Archives Cointelpro: Civil Liberties Under Threat

    [Foreward: This article first appeared sometime in the mid-1980s. I'm not sure if AMNET still exists, perhaps those involved will see this repost and get in touch. What is important is its relevance to the current onslaught on civil liberties and points to just how little things have changed and that eternal vigilance is necessary lest they enslave us once more. WB]

Downloaded from AMNET 312-436-3062 Chicago's Civil Liberties BBS

Cointelpro: Civil Liberties Under Threat

by Brian Glick

Part One


Activists across the country report increasing government harassmentand disruption of their work:

-In the Southwest, paid informers infiltrate the church services, Bibleclasses and support networks of clergy and lay workers givingsanctuary to refugees from El Salvador and Guatamala.

-In Alabama, elderly Black people attempting for the first time to exercise their right to vote are interrogated by FBI agents and hauled before federal grand juries hundreds of miles from their homes.

-In New England, a former CIA case officer cites examples from his own past work to warn college students of efforts by undercover operatives to misdirect and discredit protests against South African and US racism.

-In the San Francisco Bay Area, activists planning anti-nuclear civil disobedience learn that their meetings have been infiltrated bythe US Navy.

-In Detroit, Seattle, and Philadelphia, in Cambridge, MA, Berkeley,CA., Phoenix, AR., and Washington, DC., churches and organizations opposing US policies in Central America report obviously political break-ins in which important papers are stolen or damaged, while money and valuables are left untouched. License plates on a car spotted fleeing one such office have been traced to the US National Security Agency.

-In Puerto Rico, Texas and Massachusetts, labor leaders, community organizers, writers and editors who advocate Puerto Rican independence are branded by the FBI as "terrorists," brutally rounded-up in the middle of the night, held incommunicado for days and then jailed under new preventive detention laws.

-The FBI puts the same "terrorist" label on opponents of US intervention in El Salvador, but refuses to investigate the possibility of a political conspiracy behind nation-wide bombings of abortion clinics.

-Throughout the country, people attempting to see Nicaragua for themselves find their trips disrupted, their private papers confiscated, and their homes and offices plagued by FBI agents who demand detailed personal and political information.

These kinds of government tactics violate our fundamental constitutional rights. They make it enormously difficult to sustain grass-roots organizing. They create an atmosphere of fear and distrust which undermines any effort to challenge official policy.

Similar measures were used in the 1960s as part of a secret FBI program known as "COINTELPRO." COINTELPRO was later exposed and officially ended. But the evidence shows that it actually persisted and that clandestine operations to discredit and disrupt opposition movements have become an institutional feature of national and local government in the US. This pamphlet is designed to help current and future activists learn from the history of COINTELPRO, so that our movements can better withstand such attack.

The first section gives a brief overview of what we know the FBI did in the 60s. It explains why we can expect similar government intervention in the 80s and beyond, and offers general guidelines for effective response.

The main body of the pamphlet describes the specific methods which have previously been used to undermine domestic dissent and suggests steps we can take to limit or deflect their impact.

A final chapter explores ways to mobilize broad public protest against this kind of repression.

It also draws on the post-60s confessions of disaffected government agents, and on the testimony of public officials before Congress and the courts. Though the information from these sources is incomplete, and much of what was done remains secret, we now know enough to draw useful lessons for future organizing.

The suggestions included in the pamphlet are based on the author's 20 years experience as an activist and lawyer, and on talks with long-time organizers in a broad range of movements. They are meant to provide starting points for discussion, so we can get ready before the pressure intensifies. Most are a matter of common sense once the methodology of covert action is understood. Please take these issues seriously. Discuss the recommendations with other activists. Adapt them to the conditions you face. Point out problems and suggest other approaches.




"COINTELPRO" was the FBI's secret program to undermine the popular upsurge which swept the country during the 1960s. Though the name stands for "Counterintelligence Program," the targets were not enemy spies. The FBI set out to eliminate "radical" political opposition inside the US. When traditional modes of repression (exposure, blatant harassment, and prosecution for political crimes) failed to counter the growing insurgency, and even helped to fuel it, the Bureau took the law into its own hands and secretly used fraud and force to sabotage constitutionally-protected political activity.Its methods ranged far beyond surveillance, and amounted to a domestic version of the covert action for which the CIA has become infamous throughout the world.


COINTELPRO was discovered in March, 1971, when some secret files were removed from an FBI office and released to news media. Freedom of Information requests, lawsuits, and former agents' public confessions deepened the exposure until a major scandal loomed. To control the damage and re-establish government legitimacy in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, Congress and the courts compelled the FBI to reveal part of what it had done and to promise it would not do it again. Much of what has been learned, and copies of some of the actual documents, can be found in the readings listed at the back of this pamphlet.


