publicly. Nevertheless, a great deal has been
learned about COINTELPRO.
How COINTELPRO Worked
When congressional investigations, political trials, and other
traditional legal modes of repression failed to counter the growing
movements, and even helped to fuel them, the FBI and police moved
outside the law. They resorted to the secret and systematic use
of fraud and force to sabotage constitutionally protected political
activity. Their methods ranged far beyond surveillance, amounting
to a home front version of the covert action for which the CIA
has become infamous throughout the world.
FBI Headquarters secretly instructed its field offices to
propose schemes to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit,
or otherwise neutralize" specific individuals and groups.
Close coordination with local police and prosecutors was strongly
encouraged. Other recommended collaborators included friendly
news media, business and foundation executives, and university,
church, and trade union officials, as well as such "patriotic"
organizations as the American Legion.
Final authority rested with FBI Headquarters in Washington,
D.C. Top FBI officials pressed local field offices to step up
their activity and demanded regular progress reports. Agents were
directed to maintain full secrecy "such that under no circumstances
should the existence of the program be made known outside the
Bureau and appropriate within-office security should be afforded
to sensitive operations and techniques." A total of 2,370
officially approved COINTELPRO actions were admitted to the Senate
Intelligence Committee, and thousands more have since been uncovered.
Four main methods have been revealed:
1. Infiltration: Agents and informers did not merely spy on
political activists. Their main purpose was to discredit and disrupt.
Their very presence served to undermine trust and scare off potential
supporters. The FBI and police exploited this fear to smear genuine
activists as agents.
2. Psychological Warfare From the Outside: The FBI and police
used myriad other "dirty tricks" to undermine progressive
movements. They planted false media stories and published bogus
leaflets and other publications in the name of targeted groups.
They forged correspondence, sent anonymous letters, and made anonymous
telephone calls. They spread misinformation about meetings and
events, set up pseudo movement groups run by government agents,
and manipulated or strong-armed parents, employers, landlords,
school officials and others to cause trouble for activists.
3. Harassment through the Legal System The FBI and police
abused the legal system to harass dissidents and make them appear
to be criminals. Officers of the law gave perjured testimony and
presented fabricated evidence as a pretext for false arrests and
wrongful imprisonment. They discriminatorily enforced tax laws
and other government regulations and used conspicuous surveillance,
"investigative" inter views, and grand jury subpoenas
in an effort to intimidate activists and silence their supporters.
4. Extralegal Force and Violence: The FBI and police threatened,
instigated, and themselves conducted break-ins, vandalism, assaults,
and beatings. The object was to frighten dissidents and disrupt
their movements. In the case of radical Black and Puerto Rican
activists (and later Native Americans), these attacks-including
political assassinations-were so extensive, vicious, and calculated
that they can accurately be termed a form of official "terrorism."
COINTELPRO's Main Targets
Though the name COINTELPRO stands for "Counterintelligence
Program," the government's targets were not enemy spies.
The Senate Intelligence Committee later found that "Under
COINTELPRO certain techniques the Bureau had used against hostile
foreign agents were adopted for use against perceived domestic
threats to the established political and social order."
The most intense COINTELPRO operations were directed against
the Black movement, particularly the Black Panther Party. This
was to some extent a function of the racism of the FBI and police,
as well as the vulnerability of the Black community (due to its
lack of ties to political and economic elites and the tendency
of the media-and whites in general-to ignore or tolerate attacks
on Black groups). At a deeper level, the choice of targets reflects
government and corporate fear of a militant, broad-based Black
movement. Such a movement is dangerous because of its historic
capacity to galvanize widespread rebellion at home and its repercussions
for the U.S. image abroad. Moreover, Black people's location in
major urban centers and primary industries gives them the potential
to disrupt the base of the U.S. economy.
COINTELPRO's targets were not, however, limited to Black militants.
Many other activists who wanted to end U.S. intervention abroad
or institute racial, gender, and class justice at home also came
under attack. Cesar Chavez, Fathers Daniel and Phillip Berrigan,
Rev. Jesse Jackson, David Dellinger, officials of the American
Friends Service Committee and the National Council of Churches,
and other leading pacifists were high on the list, as were projects
directly protected by the First Amendment, such as anti-war teach-ins,
progressive bookstores, independent filmmakers, and alternative
newspapers and news services. Martin Luther King, Jr., world-renowned
prophet of non violence, was the object of sustained FBI assault.
