COINTELPRO: What the (Deleted) Was It?
Public Eye Magazine, vol. one, number two 1978
by Mark Ryter
[Government] documents on COINTELPRO, the FBI's grand
scheme to annihilate organized dissent, [have forced] major changes in
perspectives on America's recent political history. The 53,000 pages
in the public domain show a daily mapping of a once secret program which
played havoc with any group actively opposing American policy through
much of the Post World War II era. They reveal a program which manipulated
so many events, political processes, and national institutions, that
it must be considered one of capitalism's chief editors over the last
two decades which did everything possible to erase Left politics from
the historical record.
Though most evidence of flagrant illegality like burglary
and wiretapping has been blotted out, the 15 year COINTELPRO record is
an o'erbrimming bag of dirty tricks. Whatever it took to discredit a
group short of "embarrassing the Bureau" was fair game. Informants
told of personal and political disputes, natural in themselves, which
the FBI then inflamed with selective anonymous mailings.
By amassing detailed data of a group's planned activities
and the backgrounds of key members, COINTELPRO could unleash repression
through its collaborators elsewhere in the government and in the media
without ever soiling its own hands. In this way, the FBI's super-secret
program sabotaged events and ruined reputations all along the left/liberal
part of the spectrum. VIa COINTELPRO, the Bureau drove wedges between
the Black Panther Party and the Students for a Democratic Society, as
it did between the Old and the New Left generally.
The damage done by the program can be seen everywhere,
behind canceled Marxist lectures, groups deprived of official university
recognition, and jobs suddenly lost to "excessive tardiness." Most
shockingly, though, was the toll taken on America's black community where
COINTELPRO became a death warrant for some of its most courageous and
COINTELPRO Minus Zero: No Limit
In August 1956, when the Bureau opened COINTELPRO under
the caption, Communist party USA, there was no intention to limit investigations
in this way. For during the previous 35 years, J. Edgar Hoover had rounded
up, antagonized, and publicly defamed resident aliens, militant factory
workers, and civil rights activists - all under the pretext that they
had been, might still be, or sympathized with Communists. According to
the Bureau's own Cold War figures, it kept 432,000 files on "subversives," but
could identify only 80,000 CP'ers. Two months into COINTELPRO, the message
was equally over-broad:
Develop plans to prevent the CP from gaining control
over any [emphasis mine] new broad mass socialist organization which
may be formed. The formation of such an organization is being given some
consideration by leaders of socialist, pacifist and revolutionary organizations."
This wide latitude in conducting investigations made
a target out of anyone connected with even the most apolitical groups
In its search for even the slightest trace of communism,
the FBI carried its COINTELPRO license far beyond the limits of America's
legal system, violating freedom of speech and assembly on a daily basis
and invading the privacy of hundreds of citizens just as often. The Bureau
displayed an utter contempt for the constitutional dictum that the activities
of church and state be kept separate. In one case, after learning that
the black Hartford Avenue Baptist Church (HABC) in Detroit was permitting
Michigan CP'ers to hold meetings there, the FBI Director flew into a
fury, proposing a 16 point program against the HABC. COINTELPRO was aimed
first at establishing the identities and backgrounds of all trustees,
officers, leaders and employees of the church, then defaming the lot
of them throughout the black community and in the press.
By the early 60's, the expansive paranoia was firmly
embedded in Bureau-think. Under "Disruption of Communist Activities
in Mass Organizations, for example, most of the 59 SAC offices were ordered
to employ "aggressive and imaginative" counterintelligence
techniques in tracking groups as varied as the Fair Play for Cuba Committee,
the Chicago Council of Soviet American Friendship, and the women's International
league for peace and Freedom. the FBI's top cops were especially edgy
about groups organized to abolish the House Committee on Un-American
Activities. For, to Hoover's mind, HCUA offered legislative defense against
the otherwise rampaging communists. A memo dated January 11, 1961 states:
Should the communists be successful in having the HCUA
abolished, it is believed the next target would be the FBI. Therefore,
the HCUA, in addition to carrying out its objective of exposing communists,
is a buffer between the communists and the FBI."
Not only was the FBI manipulating the democratic processes
that were jeopardized by the creation of HCUA, but they, hand in hand,
were creating new tactics and procedures to crush progressive politics
as new groups emerged, not after they may have broken some extra-democratic
laws like the Communist Control or the Internal Security Acts of 1950.
