Twentieth Century COINTELPRO revisited

DSC00260I was already planning a blog about COINTELPRO in the near future when astounding news broke today:  The activists who broke into an FBI Office in Media, Pennsylvania on March 8, 1971 and stole the COINTELPRO papers publicly revealed their identities today!

In case you weren’t around in the early 1970s, COINTELPRO (short for COunter INTELligence PROgram) was a secret program of government surveillance, infiltration and sabotage against political activists, officially begun in 1956 and designed by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.  Hoover used FBI resources to spy on, infiltrate, undermine and disrupt advocacy groups he considered subversives and those critical of his regime.  Targets included activists who opposed the War in Vietnam, or who supported the Civil Rights movement, the Indian Rights Movement, and a myriad of other peaceful associations advocating societal or legislative change – activities protected by the First Amendment.

Among many other targets of COINTELPRO in the 1960s-1970s were: Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Senator Frank Church, Senator Howard Baker, the American Indian Movement, the Black Panthers, anti-Vietnam war groups including the Students for Democratic Society and Weathermen, among many others.

As stated by Wikipedia “FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover issued directives governing COINTELPRO, ordering FBI agents to ‘expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize’ the activities of these movements and their leaders.”  Many of their tactics allegedly included libelous, tortious and even criminal activities against the targets.

Today, it was publicly revealed, John Raines, an 80 year old retired professor of religion at Temple University, his wife Bonnie, and Keith Forsyth admitted they were the activists who burglarized the FBI office and obtained the COINTELPRO documents and passed them on to the press — in a book released today, “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI,” by Betty Medsger, a former Washington Post reporter. For more information on COINTELPRO see this article by, this one by Free Peltier Now (which describes the infiltration and sabotage tactics against the American Indian Movement), a directive from J. Edgar Hoover dated August 25, 1967 directing infiltration and sabotage of black power groups and the FBI’s current watered down website explanation (which admits “COINTELPRO was later rightfully criticized by Congress and the American people for abridging first amendment rights and for other reasons” but claims COINTELPRO ended in 1971.)

Coming on the heels of the first waves of fallout from the release of the Edward Snowden papers, what better time for the COINTELPRO whistleblowers from the 1960s to come out of hiding and remind us what important civic responsibilities whistleblowers perform.

Like Mark Felt (“Deep Throat”) – the FBI agent who leaked information to Washington Post writers Woodward & Bernstein in 1972 which was instrumental to their coverage of the Watergate scandal, and who came forward last year — the COINTELPRO whistleblowers are senior citizens now, having lived productive upstanding lives since their secret whistleblowing activity and the statute of limitations has passed for any criminal prosecution for the burglary.

The daring acts of these brave activists back in the late 1960s and early 1970s were fundamental in preserving what little freedom we have left today.  The ensuing scandal about the COINTELPRO documents led to reforms of federal intelligence gathering agencies.  Apparently the reforms didn’t last.

Today, as in the 1960s-1970s, government agencies — which were already given too much power and the ability to work behind a veil of secrecy to hide their own violations of law — have probably been conducting domestic spying and acts of sabotage on U.S. citizens and activist organizations. COINTELPRO may never have stopped at all, it just got better at keeping secrets thanks to statutes that shielded the agencies in secrecy.

We now know the domestic spying is happening again today only because of the revelations of Edward Snowden. The willingness of our government agencies to break the law, to suppress opposition to their programs or abuses is a matter of extreme concern for every freedom-loving American.

Back in the 1970s, following the public revelation of the COINTELPRO program, citizens demanded action to correct the abuses.  The U.S. Senate appointed a committee, the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, to investigate abuses of power.  The committee was headed by Senator Frank Church, a Congressman who himself had been targeted by the COINTELPRO program, and it became popularly known as the Church Committee.

In 1975 and 1976 the Church Committee published 14 reports on its findings. Many of these reports have now been declassified.

The Church Committee’s last report concluded:

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.

Congress needs to appoint a new Church Committee to investigate and take action against further governmental abuses of U.S. citizens’ lawful rights to free speech, free association and to peacefully advocate changes in laws, government conduct or societal mores.