Re-Framing Dissent As Criminal Subversion
Paradigm Shift and Political Repression
by Chip Berlet
"What is secret is often squalid as well. In the dark,
men were able to act contrary to the values they proclaimed in public.
Paying service to democratic ends, they made league with scoundrels whose
interest is anything but the survival of democracy...today's New Right
ideologues believe in the omnipotence of the goal and the irrelevance
of the deed. So their tactics are those of the enemy they hate and fear,
and they award America's franchises to con men, hustlers, terrorists,
racketeers, murderers and other sleazy characters who for a fee sign
up for the crusade."
When our national security interests are perceived as threatened, secrecy
becomes sacred, and the ends justify the means. Since the end of World
War II, the techniques of political repression recur, banal and predictive,
like the musical theme that signals stalking in a grade-B thriller. Those
organizations and individuals targetted for repression are portrayed
as enemies of democracy; those investigating and attacking then assume
the mantle of democracy's guardians.
Because of the covert nature of campaigns and the enormous difference
in resources between government agencies and dissident/reform movements,
it is often impossible to document or prove the existence of an organized
campaign of political repression in its earlier stages. In case after
case, however, later investigation has revealed illegal government surveillance,
harassment and public opinon manipulation, as well as media complicity.
Therefore, when classic patterns of political repression emerge, a
political or social movement would be wise to consider tactics and strategies
to protect its members from the negative effects of political repression--political,
emotional, and physical. members can be provided with simple, common
sense techniques to prevent fears (and actual incidents) of surveillance
and infiltration from paralyzing or disrupting the group and diverting
it from its goals.
One of the earliest and most overlooked warning signs that a campaign
of political repression is underway is "paradigm shift." Paradigm
shift, in this usage, means a major negative change in the way the public
perceives the political movement that is ultimately victimized. Paradigm
shift frequently is associated with episodes of political repression,
and frequently precedes more overt signs of attack such as assaults,
break-ins and surveillance. Political repression telegraphs its punches.
For many years the major threat to "the American way of life" was
popularly believed to be communism, then generalized leftist revolutionism,
and now a vaguely-defined domestic terrorism. Targetted individuals are
seen as not only engaged in criminality, but also attacking core cultural
and political values which, if abandoned, would destroy America as we
know it, and which therefore represent a threat to national security.
This concept of America under attack frequently is filtered through a
paranoid worldview that represents what social scientists call a "subversion
The perceptual shift from dissent to criminality first goes public
with unsubstantiated allegations and conclusions in the newspapers, newsletters
and magazines of the reactionary and paranoid political right. These
right-wing media attempts to re-frame the public's perception of the
dissident group. The concept of the "frame-up" has been popularized
in pulp crime novels and film noir, but few people stop to consider
what it means when, with wide-eyed innocence, the person being dragged
to jail proclaims, "I've been framed." The term "frame" is
condensed from the original jargon, "to hang a frame" on someone,
which means to select for an observer a perspective from which certain
conclusions about a person, group or event seem readily apparent, logical,
and even inescapable.
Eventually, right-wing re-framing of dissidents as subversives or criminals
spills over into more mainstream media. A growing segment of the public
begins to see the targeted political movement as fundamentally at odds
with mainstream society. This antagonism is portrayed as irreconcilable.
The dissidents are seen as non-rational, unstable, alien, and capable
of odious crimes because of their zealous mindset. Lists of potential
crimes are discussed, and finally actual crimes are blamed on the political
movement. Ideas that were once merely marginalized are thus criminalized.
Popular opposition to government and private attacks on the dissenting
group is partially neutralized. In some cases the re-framing is so successful
that there is widespread popular sentiment supporting the attacks. When
this process of re-framing is successful, paradigm shift has occurred.
Often, derogatory information passes back and forth between government
agencies and private right wing groups through informal back-door channels,
and the actual source becomes obscure. Lawsuits and declassified documents
have revealed that sometimes it is the investigative agency that leaks
information to the right-wing press, and in other cases investigative
agencies rationalize investigations by citing charges appearing in the
right-wing press. The relationship benefits both sides. The agency is
able to test public sentiment and prepare the ground for its assault,
while the right-wing press furthers its political agenda and at the same
time appears to be generating hard investigative journalism.