The FBI began exchanging lengthy descriptions of burgeoning
student activism on the eve of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. Memoranda
written in 1963 reveal an FBI chief fascinated by the "left student." SAC
Chicago reported that leftists, while in the 5% minority at most midwestern
colleges, "organize to be effective and give spark and life to the
campus." In the same document, though, the Special Agent bewails
the activity of protesters who were "unappreciative of their heritage." Many
of them were under constant COINTELPRO surveillance, and subjects in
the Bureau's centralized Security Index.
As the student left gained in ranks and momentum during
the later 60's, the FBI's local offices came up with varying explanations.
One office would attribute the increased activism to an excess of academic
freedom, another would un-layer a conspiratorial onion, finding campus
unrest at the top, communist propagandists in the middle, and the "general
problem of communist agitation" at the phantom core. Eventually,
the Bureau and its offices became grudgingly resigned to accepting the
New Left as a phenomenon in itself - uncontrolled and uncontrollable.
Hoover's mental picture thus framed, he assumed a stern en loco parents
attitude, disciplining the "violent, depraved and dishonest" New
left by helping local police set them up for drug busts and other state
arrests. Many leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society, targets
on the "Key Activist" list, literally came under parental pressure
after Mom and Dad got a bureau post card signed, "a concerned mother."
From 1968 on, the FBI had every major city and college
campus covered for evidence of New left activity. Targeted groups included
the SDS chapter in Hawaii, Ramparts magazine, the People's law office
in Chicago, and Angela Davis among many, many others. A memo dated July
8, 1968, shows SAC Chicago with informers at 35 area colleges, the University
of Chicago and Illinois Tech among them.
But the Bureau never abandoned its hunt for CP'ers.
Its CPUSA operation continued throughout COINTELPRO. The CP documents
themselves constitute over half the total number released last fall.
According to the FBI's filling system, Leftists were often targeted under
the caption CPUSA, just as "communist influence" was often
seen as the ideological source of student demonstrations classified as "New
Left." This switch-hitting filing system reflects the priorities
of counterintelligence, to keep the political lines between groups and
factions forever fuzzy. so whenever members of different groups, such
as the NAACP and the CP, got caught in the crossfire of political recrimination,
it was the purposes of COINTELPRO, not the goals of a more perfect society
which were ultimately served. This is another way the FBI helped promote
social and political stagnation over the history of an era.
Integral to COINTELPRO's virile anti-communism was its
subtle yet sophisticated propaganda operation, designed to keep the left
squabbling and the public polarized. The voluminous documents point to
an even larger amount of paper churned out by the FBI in cooperation
with right wing groups, "friendly" media contacts, and private
intelligence-gathering groups to keep the names and doings of political
people constantly suspect. Tens of thousands of anonymous letters, some
containing the worst examples of scurrilous rumor-mongering, were also
sent out to deliberately distort opinions and, in massive effort, sabotage
the opinion-making process itself.
Anonymous mailings were at their height early in the
program. SAC New York alone, according to our estimated minimum tally,
sent out 653 such letters in 1959 and 376 in 1963. As Tim Butz observed
in Counterspy magazine, the FBI employed Psy-War" tactics borrowed
from the military to enclose the Communist party within its narrow ranks
and split it open from within. Applying its domestic version of Containment,
the FBI would influence a "neutral" party such as an assembly
hall proprietor, make contact as a "concerned citizen," then
await the canceled Party event. At the same time, COINTELPRO attacked
the inner body politic by using an alienated "concerned comrade" whose
rumors caused sensitive contemporary issues to fester in personal pettiness.
In 1965, as part of a continuing effort to keep the
CP from organizing among young people, the FBI saturated the Cleveland
area with 300 copies of a pamphlet critical of the W.E.B. Dubois Clubs
of America. The booklet, written by the right-wing Catholic War Veterans,
was sent to libraries, book shops, news media sources, religious organizations,
the YMCA, and "various logical individuals." An earlier memo
had made the FBI's designs on the DuBois Clubs clear: "Neutralize
it while still in the embryo stage."
By 1968, the scope of the FBI's mailing campaign was
reduced and its sights set on black and student groups. One letter was
designed to drive the Black Panthers from the Students for a Democratic
Society and pit both against the Revolutionary Youth Union. The technique,
sometimes called "agent-baiting," is used here to discredit
an individual already suspected (falsely) by all three groups. "Marx
Karl," said the Bureau could be easily identified as Michael Klonski.
The mistakes are the Bureau's deliberate work:
is Marx Karl?????????
