(an acronym for Co
gram) was a series of covert and often illegal projects conducted by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation
aimed at investigating and disrupting dissident political organizations within the United States. The FBI used covert operations from its inception, however the formal COINTELPRO operations took place between 1956 and 1971. The FBI motivation at the time was "protecting national security, preventing violence, and maintaining the existing social and political order." According to FBI records, approximately 15% of COINTELPRO resources were expended to marginalize and subvert "White Hate Groups" including the Ku Klux Klan
and National States' Rights Party
. The other 85% of COINTELPRO resources were expended on targets suspected of being subversive , such as communist
organizations; the women's rights movement
; people suspected of building a "coalition of militant black nationalist groups" ranging from the Black Panther Party
and Republic of New Afrika
, to "those in the non-violent civil rights movement," such as Martin Luther King, Jr.
and others associated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
(NAACP), the Congress on Racial Equality
(CORE), and other civil rights groups; a broad range of organizations lumped together under the title "New Left" groups, including Students for a Democratic Society
, the National Lawyers Guild
, the Weathermen
, almost all groups protesting the Vietnam War
, and even individual student demonstrators with no group affiliation; and nationalist groups such as those "Seeking Independence for Puerto Rico. The directives governing COINTELPRO were issued by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover
, who ordered FBI agents to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" the activities of these movements and their leaders.
COINTELPRO began in 1956 and was designed to "increase factionalism, cause disruption and win defections" inside the Communist Party U.S.A.
(CPUSA). However, the program was soon enlarged to include disruption of the Socialist Workers Party
(1961), the Ku Klux Klan
(1964), the Nation of Islam
, the Black Panther Party
(1967), and the entire New Left
socio-political movement, which included antiwar, community, and religious groups (1968).
A later investigation by the Senate's Church Committee
(see below) stated that "COINTELPRO began in 1956, in part because of frustration with Supreme Court rulings limiting the Government's power to proceed overtly against dissident groups..." Congress and several court cases later concluded that the COINTELPRO operations against communist and socialist groups exceeded statutory limits on FBI activity and violated Constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and association.
The program was secret until 1971, when an FBI field office in Media, PA was burglarized by a group of left-wing radicals calling themselves the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI. Several dossiers of files were taken and the information passed to news agencies, many of which initially refused to publish the information. Within the year, Director Hoover declared that the centralized COINTELPRO was over, and that all future counterintelligence operations would be handled on a case-by-case basis.
Further documents were revealed in the course of separate lawsuits filed against the FBI by NBC correspondent Carl Stern, the Socialist Workers Party, and a number of other groups. A major investigation was launched in 1976 by the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities of the United States Senate, commonly referred to as the "Church Committee" for its chairman, Senator Frank Church of Idaho. However, millions of pages of documents remain unreleased, and many released documents are entirely censored.
In the Final Report of the Select Committee COINTELPRO was castigated in no uncertain terms:
- "Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that...the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence."
The Church Committee documented a history of FBI directors' using the agency for purposes of political repression as far back as World War I, through the 1920s, when they were charged with rounding up "anarchists and revolutionaries" for deportation, and then building from 1936 through 1976.
Range of targets
In an interview with the BBC's Andrew Marr, MIT professor of linguistics and political activist Noam Chomsky talks about the purpose and the targets of COINTELPRO saying, "COINTELPRO was a program of subversion carried out not by a couple of petty crooks but by the national political police, the FBI, under four administrations...by the time it got through, I won't run through the whole story, it was aimed at the entire new left, at the women's movement, at the whole black movement, it was extremely broad. Its actions went as far as political assassination."
According to the Church Committee:
- While the declared purposes of these programs were to protect the "national security" or prevent violence, Bureau witnesses admit that many of the targets were nonviolent and most had no connections with a foreign power. Indeed, nonviolent organizations and individuals were targeted because the Bureau believed they represented a "potential" for violence -- and nonviolent citizens who were against the war in Vietnam were targeted because they gave "aid and comfort" to violent demonstrators by lending respectability to their cause.
- The imprecision of the targeting is demonstrated by the inability of the Bureau to define the subjects of the programs. The Black Nationalist program, according to its supervisor, included "a great number of organizations that you might not today characterize as black nationalist but which were in fact primarily black." Thus, the nonviolent Southern Christian Leadership Conference was labeled as a Black Nationalist-"Hate Group."
- Furthermore, the actual targets were chosen from a far broader group than the titles of the programs would imply. The CPUSA program targeted not only Communist Party members but also sponsors of the National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee and civil rights leaders allegedly under Communist influence or deemed to be not sufficiently "anti-Communist". The Socialist Workers Party program included non-SWP sponsors of antiwar demonstrations which were cosponsored by the SWP or the Young Socialist Alliance, its youth group. The Black Nationalist program targeted a range of organizations from the Panthers to SNCC to the peaceful Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and included every Black Student Union and many other black student groups. New Left targets ranged from the SDS to the InterUniversity Committee for Debate on Foreign Policy, from Antioch College ("vanguard of the New Left") to the New Mexico Free University and other "alternate" schools, and from underground newspapers to students' protesting university censorship of a student publication by carrying signs with four-letter words on them.