PLAYING FAST AND LOOSE WITH THE FIRST AMENDMENT
Re-framing of dissenters as criminal subversives is a critical process
within government law enforcement and intelligence agencies. For internal
and external reasons, government institutions must provide justifications
for the fact that on the surface, members of a dissident group under
investigation often appear to be engaged in activity protected by the
First Amendment. Agents and officers who become queasy about lapses in
protecting Constitutional rights, or who object to the paranoid assumptions
underlying the rationalization of the investigation, are made aware that
their careers will suffer unless they become team players. Sometimes,
if public political conditions are favorable, a Congressional committee
will start a well-publicized investigation and hold hearings where the
government and right-wing experts who started the process are called
to testify. This forum ensures that the charges against the targeted
group are distributed widely by the media, and hearing transcripts become
the basis for a new wave of charges.
When the public is prepared to view the dissidents as a clear and present
danger, the last stage of political repression is implemented. Government
agents engage in intrusive investigative procedures and harass members
of the targeted group. Suddenly, demonstrations or acts of civil disobedience
are met with huge overreaction and displays of police power (and sometimes
acts of police misconduct or brutality); and unexplained and apparently
random physical assaults, arson attacks, or robberies occur with increasing
IN SEARCH OF THE CRAFTY CORE CADRE
Implicit in the rationalizations and justifications for political repression
is a package of right-wing paranoid beliefs with roots deep in xenophobia
and nativism. Two key paranoid theories could be called the theories
of the "Slippery Slope" and the "Onion Ring."
The Slippery Slope Theory of Subversion:
- Global liberation movements are not prompted by a genuine response
to social conditions but by outside intervention, most often by revolutionaries
or communists and their proxies.
- Domestic social change movements are not fueled by a genuine response
to social conditions but by outside agitators, most often revolutionaries
or those under the control of revolutionaries .
- Liberalism is the crest of a slippery slope which leads downhill
to the Welfare State, then Socialism, and inevitably to Communism or
- Dissent is provoked by subversion. Subversion is a terrorist movement.
Terrorism is criminal.
For the true believers who advocate this view, patriotism equals unquestioning
obedience to authority and undying resistance to social change. Surveillance
and infiltration are justified to stop the spread of subversion. It's
all a plot. Slippery Slope theorists generally also believe in the Onion-ring
theory as well.
The Onion-ring Theory of Subversion.
- Subversive cadre bore into the core of all social change movements
both at home and abroad.
- To uncover the cadre who are engaged in subversive criminal activity,
an informant must work step-by-step from the outside onion ring of
non-criminal free-speech activity through several rings of hierarchy
toward the center core where the criminal activity lurks.
- Honest though naive activists are often unaware they are being manipulated,
and therefore should welcome attempts to expose the core of crafty
covert criminal cadre.
The Onion Ring theory is less extreme than the Slippery Slope theory
in its concession that some members of radical and liberal political
movements are sincere, and not sliding towards totalitarianism. Nonetheless,
its advocates also justify surveillance and infiltration to stop the
criminal activity at the core of groups exercising their free speech
In fact, in order to insure that at least some agents or informants
succeed in penetrating to the criminality at the core, an extraordinary
level of invasion becomes not only legitimate, but essential. Onion-ringers
advocate infiltrating every group, spying on every member, and keeping
track of all persons even tangentially involved in all social change
movements. Alas, for the domestic political activist, the end result
of both the Slippery Slope and Onion Ring theories is the same: political
surveillance and infiltration. While courts have consistently ruled that
passive monitoring of First Amendment activity is permissible, critics
charge that passive monitoring and dossier-compiling often turn into
disruption or attack, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally.