King was marked, barely a month before his murder, for elimination
as a potential "messiah" who could "unify and electrify"
the Black movement.
Ultimately, FBI documents disclosed six major official counterintelligence
programs (as well as non-COINTELPRO covert operations against
Native American, Asian-American, Arab-American, Iranian, and other
1) "Communist Party-USA" (1956-71): This was the
first and largest program, which contributed to the Party's decline
in the late 1950s and was used in the early and mid-1960s mainly
against civil rights, civil liberties, and peace activists. Its
targets during the latter period included Martin Luther King,
Jr., the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the NAACP, the
National Lawyers Guild, the National Committee to Abolish the
House Un-American Activities Committee, Women's Strike for Peace,
the American Friends Service Committee, and the National Committee
for a SANE Nuclear Policy.
2) "Groups Seeking Independence for Puerto Rico"
(1960-71): Initially hidden from congressional investigators,
and still one of the least well known, this program functioned
to disrupt, discredit, and factionalize the island's main centers
of anti-colonial resistance, especially the Puerto Rican Socialist
Party (PSP) and Socialist League (LSP). It also appears to have
targeted groups fighting for human rights for Puerto Ricans living
in the United States, such as the Young Lords Party.
3) "Border Coverage Program" (1960-71): This program
of covert operations against radical Mexican organizations was
similarly concealed from Congress. The few documents released
to date do not indicate how much the FBI used it against 1960s
Chicano activists such as the Brown Berets, the Crusade for Justice
(Colorado), La Alianza (New Mexico), and the Chicano Moratorium
to End the War in Vietnam (Los Angeles), which are known to have
been infiltrated and repressed by other government agencies.
4) "Socialist Workers Party" (1961-69): In addition
to ongoing attacks on the SWP and its youth group, the Young Socialist
Alliance, this program operated against whomever those groups
supported or worked with, especially Malcolm X and the National
Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.
5) "Black Nationalist Hate Groups" (1967-71): This
was the vehicle for the Bureau's all-out assault on Martin Luther
King, Jr. (in the late 1960s), the Student Non-Violent Coordinating
Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the
Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam ("Black Muslims"),
the National Welfare Rights Organization, the League of Black
Revolutionary Workers, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement
(DRUM), the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), the Republic
of New Afrika (RNA), the Congress of African People, Black student
unions, and many local Black churches and community organizations
struggling for decent living conditions, justice, equality, and
6) "New Left" (1968-71): A program to destroy Students
for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Peace and Freedom Party, the
Institute for Policy Studies, and a broad range of anti-war, anti-racist,
student, GI, veteran, feminist, lesbian, gay, environmental, Marxist,
and anarchist groups, as well as the network of food co-ops, health
clinics, child care centers, schools, bookstores, newspapers,
community centers, street theaters, rock groups, and communes
that formed the infrastructure of the counter-culture.
7) "White Hate Groups" (1964-71): This unique "program"
functioned largely as a component of the FBI's operations against
the progressive activists who were COINTELPRO's main targets.
Under the cover of being even-handed and going after violent right-wing
groups, the FBI actually gave covert aid to the Ku Klux Klan,
Minutemen, Nazis, and other racist vigilantes. These groups received
substantial funds, information, and protection-and suffered only
token FBI harassment-so long as they directed their violence against
COINTELPRO targets. They were not subjected to serious disruption
unless they breached this tacit under standing and attacked established
business and political leaders.
How COINTELPRO Helped Destroy the Movements of the 1960s
Since COINTELPRO was used mainly against the progressive movements
of the 1960s, its impact can be grasped only in the context of
the momentous social upheaval which shook the country during those
All across the United States, Black communities came alive
with renewed political struggle. Most major cities experienced
sustained, disciplined Black protest and massive ghetto uprisings.
Black activists galvanized multi-racial rebellion among GIs, welfare
mothers, students, and prisoners. College campuses and high schools
erupted in militant protest against the Vietnam War. A predominantly
white New Left, inspired by the Black movement, fought for an
end to U.S. intervention abroad and a more humane and cooperative
way of life at home. By the late 1960s, deep-rooted resistance
had revived among Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Asian Americans, and
Native Americans. A second wave of broad-based struggle for women's
liberation had also emerged, along with significant efforts by
lesbians, gay men, and disabled people.
