Home Magazine Press Resources About Donate!

War at Home

by Brian Glick

Order from South End Press

Excerpted from the South End Press Book by permission of the author.

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.

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 homefront 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" 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 attacksóincluding political assassinationsówere so extensive, vicious, and calculated that they can accurately be termed a form of official "terrorism."

The Bureau's war at home has continued unabated. Domestic covert action did not end when it was exposed in the 1970s. It has persisted throughout the 1980s and become a permanent feature of U.S. government.

Guidelines for Coping with Infiltration

1. Be careful to avoid pushing a new or hesitant member, or one facing personal, financial, or legal problems, to take risks beyond what that person is ready to handle, particularly in situations which could result in arrest and prosecution. People in positions of legal or other jeopardy have proven especially vulnerable to recruitment as informers.

2. Deal openly with the form and content of what anyone says and does, whether the person is a suspected agent, has emotional problems, or is simply a sincere but naive or confused person new to the work.

3. Establish a process through which anyone who suspects an infiltrator (or other covert intervention) can express his or her fears without scaring others. Experienced people assigned this responsibility can do a great deal to help a group maintain its morale and focus while, at the same time, consolidating information and deciding how to use it. This plan works best when accompanied by group discussion of the danger of paranoia, so that everyone understands the reasons for following the established procedure.

4. Take steps to alert other activists any time an agent or informer admits their role or you have a concrete and verified basis for certain knowledge. (Make sure you have not been taken in by a snitch jacket.) Act immediately and use every available means, including photographs, aliases, identifying traits, and a description of methods of operation. In the 1960s, some agents managed, even after their exposure in one community, to move on and repeat their performance in others.

5. Be very cautious in attempting to expose a suspected, but unadmitted, agent or informer. The best approach depends on the nature of your group. A close-knit, self-selecting group of experienced activists, especially one which contemplates illegal activity, should exclude anyone who is not fully trusted by everyone involved. If the stakes are high, don't be afraid to trust your intuition.

An open, public organization trying to reach out and involve new people faces a very different situation. Here, an attempted exposure carries enormous risks. The suspect may claim to be the victim of discrimination and may falsely finger his or her accusers as agents. In the process, activists may be turned against one another and lose the mutual trust and respect which is vital to any successful organization. New members and potential recruits may be scared away. The group's attention and energy may be so diverted that it is no longer able to move effectively toward its main goals.

Activists who suspect infiltration of a public political organization should carefully evaluate alternatives to attempted exposure. The appropriate response depends on the kind of agent or informer you think you are dealing with.

A suspect who seems to play a passive, or even a constructive role may secretly be undermining a group's work or passing information to the FBI and police. In this situation, it often is most productive to discreetly limit the suspect's opportunities without making your suspicions public. Take steps to deny access to organizational funds, financial records, mailing lists, office equipment, planning and security committees, discussions of illegal activity, and meetings that plan criminal defense strategy. Go public if you later catch the person in the act (but not merely with incriminating evidence which could have been planted or forged).

A different approach is required if the suspect is an active disrupter or provocateur. In this case, it is most constructive to confront the form and content of what the suspect says and does, without making an issue of why he or she says or does it. Start with a discreet private talk, since the suspect could be merely naive or misguided. If the harmful behavior persists, you probably will have to take it on in an open group discussion. Plan in advance how to limit the risk of disruption and demoralization. If you need to exclude or expel the suspect, be sure to inform other activists of your decision and reasons.

Guidelines for Coping with Psychological Warfare

1. Verify and double-check all arrangements for housing, transportation, meeting rooms, and so forth. Don't assume movement organizers are at fault if something goes wrong.

2. Don't believe everything you hear or read. Check with the supposed source of the information before acting on it. Use a neutral third party if necessary. Personal communication among estranged activists, however difficult or painful, could have countered many FBI operations which proved effective in the 1960s.

3. When you discover bogus materials, false media stories, or forged documents, publicly disavow them and expose the true source, insofar as you can.

4. When you hear a negative, confusing, or potentially harmful rumor, don't pass it on. Instead, discuss it with a trusted friend or with the people in your group who are responsible for dealing with such matters.

5. Don't gossip about personal tensions, rivalries, and disagreements. This just feeds and amplifies rumors. Moreover, if you gossip where you can be overheard, you may add to the pool of information that the FBI and police use to divide our movements. (Note that the CIA has the technology to read mail without opening it and that telephones, including pay phones, can be tapped by a computer programmed to record conversations in which specified words appear.)

6. Be sure to make time in group meetings for open, honest discussion and resolution of "personal" as well as "political" issues. This is the best way to reduce tensions and hostilities and the urge to gossip about them.

7. Warn your parents, friends, neighbors, and others who may be contacted by government agents. Consider telling them what you are doing and why before they hear the FBI's version. Provide them with materials which explain their legal rights and the dangers of talking with the FBI. Offer to connect them with lawyers and support groups.