As Donner explains:
"The listing of individuals, whether for ultimate detention in
the event of war or for clues to the source of civil disorders, masked
an underlying tension between passive montoring and barely suppressed
aggression. Why wait for the future showdown? What can be done to get
at these people now? This tension found an outlet in special programs
directed at 'key figures' and 'top functionaries,' singled out for close
penetrative and continuous surveillance."
Since agents are attempting to find a core of criminality that, except
in rare cases, does not in fact exist, they become frustrated and redouble
their efforts. This fervor is especially problematic with informants
and agents provocateur who fail to find the sought-after criminals,
and thus may feel compelled to inflate, provoke, or invent charges of
criminality to reach their assigned goal, gain status, and continue to
receive pay and bonuses. The dynamic of informant abuse is discussed
in Under Cover: Police Surveillance in America.
Some critics insist that without unequivocal guidelines, firm congressional
oversight, and thoughtful judicial intervention, intelligence activities--whether
domestic or foreign--almost inevitably turn toward undemocratic techniques.
Other, more historically informed critics point out that all of these
constraints have consistently failed to deter abuse.
CASE STUDY: THE NATIONAL LAWYERS GUILD
Much of the "documentation" denouncing the National Lawyers
Guild (NLG) as a communist front can be traced to a Congressional report
issued during the McCarthy Period. This accusation was part of a coordinated
campaign involving Congressional committees, the FBI, right-wing groups,
and mainstream periodicals. The NLG was targeted by the right due to
its support for the reforms of the Roosevelt presidency, defense of labor
unions, and criticisms of erosions in civil liberties brought on by the
birth of the Cold War.
According to attorney Michael Krinsky who represented the NLG in a
suit against the FBI, the FBI and the Congressional committee publicly
launched an investigation of the NLG and privately fed inflammatory information
to right-wing and anti-communist contacts. Leaders of the American Bar
Association cooperated with the FBI in a campaign to destroy the National
Lawyers Guild. Fred Schlafly, Phyllis's husband, was a leader in early
attempts at red-baiting lawyers and legal organizations such as the Guild.
Although right-wing attacks on the NLG began soon after the organization
was established in 1937, the public mood was such that for several years
the charges never gained wide circulation or provoked concern. Articles
in the <New York Times> from the period show a dramatic change
in the situation during the late 1940s. <5>
Up until 1948, articles on the NLG cited in the Times index
center on substantive activities and positions of the NLG on law and
legislation. Starting in 1948, however, the Times coverage of
the NLG through the next ten years centers on charges relating to subversion.
The targeting of the Guild began in earnest when an FBI wiretap revealed
that Yale Law School professor Thomas Emerson was discussing with the
NLG the publication of a study criticizing as unconstitutional a variety
of FBI investigative methods. The day before the NLG press conference
releasing the report critical of the FBI, Hoover had his friend Richard
Nixon, then a member of House Committee on Un-American Activities, call
for an investigation of the Guild as a communist front. Hoover then,
without hearings or an investigation, initiated an FBI report which HUAC
issued under the its own name. The report was titled "Report on
the National Lawyers Guild: Legal Bulwark of the Communist Party." [CITE]
Krinsky says, "The FBI files reveal that HUAC's report on the NLG,
which almost destroyed the Guild by labeling it the `legal bulwark of
the Communist Party,' was not the product of HUAC's attempt to carry
out any legislative function, but was issued by the Committee on the
sole instigation of the FBI." The NLG fought back in court and eventually
forced the government to remove it from a list of so-called "subversive" groups.
By then, however, the power of the false accusation alone nearly destroyed
the NLG, with membership dropping from over 4,000 to under 600. The Guild
eventually recovered, and, unlike many political and legal organizations
of the period, did so with its principles intact, having never conducted
an internal purge of communists, socialists or other targeted groups.