The Cointelpro documents disclose numerous cases of the FBI's intentions to stop the mass protest against the Vietnam War. Many techniques were used to accomplish the assignment. "These included promoting splits among antiwar forces, encouraging red-baiting of socialists, and pushing violent confrontations as an alternative to massive, peaceful demonstrations." One 1966 Cointelpro operation attempted to redirect the Socialist Workers Party from their pledge of support for the antiwar movement.
The FBI claims that it no longer undertakes COINTELPRO or COINTELPRO-like operations. However, critics claim that agency programs in the spirit of COINTELPRO targeted groups like the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, the American Indian Movement, Earth First! and the Anti-Globalization Movement.
According to attorney Brian Glick in his book War at Home, the FBI used four main methods during COINTELPRO:
- 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" interviews, 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."
The FBI also conducted more than 200 "black bag jobs", which were warrantless surreptitious entries, against the targeted groups and their members.
In 1969 the FBI special agent in San Francisco wrote Hoover that his investigation of the Black Panther Party (BPP) revealed that in his city, at least, the Black nationalists were primarily feeding breakfast to children. Hoover fired back a memo implying the career ambitions of the agent were directly related to his supplying evidence to support Hoover's view that the BPP was "a violence-prone organization seeking to overthrow the Government by revolutionary means".
Hoover was willing to use false claims to attack his political enemies. In one memo he wrote: "Purpose of counterintelligence action is to disrupt the BPP and it is immaterial whether facts exist to substantiate the charge.
In one particularly controversial 1965 incident, civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo was murdered by Klu Klux Klansmen who gave chase and fired shots into her car after noticing that her passenger was a young black man; one of the Klansmen was acknowledged FBI informant Gary Thomas Rowe. Afterward COINTELPRO spread false rumors that Liuzzo was a member of the Communist Party and abandoned her children to have sexual relationships with African Americans involved in the civil rights movement. FBI informant Rowe has also been implicated in some of the most violent crimes of the 1960s civil rights era, including attacks on the Freedom Riders and the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.
Hoover ordered preemptive action...."to pinpoint potential troublemakers and neutralize them before they exercise their potential for violence."
The Final report of the Church Committee
- "Too many people have been spied upon by too many Government agencies and too much information has been collected. The Government has often undertaken the secret surveillance of citizens on the basis of their political beliefs, even when those beliefs posed no threat of violence or illegal acts on behalf of a hostile foreign power. The Government, operating primarily through secret informants, but also using other intrusive techniques such as wiretaps, microphone "bugs", surreptitious mail opening, and break-ins, has swept in vast amounts of information about the personal lives, views, and associations of American citizens. Investigations of groups deemed potentially dangerous -- and even of groups suspected of associating with potentially dangerous organizations -- have continued for decades, despite the fact that those groups did not engage in unlawful activity. Groups and individuals have been harassed and disrupted because of their political views and their lifestyles. Investigations have been based upon vague standards whose breadth made excessive collection inevitable. Unsavory and vicious tactics have been employed -- including anonymous attempts to break up marriages, disrupt meetings, ostracize persons from their professions, and provoke target groups into rivalries that might result in deaths. Intelligence agencies have served the political and personal objectives of presidents and other high officials. While the agencies often committed excesses in response to pressure from high officials in the Executive branch and Congress, they also occasionally initiated improper activities and then concealed them from officials whom they had a duty to inform.
- Governmental officials -- including those whose principal duty is to enforce the law --have violated or ignored the law over long periods of time and have advocated and defended their right to break the law.
- The Constitutional system of checks and balances has not adequately controlled intelligence activities. Until recently the Executive branch has neither delineated the scope of permissible activities nor established procedures for supervising intelligence agencies. Congress has failed to exercise sufficient oversight, seldom questioning the use to which its appropriations were being put. Most domestic intelligence issues have not reached the courts, and in those cases when they have reached the courts, the judiciary has been reluctant to grapple with them."
Contentions that COINTELPRO tactics continue
While COINTELPRO was officially terminated in April 1971, suspicions persist that the program's tactics continued informally. Critics have suggested that subsequent FBI actions indicate that post-COINTELPRO reforms in the agency did not succeed in ending the program's tactics. “Counterterrorism” guidelines implemented during the Reagan administration
have been described as undercutting these reforms, allowing a return to earlier tactics. Some radical groups accuse factional opponents of being FBI informants or assume the FBI is infiltrating the movement.
Several authors have accused the FBI of continuing to deploy COINTELPRO-like tactics against radical groups after the official COINTELPRO operations were ended. Several authors have suggested the American Indian Movement (AIM) has been a target of such operations.
A few authors go further and allege that the federal government intended to acquire uranium deposits on the Lakota tribe's reservation land, and that this motivated a larger government conspiracy against AIM activists on the Pine Ridge reservation. Others believe COINTELPRO continues and similar actions are being taken against activist groups.