Guidelines for Coping with Harassment Through the Legal System

1. Don't talk to the FBI, and don't let them in without a warrant. Keep careful records of what they say and do. Tell others that they came. (For more detailed advice and information, see the box on page 58.)

2. If an activist does talk, or makes some other honest error, explain the serious harm that could result. Be firm, but do not ostracize a sincere person who slips up. Isolation only weakens a person's ability to resist. It can drive someone out of the movement and even into the hands of the police.

3. If FBI or other government agents start to harass people in your area, alert everyone to refuse to cooperate. Warn your friends, neighbors, parents, children, and anyone else who might be contacted. Make sure people know what to do and where to call for help. Get literature, films, and other materials through the organizations listed in the back of this book. Set up community meetings with speakers who have resisted similar harassment elsewhere. Contact sympathetic reporters. Consider "Wanted" posters with photos of the agents, or guerrilla theater which follows them through the city streets.

4. Organizations listed in the back can also help resist grand jury harassment. Community education is important, along with child care and legal, financial, and other support for those who protect a movement by refusing to divulge information. If a respected activist is subpoenaed for obviously political reasons, consider trying to arrange for sanctuary in a local church or synagogue.

5. If your group engages in civil disobedience or finds itself under intense police pressure, start a bail fund, train some members to deal with the legal system, and develop an ongoing relationship with sympathetic local lawyers.

6. If you anticipate arrest, do not carry address books or any other materials which could help the FBI and police.

7. While the FBI and police are entirely capable of fabricating criminal charges, your non-political law violations make it easier for them to set you up. Be careful with drugs, tax returns, traffic tickets, and so forth. The point is not to get paranoid, but to make a realistic assessment based on your visibility and other relevant circumstances.

8. When an activist has to appear in court, make sure he or she is not alone. The presence of supporters is crucial for morale and can help influence jurors.

9. Don't neglect jailed activists. Organize visits, correspondence, books, food packages, child care, etc. Keep publicizing their cases.

10. Publicize FBI and police abuses through sympathetic journalists and your own media (posters, leaflets, public access cable television, etc.). Don't let the government and corporate media be the only ones to shape public perceptions of FBI and police attacks on political activists.

Guidelines for Coping with Extralegal Force and Violence:

1. Establish security procedures appropriate to your group's level of activity and discuss them thoroughly with everyone involved. Control access to keys, files, letterhead, funds, financial records, mailing lists, etc.

2. Keep duplicates of valuable documents, records, files, computer disks, etc. in a safe place separate from your home or office.

3. Remember that cars are easily broken into (especially trunks) and that trash can easily be rifled and searched.

4. Make a public issue of any form of crude harassment. Contact your congressperson. Call the media. Demonstrate at your local FBI, police, or right-wing organization's office. Turn the attack into an opportunity for explaining how domestic covert action threatens fundamental human rights.

5. Keep careful records of break-ins, thefts, bomb threats, raids, brutality, conspicuous surveillance, and other harassment. They will help you to discern patterns and to prepare reports and testimony.

6. Share this information and your experiences combating such attacks with the Movement Support Network and other groups which document and analyze repression and resistance countrywide. (See resource groups listing in back of book.)

7. If you experience or anticipate intense harassment, develop contingency plans and an emergency telephone network so you can rapidly mobilize community support and media attention. Consider better locks, window bars, alarm systems, fireproof locked cabinets, etc.

8. Be sure that some members are well trained in first aid. Keep medical supplies up-to-date and know how to contact sympathetic doctors and nurses and get to the nearest hospital.

9. Make sure your group designates and prepares other members to step in if leaders are jailed or otherwise incapacitated. The more each participant is able to think for herself or himself and take responsibility, the greater the group's capacity to cope with crises.

Copyright 1989, 1991, by Brian Glick

Please do not circulate this text. Permission is granted to link to this page in an e-mail or weblink. Reposting is forbidden.


Security for Activists



Online Articles:

Browse our website
by using these shortcuts:

Political Research Associates:

  • About us
  • Support PRA
  • Get Updates!
  • PRA is an affiliate of: 
    Center for Democratic Renewal

    Other Allies in Activism and Research

    Copyright Information,
    Terms, and Conditions:

    Please read our Terms and Conditions for copyright information regarding downloading, copying, printing, and linking material on this site; our disclaimer about links present on this website; and our privacy policy.

    Updates and Corrections

    Unless otherwise noted, all material on this website is copyright 1981-2013 by Political Research Associates

    , Political Research Associates.

    Home | Magazine | Press | Resources | About | Donate | Advanced Search
    Political Research Associates • 1310 Broadway, Suite 201 • Somerville, MA 02144
    Voice: 617.666.5300 • Fax: 617.666.6622 • contact@politicalresearch.org