In Agents of Repression: The FBI's Secret Wars Against the Black
Panther Party and the American Indian Movement, Ward Churchill & Jim
Vander Wall wrote a chilling account of the murderous tactics used against
non-white political activists during the FBI's COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence
program) and in the years that followed. When some academics
challenged their thesis the writers produced COINTELPRO Papers: Documents
from the FBI's Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States, which
uses numerous actual FBI documents to make a strong case for convincing
skeptics that COINTELPRO-type activity continued after the name was shelved
and represented an institutionalized form of repression rather than aberrant
acts of individual agents. Both books discuss the way in which
political repression involves portraying the targeted group as essentially
an outlaw formation. Brian Glick, in War at Home, discusses how false
stories are used to frame dissident groups as violent or criminal.
The techniques and goals of COINTELPRO were eerily repeated in the
FBI's organized campaign against CISPES (The Committee in Solidarity
with the People of El Salvador). In Break-Ins, Death Threats and
the FBI: The Covert War Against the Central America Movement, Ross
Gelbspan, a veteran Boston Globe reporter writes about
the pattern of robberies reported by persons and groups opposing Reagan
administration policies in Central America. Hundreds of offices,
homes, and cars were broken into, files were ransacked or stolen, but
valuable equipment was left untouched. Several years, hundreds of interviews
(some with FBI infiltrators), and many thousands of pages of FBI files
later, Gelbspan concludes the perpetrators of the robberies will probably
remain a mystery. What is firmly established, however is that the FBI
repeatedly lied to Congress about the extent and purpose of its investigations
into the same network of Central America activists victimized by the
robberies. Gelbspan documents how the FBI forged back-channel ties to
far-right anti-communist groups in the U.S. and a shadowy network of
government agencies and death squads in El Salvador, and how the press
was used in the campaign.
COUNTERSUBVERSION AS PARANOID OBSESSION
Attorney Michael Krinsky, who had represented the NLG, was not surprised
when he learned the FBI had waged a five-year surveillance war against
CISPES in a fruitless search for terrorists and subversives. This scenario
precisely repeated the pattern Krinsky and the National Emergency Civil
Liberties Committee fought in its lawsuit against the FBI on behalf of
the National Lawyers Guild. Krinsky charges that FBI "subversion/terrorism" investigations
can never really end, because they can never really succeed in accomplishing
the FBI's primary goal--and that goal is not investigating criminal activity,
but proving the pre-conceived notion that dissent is fueled by treason.
Krinsky agrees with author Frank Donner that the term terrorism is merely
a device used by the FBI to justify its political mission.
"This is the theory under which the FBI has kept subversion investigations
running for 45 years now," says Krinsky:
"They believe there is a subversive element out there trying to
infiltrate and destroy our government. Infiltration is by definition
covert, and therefore, to safeguard our government from this secret plot,
the FBI has to know everything about everybody. The fact that the FBI
never finds any evidence of this subversive infiltration merely demonstrates
to the FBI how clever the subversives really are."
Even when their Justice Department superiors repeatedly terminate these
types of investigations because they result in no evidence of wrongdoing,
and only show the non-criminal nature of the targeted group, the true
believers simply bide their time and then open another investigation
under a different file name. The examples of NLG and CISPES confirm the
pattern. When the FBI agents could not find the non-existent KGB candygram
to CISPES, they merely ignored their own evidence and redoubled their
efforts to pursue the group. In the NLG case, Krinsky notes:
"The FBI investigated the NLG for over three decades, moving from
one pretext to another, without being "hindered by the fact that
none of their suspicions proved to be based in fact. As soon as one pretext
was challenged by a court or the Justice Department administrators, the
FBI would abandon that pretext and embark on a supposedly new investigation
using a different pretext.
CRIMES, MISDEMEANORS, AND AMAZING FANTASIES
Among the investigative categories used to justify FBI spying on the
NLG: Front for the Communist Party, Fomenting Prison Rebellion, Front
for the Weather Underground, and Violation of the Foreign Agents Registration
Act. No criminal charges were ever filed against the NLG and each investigation
was terminated unsuccessfully when no evidence of criminal activity was
found. Ann Mari Buitrago, a file specialist from the Fund for Open Information
Accountability, was hired by the Center for Constitutional Rights to
read and analyze the FBI files on CISPES. Her conclusions:
"The files show a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing
invariably the same object--the destruction of the people's right to
know and to assemble in order to express opposing views on public policy. "
"The FBI is still reaching into the Hoover-era bag of tricks to
fight dissent. They are feeding their fantasies that the Red Menace is
everywhere. It is an obsessive belief...and like all fantasies, facts
do not put it to sleep."