Root Out the Pig Collaborator
Attached XXXX work of pig
fink show the presence of sell-out of revolution by opportunist leech.
Found this paper on the curb in front of the Haymarket beside a white
car. Will organize a People's Tribunal to try Marx Karl and sentence
to Tribunal Justice. Conducting my own investigation. HELP EXPOSE COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARY
PIG SPY MARX KARL.
In addition to its disruptions of the New Left, COINTELPRO
continually tried to shape public opinion, largely through the Bureau's
extensive contacts in the press. It is here where the Left's history
was literally written to the FBI's liking. As communicated in numerous
memos, offices from coast to coast cultivated "reliable" sources
throughout the print and broadcast media. On April 28, 1965, a three
page note to the Director confirmed 25 of the FBI's "friendly" sources
in the Chicago area. They include the Daily News, the Sun Times the Joliet
Herald, NBC, CBS, and WGN. By planting articles, briefing reporters,
and playing one newspaper off another, the FBI created a new class of
The FBI was particularly concerned that the public view
New Left activities in a harsh light. But as the direct evidence was
often flimsy, the search was on for guilt-by-Communist-association. In
1970, for example, an article on an SDS chapter in Philadelphia appeared
in that city's Evening Bulletin noting a member's communist roommate.
The FBI's relationship with the writer was close. As SAC Philadelphia
explained it to the Director:
"No pre-publication review for accuracy was made
by this office, although the authors checked from time to time to insure
that the article would not interfere with any current investigation."
The memo glaringly shows a heavy hand the FBI had in
influencing public opinion; this journalist is one of many who willingly
offer the FBI censorship authority, bringing the opinion making process
a notch closer to government control, as always, for some unknown reasons
Toward a Higher Stage of Violence
"The purpose of this action is to disrupt the Black
Panther Party and it's immaterial whether facts exist to substantiate
"Cripple the Black Panthers."
These commandments from Bureau headquarters set the
fierce tone for the most vicious COINTELPRO phase. With the historic
stage set for black people to assume a self-determining part, the FBI
set out equally determined to stop it. From 1967 on, the memos show an
FBI gripped by the hysteria of a race war and its won inevitable role
in escalating it. During this period, special agents whose every suggestion
once came under stern Bureau scrutiny were now encouraged to freely experiment
with ghetto subjects whose very lives were often at stake. Mailings done
in this phase exploited the explosive atmosphere which constantly swirled
around swirled around the Panthers at that time. Regarding one such letter,
signed a "Concerned Sister," a top Bureau aide commented dryly:
"It raised the proposition that the death
of BPP member Michael Baynahm was not by suicide but in reality a murder
arranged for by national BPP headquarters. BPP in Detroit has been concerned
over his death and nervous in view of recent Panther murders throughout
The FBI's indifference to a plan which could only have
turned high passions to violence illustrates the Bureau's unabashed racism.
The same tone comes through in numerous other memos ordering self-destruction
through division of coalitions between Panthers and the United Slaves;
the Panthers and the Blackstone Rangers; the Panthers and the NAACP;
the Panthers and Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
But the Bureau could not accomplish its anti-black mission without resorting
to much more brutal, insidious tactics than it had before. Black Panther
leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark became the most prominent victims
of this COINTELPRO approach in 1969 when they were killed in a pre-dawn
raid on Hampton's home.
A combination of informant infiltration, other Bureau
surveillance methods, and close cooperation with local police allowed
the state's repressive forces to practically encircle the black activist
community in a 24 hour dragnet. The memos are filled with tales of prearranged
raids on Panther headquarters set up by passing information between the
bureau's ghetto "listening post" and law enforcement personnel,
many of whom were trained with FBI propaganda films.
Officially on record as committed to violence prevention,
the Bureau in practice used police methods contemporaneously cited as
violence causing. In 1967, coincidentally the year COINTELPRO's anti-black
phase began, the Kerner Report on Civil Disorders came out citing police
actions generally as have "great tension-creating potential" in
the black community. The widely acclaimed study of inner city protest
also stressed that "arrests on suspicion," an important goal
of FBI/police collaboration, were a specific spur to violence.
The FBI ignored these thoroughly researched findings,
choosing instead to rationalize disruption of black groups as its most
reliable violence-suppressing tool. In one case, however, the Bureau
unwittingly revealed the fallacy of such thinking. A memo, written on
April 5, 1971 from SAC New York noted that disputes between the factions
led by Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver were "apparently instrumental
in the shooting and killing of Robert Webb," a Cleaver supporter.