Millions of people in the United States began to reject the
dominant ideology and culture. Thousands challenged basic U.S.
political and economic institutions. For a brief moment, "the
crucial mixture of people's confidence in the government and lack
of confidence in themselves which allows the government to govern,
the ruling class to rule. . .threatened to break down."
By the mid-1970s, this upheaval had largely subsided. Important
progressive activity persisted, mainly on a local level, and much
continued to be learned and won, but the massive, militant Black
and New Left movements were gone. The sense of infinite possibility
and of our collective power to shape the future had been lost.
Progressive momentum dissipated. Radicals found themselves on
the defensive as right-wing extremists gained major government
positions and defined the contours of accepted political debate.
Many factors besides COINTELPRO contributed to this change.
Important progress was made toward achieving movement goals such
as Black civil rights, an end to the Vietnam War, and university
reform. The mass media, owned by big business and cowed by government
and right-wing attack, helped to bury radical activism by ceasing
to cover it. Television, popular magazines, and daily papers stereotyped
Blacks as hardened criminals and welfare chiselers or as the supposedly
affluent beneficiaries of reverse "discrimination."
White youth were portrayed first as hedonistic hippies and mindless
terrorists, later as an apolitical, self-indulgent "me generation."
Both were scapegoated as threats to "decent, hard-working
During the severe economic recession of the early- to mid-
1970s, former student activists began entering the job market,
some taking on responsibility for children. Many were scared by
brutal government and right-wing attacks culminating in the murder
of rank-and-file activists as well as prominent leaders. Some
were strung out on the hard drugs that had become increasingly
available in Black and Latin communities and among white youth.
Others were disillusioned by mistreatment in movements ravaged
by the very social sicknesses they sought to eradicate, including
racism, sexism, homophobia, class bias and competition.
Limited by their upbringing, social position, and isolation
from older radical traditions, 1960s activists were unable to
make the connections and changes required to build movements strong
enough to survive and eventually win structural change in the
United States. Middle-class students did not sufficiently ally
with working and poor people. Too few white activists accepted
third world leadership of multi-racial alliances. Too many men
refused to practice genuine gender equality. Originally motivated
by goals of quick reforms, 1960s activists were ill-prepared for
the long-term struggles in which they found themselves. Overly
dependent on media-oriented superstars and one-shot dramatic actions,
they failed to develop stable organizations, accountable leader
ship, and strategic perspective. Creatures of the culture they
so despised, they often lacked the patience to sustain tedious
grassroots work and painstaking analysis of actual social conditions.
They found it hard to accept the slow, uneven pace of personal
and political change.
This combination of circumstances, however, did not by itself
guarantee political collapse. The achievements of the 1960s movements
could have inspired optimism and provided a sense of the power
to win other important struggles. The rightward shift of the major
media could have enabled alternative newspapers, magazines, theater,
film, and video to attract a broader audience and stable funding.
The economic downtum of the early 1970s could have united Black
militants, New Leftists, and workers in common struggle. Police
brutality and government collusion in drug trafficking could have
been exposed in ways that undermined support for the authorities
and broadened the movements' backing.
By the close of the decade, many of the movements' internal
weaknesses were starting to be addressed. Black-led multi-racial
alliances, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign
and the Black Panthers' Rainbow Coalition, were forming. The movements'
class base was broadening through Black "revolutionary unions"
in auto and other industries, King's increasing focus on economic
issues, the New Left's spread to community colleges, and the return
of working-class GIs radicalized by their experience in Vietnam.
At the same time, the women's movement was confronting the deep
sexism which permeated 1960s activism, along with its corollaries:
homophobia, sexual violence, militarism, competitiveness, and
While the problems of the 1960s movements were enormous, their
strengths might have enabled them to overcome their weaknesses
had the upsurge not been stifled before activists could learn
from their mistakes. Much of the movements' inability to transcend
their initial limitations and overcome adversity can be traced
It was through COINTELPRO that the public image of Blacks
and New Leftists was distorted to legitimize their arrest and
imprisonment and scapegoat them as the cause of working people's
problems. The FBI and police instigated violence and fabricated
movement horrors. Dissidents were deliberately "criminalized"
through false charges, frame-ups, and offensive, bogus leaflets
and other materials published in their name.