The process is not just a historical oddity. Intelligence Requirements
for the 1990s: Collection, Analysis, Counterintelligence, and Covert
Action is a collection of hard-line recommendations which
provides what academic Diana Reynolds calls a "blueprint for creating
a virtual U.S. police state". This shopping list for the guardians
of post- Constitutional America is a sequel to the equally-onerous "Intelligence
Requirements for the 1980s" which was used as a guide by the Reagan
The occurrence of paradigm shift may serve as an early indicator for
political repression. If so, it is important to note that the environmental
movement and the movement seeking civil rights and equality for gay men
and lesbians are both experiencing paradigm shift.
As Johan Carlisle pointed out in a recent issue of Covert Action, "the
two environmental groups under the heaviest fire are Earth First! and
Greenpeace." Right-wing publications have been re-framing
the environmental movement for several years and current articles in
mainstream media are beginning to reflect this paradigm shift. For instance USA
Today in April of 1992 ran two oppossing views on Rachel Carson's book Silent
Spring published thirty years ago last April. After claiming
Carsons's warnings about DDT were unfounded, author Patrick Cox, "an
associate policy analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute," went
on to frame Carson and the anti-toxics movement as hysterical ideologues.
An analysis of Cox's polemic results in the following:
FRAME ESTABLISHED FOR ANTI-TOXICS MOVEMENT:
Persons who oppose pesticides and believe DDT is unsafe:
- Reject science.
- Are inflicted with "environmental hypochondria".
- Circulate "apocalyptic, tabloid charges."
- Have "no evidence" to back their "hysterical predictions."
- Use "gross manipulation" to fool the media.
- Are "unscrupulous, Luddite fundraisers."
- Suffer from "knee-jerk, chemophobic rejection of pesticides."
- Create "vast and needless costs" for consumers and farmers.
FRAME ESTABLISHED FOR PRO-PESTICIDE INDUSTRY:
Pesticide supporters who believe wide use globally of DDT is safe:
- Are pro-science and pro-logic.
- Have support from the "real scientific community
- the community of controlled studies, double blind experiments and
- Are on the side of U.S. consumers and farmers and save them money.
- The rhetoric attempting to frame the environmental movement is vivid.
- "Willing to sacrifice people to save trees,"
- "We are in a war with fanatics...they will go to any extreme."
- "Behind the Sierra Club calendars...lies a full-fledged ideology...every bit
as powerful as Marxism and every bit as dangerous to individual freedom
and human happiness."
- "Blinded by misinformation, fear tactics, or doomesday syndromes."
- "The core of this environmental totalitarianism is anti-God."
- "An ideology as pitiless and Messianic as Marxism."
- "Since communism has been thoroughly discredited, it has been repackaged and
relabeled and called environmentalism."
- "The radical animal-rights wing of the environmental movement has a lot in common
with Hitler's Nazis."
OFFICIAL GAY BASHING
There have been centuries of discrimination against persons who challenge
the heterosexual majority, but a recent wave of physical attacks on and
harassment of those trying to raise awareness about AIDS, or seeking
human rights for lesbians and gay men, reflect classic patterns of political
Articles in the right-wing press have been escalating hyperbolic rhetoric
concerning homosexuals for several years. In the early 1980's Enrique
Rueda of the Free Congress Research & Education Foundation was asked
by Free Congress president Paul Weyrich "to research the social
and political impact of the homosexual movement in America."
The result was a lengthy 1982 book, The Homosexual Network, in
which Rueda concluded that "The homosexual movement is a subset
of the spectrum of American liberal movements." Rueda
was alarmed by "the extent to which it has infiltrated many national
institutions." One jacket blurb writer gushed that Rueda
had revealed "the widening homosexual power-grab in our society." From
civil rights to power-grab in one volume.