COINTELPRO hit the black community like sparks dancing
on hot coals and many SACs knew it. A Special Agent in San Francisco
was so unnerved by the Bureau's plotting that, on one occasion, he invited
certain censure from Hoover, demurring: "We must bear in mind that
if the plan is successful, a gang-type murder may be the result." The
Bureau's reply is typically absent from the files.
The COINTELPRO documents paint informants in one of
Black and White: "Chicago has advised that
the squib about Lightfoot's activities is based on information furnished
by three different informants.
Ghostly gray: ___________ is in an important
position where he can influence many people within ___________ as well
as exerting an influence on institutions associated with the Foundation.
In such a position he is able to do more harm than many current, active
Black out: -----------------------------------------------------------------
Informers go unnamed, their provocateur role covered
up, and the part they played in inciting violence deleted. Their effects
on internal group procedures are also unknown. yet the Bureau's espionage
agents were an essential component in FBI operations against political
dissent. FBI spies followed precise orders as to what to advocate in
group seminars which dealt with issues from the Sino-Soviet dispute to
the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961. One informer conspicuously absent from
the memos is William O'Neal, the agent whose floor plan of Fred Hampton's
apartment helped the police and the FBI kill the young black leader.
O'Neal rose to become the Panther's Security Chief in Chicago. A well-paid
agent provocateur, O'Neal was a chronic schemer, making electric chairs
and bombs his destructive playthings.
Informers were copious infiltrators of many groups,
doing their dirty tricks in such high proportions to bona fide members
that the commonly cited ratio of agents to membership in the CP once
reached 1 to 5.7. But the truly astounding fact is that government spies
so often achieved top positions in their penetrated groups. Informers
were high up in the Illinois CP, the Socialists Workers Party, the Black
panthers, and many New Left groups. At one point, a memo gleefully anticipated
an upsurge in derring-do at the University of Colorado where an informer
had just been elected to SDS's Steering Committee.
Fomenting dissension in all FBI operations was the informer's
role. During its investigation of CP influence in the Fair Play for Cuba
Committee, for instance, the Bureau gave its instructions for a complete
carving of the group into its political organs: (1) have CP informants
question CP'ers in the FPCC on the credibility of Socialist Workers Party
members, (2) Have SWP informants attack the highly placed CP'ers for
keeping out potential newcomers, (3) send an anonymous letter which criticizes
the CP for not helping the FPCC broaden its political base, (4) Publicize
the FPCC's communist ties.
As this set of orders make explicit, informers were
the FBI's counter-activists in the activist community. They sowed dissension's
seeds and carefully nurtured them. In statistical terms as well, their
contribution to COINTELPRO was unequaled. According to a government study
prepared in 1976 by the Comptroller General, informers accounted for
almost half of all data gathered, out of a list of sources which included
other FBI investigators (17%) and the police (12%).
Whatever the criteria, though, informers are inherently
corruptible, loyal to no one, and an enemy to political movements. Today,
after much of the informer's disruptive, often illegal work has become
public knowledge, not even official constraints have been applied to
their activity. In a bill recently proposed to reorganize the national
intelligence bureaucracy, the Senate has defined informers as "nonintrusive" and
therefore a legitimate intelligence-gathering tool.
Target: Human Diversity
COINTELPRO was a war not just on dissent but on human
diversity itself. Many of the tactics used to fracture political coalitions
directly interfered with the basic process by which people of differing
backgrounds, races, and political inclinations organize themselves. To
keep its legion enemies off balance, the Bureau constantly whispered
resentment of the different and unorthodox into the ears of college administrators,
political comrades, anyone who might use such misinformation for disruptive
The Bureau promoted intolerance on college campuses,
using administrators to curtail or cancel utterly harmless group activities.
Dozens of colleges, from Arizona State University to Harvard, were re-educated
according to the Bureau's prejudicial pedagogy on individuals whose affiliation
once put them on the House Un-American Activities Committee's "subversives" list.
Using this "public source data," the Bureau sought to "neutralize" the
effect of scheduled speakers and teachers eligible for tenure. To accomplish
this, the Bureau once ordered 6000 copies of the "Anarcho-Communist
Coalition" for mailings. The pamphlet was written by the ultra-right
American Security Council.
