COINTELPRO is a highly controversial domestic surveillance program carried out by the FBI in the 1960s. What was supposed to be a secret anti-Communist surveillance operation turned into a weaponized apparatus of the FBI with sights focused on a wide array of social groups.
Two decades have passed since the September 11th attacks. From the moment the first Twin Tower in New York City was struck by a hijacked plane, the world changed. While the rumble was still smouldering and the United States public sphere still mourning the seemingly unthinkable, the Bush administration was frantically creating and enacting national security measures to secure the homeland.
And so, the Global War on Terror was born. Internationally a coalition was formed between NATO nations and allies to the US, with the lofty goal of proactively eliminating terrorism on a worldwide scale.
While the military acted in foreign theatres of war, domestic agencies in the US turned their focus inwards. There was no shortage of confusion over how enemies of the homeland were able to execute such a complex attack on American soil. Something had obviously gone awry in terms of national security and intelligence, and federal agencies like the NSA, DHS, and FBI, constructed clandestine surveillance programs that were meant to “protect the homeland”, at the expense of the right to privacy citizens claim to be afforded.
Since then, whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Chelsea Manning are household names in the western public sphere. Some view them as martyrs, others as traitors, but collectively they exposed domestic surveillance programs and some of the US’s “dirty little secrets” from their international military and diplomatic affairs – all through the theft of sensitive and compartmentalized documents that were never supposed to see the light of day. From those leaks rose public distrust and spite towards the government and its seemingly unethical practices.
In the words of Mark Twain, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”, and US government agencies conducting domestic surveillance on citizens is no new scandal. Prior to Edward Snowden’s exposure of NSA programs among the names Prism, Tempora, and XKeyscore, the FBI in the 1960s had COINTELPRO.
What Happens in the Dark…
COINTELPRO (short for Counter-intelligence program) was never supposed to be discovered by the public, until a “Bilbo finding the One Ring moment” on the 8th of March 1971, when a group of anti-war activists from The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI, led by Bill Davidon, broke into an agency office in Media, Pennsylvania.
Suppression of dissenting voices was the charge the activists levied on the FBI and finding proof was the burglaries motive. The operation was a success, and a significant number of documents fell into the hands of the activists, who then anonymously mailed them to US media outlets, in an early WikiLeaks fashion.
In March of 1972, Justice Department reporter Carl Stern stumbled upon one of the leaked March 8th documents in a Senate Judiciary Committee office. Stern noticed the phrase “COINTELPRO” on the document, which resulted in him submitting a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Justice Department.
One year later, in December 1973, Stern finally received a small batch of COINTELPRO related documents from the Judiciary Committee. Contained within was enough evidence to support Bill Davidon’s thesis for breaking into the Media, PA agency office. Swift backlash ensued and congressional committees were created to investigate the FBI and hold them accountable for illegal public surveillance.
COINTELPRO is as controversial as its creator J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI. In August 1956, Hoover felt that there were too many restraints placed on the FBI from the Justice Department and saw the program as a way to circumvent their restrictions. According to Brendan McQuade in his book Pacifying the Homeland: Intelligence Fusion and Mass Supervision, the program were “started to ‘increase factionalism, cause disruption and win defections’ within the Communist Party USA.”
According to McQuade, the program had the intent of exposing, disrupting, misdirecting, discrediting, and neutralizing the opponents of the FBI. This intent was executed through the use of agency created misinformation campaigns, the weaponization of the legal system, and illegal force, with assassinations being the apex of the program’s repertoire.
The prevention of Communist ideas spreading into the US made sense at the time in light of the Cold War. In Hoover’s own words, “The Communist Party of America is doing everything in its power to steal the minds and souls and the hearts of our young people.”
In that regard, COINTELPRO can be viewed similarly to a program like Operation Gladio in post-World War II Europe – both being ethically questionable, and both being anti-Communist with a “by whatever means necessary” caveat attached to the mission statement. COINTELPRO did not stop there, however. Hoover had his agencies sights focused on an array of targets he deemed a threat to national security, including Martin Luther King Jr.
For the majority of American’s, MLK is arguably the most revered civil rights activist in the nation’s history. King and his non-violent movement for black rights helped end state segregation and paved the way for generations of black activists sharing the vision for America King orated in his timeless “I Have a Dream” speech. King also committed the unforgivable sin of criticizing the FBI, which put him on the COINTELPRO naughty list. The criticism was towards Hoover and his agencies “failing to enforce civil rights law and of indulging the racist practices of Southern policemen.”, says Beverly Gage from the New York Times.
Under the guise of “national security”, COINTELPRO agents began a wiretapping campaign on King and people close to him like Stanley Levison – a white adviser to MLK and card-carrying member of the Communist Party USA. These wire-taps also gained intelligence on King’s now known extra-marital affairs, which the FBI leaked to the press with hopes of discrediting his work. On the 18th of November 1964, Hoover publicly labeled King as “the most notorious liar in the country”. Soon after, King received a letter in the mail, now known to be from the FBI, explicitly asking him to commit suicide.
Other targets included Malcolm X and his affiliated Nation of Islam movement, the Black Panthers, the Klu Klux Klan, the Socialist Workers Party, and members of the burgeoning anti-war movement. In his book COINTEL Pro: The FBI’s Secret War on Political Freedom, Nelson Blackstock writes,
“The COINTELPRO papers reveal several instances of behind-the-scenes FBI manoeuvres to block the development of a mass, visible protest movement against the war”, and furthermore, “These included promoting splits among antiwar forces, encouraging red-baiting of socialists, and pushing violent confrontations as an alternative to massive, peaceful demonstrations.”
To What End?
Programs like COINTELPRO raise valid questions as to what the ethical extent of government surveillance should be. One would imagine that after the 1975 Church Committee in the US Senate following the COINTELPRO unearthing, the government would have realized that it had overstepped its intentions, and violated the very rights of its people that it swore to preserve.
As shown from whistleblowers like Snowden, Assange, and Manning, and the now revealed existence of Stasi-Esque citizen spies in the US, to what end? To what end do surveillance programs need to functionally operate before America lives long enough to see itself become the villain?
The Global War on Terror is (sort of) over, yet national intelligence agencies continue to grow without any real checks and balances. It is intimidating enough to live in the world of big tech, big data, and virtually no ownership of private data. It would be a shame if the US government’s take on homeland security looked no different from the former.