In 1987 Rueda joined with co-author Michael Schwartz to produce Gays,
AIDS and You. The introduction warns "The homosexual political
agenda represents a radical departure from what we as Americans believe...a
terrible threat--to ourselves, our children, our communities, our country...a
radical, anti-family agenda." From power-grab to terrible
threat. The authors suggest the movement for homosexual rights is different
from movements involving "legitimate" minorities, and using
conspiratorial phrases, write:
"This movement is stronger, more widespread, more skillfully structured
than most Americans realize. It reaches into our media, our political
institutions, our schools, even into our mainline churches....And now
this movement is using the AIDS crisis to pursue its political agenda.
This in turn, threatens not only our values but our lives."
Back cover blurbs include snippets from Senator Bill Armstrong, "An
urgent warning," Beverly LaHaye, "reminds us of the necessity
to reaffirm our civilization's Biblical heritage," and Congressman
William E. Dannemeyer, "failure to affirm our heterosexual values
not only is unhealthy, but could result in the demise of our civilization." From
terrible threat to end of civilization.
An order form for Gays, AIDS and You circulated by the Free
Congress Foundation includes a picture of a man at a desk, his face in
shadows, and the headline: "This Man Wants His 'Freedom' So Bad
He's Ready To Let America Die For It." The text adds, "Our
civilization stands in the path of his fulfillment as a freely promiscuous
Dr. Ed. Rowe, author of Homosexual Politics: Road to Ruin for America,; goes
further in outlawing the targetted movement, stating that "Homosexual
politics is a moral cancer eating at the fabric of America. It is an
unholy, satanic crusade...this evil movement must be stopped!" Senator
Jesse Helm's introduction to Rowe's book also raises the theme of non-rational
zealousness: "Homosexual politics continues in fanatical pursuit
of its goal of carving out a new 'civil right' based on the sexual appetite
of its adherents."
Neo-fascist hatemonger Lyndon LaRouche was among the first in the paranoid
right to move the alarm into the political arena. LaRouchians spawned
restrictive propositions placed on the California ballot that were successfully
defeated only after broad-based organizing efforts reversed early polls
showing passage of measures that essentially called for firings and quarantines
for persons with signs of AIDS. LaRouche even obliquely suggested murder
as a tactic, writing that history would not judge harshly those persons
who took baseball bats and beat to death homosexuals to stop the spread
of AIDS. One 1985 pamphlet published by LaRouche's National Democratic
Policy Committee was titled "AIDS is more deadly than Nuclear War," which
turned out to be a repackaged attack on the International Monetary Fund
and the Federal Reserve.
There are dozens of books and pamphlets that marginalize and frame
the lesbian and gay men's movements as threats to the American way of
life, and fit the pattern for paradigm shift.
Whether or not paradigm shift is causative, predictive or merely anecdotal,
for the activist, paradigm shift should be seen as a warning signal that
political repression and government intelligence abuse may soon become
major factors in a group's tactical and strategic decisions.
Chip Berlet watches ornamental goldfish swimming in his garden pool
to unwind after a hard day of watching creeping domestic authoritarianism
as an analyst for Political Research Associates in Cambridge, MA.
Author's Note: The author wishes to thank Sheila O'Donnell, Brian Glick
and Ann Mari Buitrago for the discussions which informed the thesis presented
For a large collection of primary and secondary material illustrating
paradigm shift, send $10 to Political Research Associates, 678 Mass.
Ave., Suite 205, Cambridge, MA, 02139. Ask for the packet "Corporate
Roots of Attacks on the Environmental Movement," or "Re-Framing
the Lesbian and Gay Men's Movements as a Threat to Civilization."
A version of this article first appeared inCovert Action Information
Footnotes are available in the printed version appearing in Covert
Action Information Bulletin, Summer 1992 (Number 41). Send $6.00 toCovert
Action, 1500 Mass. Ave., N.W., #732Washington, D.C. 20005