The [COINTELPRO] documents are shot through with evidence
of a far reaching campaign to narrow the spectrum of though by extensively
manipulating major American institutions. Besides the communications
and educational process, the Bureau also covertly influenced labor unions,
state legislatures, office of the governor, and other federal agencies.
Though far right groups might seem to be the Bureau's natural allies,
the FBI fooled with some of them, too. In the case of Breakthough, a
group described by the Bureau as "militantly anti-communist" was
covertly re-molded to fit the FBI's designs. To wit: "Operation
Breakthrough was a plan to "take over and disrupt" the group.
Jews and blacks were frequent targets of the FBI's vilification
campaign. For years, Jewish members of the CPUSA were hounded by articles
like "Soviet Aims to Destroy the Identity of its Jews." Many
of these mailings were dismissed as capitalist propaganda and articles
shipped to the "wavering" member were likely to have a limited
impact. Spreading racism was also a common Bureau tactic throughout the
60's. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
and the Congress on Racial Equality were both piqued by the FBI's behind-the-scenes
The FBI's most notoriously racist operation was the
one conducted against the Black Panther Party, listed as the foremost
among the Bureau-designated "Black Nationalist-Hate Groups." Under
this program, the FBI headquarters laid out a comprehensive plan, which
had it achieved its goals, would have decimated the group. Local SAC's
were instructed to starve the group culturally and politically, neutralizing
Panther leaders, shattering coalitions, isolating the group from its
natural ghetto constituency, and disillusioning sympathetic young blacks.
But the FBI's racism is most explicit where it cautioned against any
mixing of the races whatsoever:
Prevent militant black nationalists groups and leaders
from gaining respectability [FBI's emphasis]. They must be discredited
to the white community, both the responsible community and the "liberals" who
have vestiges of sympathy for militant black nationalists simply because
they are Negroes."
The FBI was never above using debasing ridicule as a
way to disorganize. In a memo dated March 21, 1965, Hoover's chief aid
seemed to be gloating over a cartoon [that] mocked the Communist Party's
basic principle of struggle against social class biases. Depicted is
a manager from a Cleveland sausage factory firing a worker who is his
party superior. Though the character in the picture was drawn in lifeless
shades of gray-flannel-suit, the piece of hack art created a very real
imbroglio. The cartoon went crashing through local party channels causing
rage, embarrassment, and culminating in the controversial removal of
the CP's Ohio Chairman.
Through Operation Ridicule, the Bureau institutionalized
its pranksterism and saw an opportunity to widen the much heralded generation
gap into a chasm by portraying student activists as youthful profligates
in newspaper articles and letters to the students' parents. But the rise
of anti-establishment norms among the young went beyond the political,
presenting a special challenge to COINTELPRO. One agent wrote:
"It is felt that the nonconformism in dress and
the use of obscenities and drugs tend to negate any attempt to hold these
people up to ridicule. The American press has been doing this with no
apparent curtailment of New Left activities. It is not felt just plain
immorality means anything to them."
COINTELPRO and Beyond
COINTELPRO was nothing if not vast. In terms of its
tactics arsenal, the number of groups targeted, its manipulation of certain
major American institutions, and simple longevity of the program, COINTELPRO
has few equals in the annals of domestic secret police forces.
But this is only part of what the tomes of the documents
reveal. They also offer a glimpse into the qualitative impact the program
had on the movement building for social, economic and political change,
especially during the last decade. COINTELPRO warped opinions about scores
of civil rights and anti-war groups. Of course, many political people
who came under Bureau siege encourage the kind of criticism and spirited
debate which often leads to factionalizing. But the Bureau took dissension
and made a cult out of it. Not only did it exaggerate pre-existing feuds
but it manufactured them. in this way COINTELPRO helped form divisive
mis-perceptions by left groups of themselves even as it polarized the
public from the left generally. To this extent, according to the proposition
that history is inseparably human events and our interpretation of them,
COINTELPRO hangs like a black cloud over the past generation's movements
for a better society.
But COINTELPRO did not end on April 27, 1971 as the
FBI promised. The documents themselves prove it, such as the one dated
a month later which reported that the New haven Black Panthers could
be arrested at any time. Now, almost seven years later, organizations
like the Panthers and the American Indian Movement are still enmeshed
in legal wranglings with COINTELPRO overtones. The memos announcing COINTELPRO's
end also allowed for its perpetuation. The program was discontinued,
said the memo to all SACs, "to afford additional security to our
sensitive operations,. Recommendations will be considered on an individual