COINTELPRO enabled the FBI and police to exacerbate the movements'
internal stresses until beleaguered activists turned on one another.
Whites were pitted against Blacks, Blacks against Chicanos and
Puerto Ricans, students against workers, workers against people
on welfare, men against women, religious activists against atheists,
Christians against Jews, Jews against Muslims. "Anonymous"
accusations of infidelity ripped couples apart. Backers of women's
and gay liberation were attacked as "dykes" or "faggots."
Money was repeatedly stolen and precious equipment sabotaged to
intensify pressure and sow suspicion and mistrust.
Otherwise manageable disagreements were inflamed by COINTELPRO
until they erupted into hostile splits that shattered alliances,
tore groups apart, and drove dedicated activists out of the movement.
Government documents implicate the FBI and police in the bitter
breakup of such pivotal groups as the Black Panther Party, SDS,
and the Liberation News Service, and in the collapse of repeated
efforts to form long-term coalitions across racial, class, and
regional lines. While genuine political issues were often involved
in these disputes, the outcome could have been different if government
agencies had not covertly intervened to subvert compromise and
fuel hostility and competition.
Finally, it was COINTELPRO that enabled the FBI and police
to eliminate the leaders of mass movements without undermining
the image of the United States as a democracy, complete with free
speech and the rule of law. Charismatic orators and dynamic organizers
were covertly attacked and "neutralized" before their
skills could be transferred to others and stable structures established
to carry on their work. Malcolm X was killed in a "factional
dispute" which the FBI took credit for having "developed"
in the Nation of Islam. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the target
of an elaborate FBI plot to drive him to suicide and replace him
"in his role of the leadership of the Negro people"
with conservative Black lawyer Samuel Pierce (later named to Reagan's
cabinet). Many have come to view King's eventual assassination
(and Malcolm's as well) as itself a domestic covert operation.
Other prominent radicals faced similar attack when they began
to develop broad followings and express anti-capitalist ideas.
Some were portrayed as crooks, thugs, philanderers, or government
agents, while others were physically threatened or assaulted until
they abandoned their work. Still others were murdered under phony
pretexts, such as "shootouts" in which the only shots
were fired by the police.
To help bring down a major target, the FBI often combined
these approaches in strategic sequence. Take the case of the "underground
press, " a network of some 400 radical weeklies and several
national news services, which once boasted a combined readership
of close to 30 million. In the late 1960s, government agents raided
the offices of alternative newspapers across the country in purported
pursuit of drugs and fugitives. In the process, they destroyed
typewriters, cameras, printing presses, layout equipment, business
records, and research files, and roughed up and jailed staffers
on bogus charges. Meanwhile, the FBI was persuading record companies
to withdraw lucrative advertising and arranging for printers,
suppliers, and distributors to drop underground press accounts.
With their already shaky operations in disarray, the papers and
news services were easy targets for a final phase of COINTELPRO
disruption. Forged correspondence, anonymous accusations, and
infiltrators' manipulation provoked a flurry of wild charges and
counter-charges that played a major role in bringing many of these
promising endeavors to a premature end.
A similar pattern can be discerned from the history of the
Black Panther Party. Brutal government attacks initially elicited
broad support for this new, militant, highly visible national
organization and its popular ten-point socialist program for Black
self-determination. But the FBI's repressive onslaught severely
weakened the Party, making it vulnerable to sophisticated FBI
psychological warfare which so discredited and shattered it that
few people today have any notion of the power and potential that
the Panthers once represented.
What proved most devastating in all of this was the effective
manipulation of the victims of COINTELPRO into blaming themselves.
Since the FBI and police operated covertly, the horrors they engineered
appeared to emanate from within the movements. Activists' trust
in one another and in their collective power was subverted, and
the hopes of a generation died, leaving a legacy of cynicism and
despair which continues to haunt us today.
excerpted from the book
War at Home
by Brian Glick
South End Press
116 Saint Botolph Street, Boston, MA 02115