Some scholars have argued that with respect to Native Americans, COINTELPRO should be understood within a historical context in which "Native Americans have been viewed and have viewed the world themselves through the lens of conspiracy theory.
Other authors note that while there are conspiracy theories related to COINTELPRO, the issue of ongoing government surveillance and repression is nonetheless real.
- Blackstock, Nelson (1988). Cointelpro: The FBI's Secret War on Political Freedom. Pathfinder Press. ISBN 0-87348-877-6.
- Carson, Clayborne; Gallen, David, editors (1991). Malcolm X: The FBI File. Carroll & Graf Publishers. ISBN 0-88184-758-5.
- Cunningham, David (2004). There’s Something Happening Here: The New Left, The Klan, and FBI Counterintelligence. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-23997-0.
- Davis, James Kirkpatrick (1997). Assault on the Left. Praeger Trade. ISBN 0-275-95455-2.
- Garrow, David (2006). The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. (Revised ed.). Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-08731-4.
- Glick, Brian (1989). War at Home: Covert Action Against U.S. Activists and What We Can Do About It. South End Press. ISBN 0-89608-349-7.
- Halperin, Morton; Berman, Jerry; Borosage Robert; Marwick, Christine (1976). The Lawless State: The Crimes Of The U.S. Intelligence Agencies. ISBN 0-14-004386-1.
- Olsen, Jack (2000). Last Man Standing: The Tragedy and Triumph of Geronimo Pratt. Doubleday. ISBN 0-38549-367-3.
- Perkus, Cathy (1976). Cointelpro. Vintage.
- Theoharis, Athan, Spying on Americans: Political Surveillance from Hoover to the Huston Plan (Temple University Press, 1978).
- John Drabble, "The FBI, COINTELPRO-WHITE HATE and the Decline of Ku Klux Klan Organizations in Mississippi, 1964-1971," Journal of Mississippi History, 66:4, (Winter 2004).
- John Drabble, "The FBI, COINTELPRO-WHITE HATE and the Decline Ku Klux Klan Organizations in Alabama, 1964-1971," Alabama Review, (January 2008).
- John Drabble, "To Preserve the Domestic Tranquility:” The FBI, COINTELPRO-WHITE HATE, and Political Discourse, 1964-1971," Journal of American Studies, 38:3 (August 2004): 297-328
U.S. Government reports
- U.S. Congress. House. Committee on Internal Security. Hearings on Domestic Intelligence Operations for Internal Security Purposes. 93rd Cong., 2d sess, 1974.
- U.S. Congress. House. Select Committee on Intelligence. Hearings on Domestic Intelligence Programs. 94th Cong., 1st sess, 1975.
- U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on Government Operations. Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Hearings on Riots, Civil and Criminal Disorders. 90th Cong., 1st sess. - 91st Cong. , 2d sess, 1967-1970.
- U.S. Congress. Senate. Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. Hearings — The National Security Agency and Fourth Amendment Rights. Vol. 6. 94th Cong., 1st sess, 1975.
- U.S. Congress. Senate. Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. Hearings — Federal Bureau of Investigation. Vol. 6. 94th Cong., 1st sess, 1975.
- U.S. Congress. Senate. Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. Final Report — Book II, Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans. 94th Cong., 2d sess, 1976.
- U.S. Congress. Senate. Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. Final Report — Book III, Supplementary Detailed Staff Reports on Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans. 94th Cong., 2d sess, 1976.
- COINTELPRO targets
- Police Brutality
- Agent provocateur
- Franklin, H. Bruce, targeted by COINTELPRO
- Brown, H. Rap, targeted by COINTELPRO
- Hampton, Fred, targeted by COINTELPRO
- Viola Liuzzo, murdered by a shot from a car used by four Ku Klux Klansmen, one of whom was a COINTELPRO informant
- NSA call database
- Operation Mockingbird
- Gary Rowe, COINTELPRO informant accused (and acquitted) of involvement in the murder of civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo
- Starsky, Morris, early target of COINTELPRO
- Red squad - Police intelligence/anti-dissident units, later operated under COINTELPRO
- The COINTELPRO Papers
- Security culture
regarding COINTELPRO on CounterPunch
U.S. Government reports
Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities
. United States Senate, 94th Congress, 2nd Session, April 26
(legislative day, April 14
), 1976. [AKA "Church Committee Report"]. Archived on COINTELPRO sources website
Transcription and html by Paul Wolf. Retrieved April 19
- Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans, Book II
- I. Introduction and Summary
- II. The Growth of Domestic Intelligence: 1936 to 1976
- III. Findings
- (A) Violating and Ignoring the Law
- (B) Overbreadth of Domestic Intelligence Activity
- (C) Excessive Use of Intrusive Techniques
- (D) Using Covert Action to Disrupt and Discredit Domestic Groups
- (E) Political Abuse of Intelligence Information
- (F) Inadequate Controls on Dissemination and Retention
- (G) Deficiencies in Control and Accountability
- IV. Conclusions and Recommendations
- Supplementary Detailed Staff Reports, Book III