The FBI secretly instructed its field offices to propose schemes to "misdirect, discredit, disrupt and otherwise neutralize "specific individuals and groups. Close coordination with local police and prosecutors was encouraged. Final authority rested with top FBI officials in Washington, who demanded assurance that "there is no possibility of embarrassment to the Bureau." More than 2000 individual actions were officially approved. The documents reveal three types of methods:

1. Infiltration: Agents and informers did not merely spy on political activists. Their main function was to discredit and disrupt.

2. Other forms of deception: The FBI and police also waged psychological warfare from the outside--through bogus publications, forged correspondence, anonymous letters and telephone calls, and similar forms of deceit.

3. Harassment, intimidation and violence: Eviction, job loss, break-ins, vandalism, grand jury subpoenas, false arrests, frame-ups, and physical violence were threatened, instigated or directly employed, in an effort to frighten activists and disrupt their movements. Government agents either concealed their involvement or fabricated a legal pretext. In the case of the Black and NativeAmerican movements, these assaults--including outright politicalassassinations--were so extensive and vicious that they amountedto terrorism on the part of the government.


The most intense operations were directed against the Black movement, particularly the Black Panther Party. This resulted from FBI and police racism, the Black community's lack of material resources for fighting back, and the tendency of the media--and whites in general--to ignore or tolerate attacks on Black groups. It also reflected government and corporate fear of the Black movement because of its militance, its broad domestic base and international support, and its historic role in galvanizing the entire Sixties' upsurge. Many other activists who organized against US intervention abroad or for racial, gender or class justice at home also came under covert attack. The targets were in no way limited to those who used physical force or took up arms. Martin Luther King, David Dellinger, Phillip Berrigan and other leading pacifists were high on the list, as were projects directly protected by the Bill of Rights, such as alternative newspapers.

The Black Panthers came under attack at a time when their work featured free food and health care and community control of schools and police, and when they carried guns only for deterrent and symbolic purposes. It was the terrorism of the FBI and police that eventually provoked the Panthers to retaliate with the armed actions that later were cited to justify their repression.

Ultimately the FBI disclosed six official counterintelligence programs: Communist Party-USA (1956-71); "Groups Seeking Independence for Puerto Rico" (1960-71); Socialist Workers Party (1961-71); "White Hate Groups" (1964-71); "Black Nationalist Hate Groups" (1967-71); and "New Left" (1968-71).The latter operations hit anti-war, student, and feminist groups. The "Black Nationalist" caption actually encompassed Martin Luther King and most of the civil rights and Black Power movements. The "white hate" program functioned mainly as a cover for covert aid to the KKK and similar right-wing vigilantes,who were given funds and information, so long as they confined their attacks to COINTELPRO targets. FBI documents also reveal covert action against Native American, Chicano, Phillipine, Arab-American, and other activists, apparently without formal Counterintelligence programs.


COINTELPRO's impact is difficult to fully assess since we do not know the entire scope of what was done (especially against such pivotal targets as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, SNCC and SDS),and we have no generally accepted analysis of the Sixties. It is clear,however, that:

-COINTELPRO distorted the public's view of radical groups in a way that helped to isolate them and to legitimize open political repression.

-It reinforced and exacerbated the weaknesses of these groups, making it very difficult for the inexperienced activists of the Sixties to learn from their mistakes and build solid, durable organizations.

-Its violent assaults and covert manipulation eventually helped to push some of the most committed and experienced groups to withdraw from grass-roots organizing and to substitute armed actions which isolated them and deprived the movement of much of its leadership.

-COINTELPRO often convinced its victims to blame themselves and each other for the problems it created, leaving a legacy of cynicism and despair that persists today.

-By operating covertly, the FBI and police were able to severely weaken domestic political opposition without shaking the conviction of most US people that they live in a democracy, with free speech and the rule of law.



Public exposure of COINTELPRO in the early 1970s elicited a flurry of reform. Congress, the courts and the mass media condemned government "intelligence abuses." Municipal police forces officially disbanded their red squads. A new Attorney General notified past victims of COINTELPRO and issued Guidelines to limit future operations. Top FBI officials were indicted (albeit for relatively minor offenses), two were convicted, and several others retired or resigned. J. Edgar Hoover--the egomaniacal, crudely racist and sexist founder of the FBI--died, and a well-known federal judge, William Webster, eventually was appointed to clean house and build a "new FBI."

Behind this public hoopla, however, was little real improvement in government treatment of radical activists. Domestic covert operations were briefly scaled down a bit, after the 60s' upsurge had largely subsided, due in part to the success of COINTELPRO. But they did not stop. In April, 1971, soon after files had been taken from one of its offices, the FBI instructed its agents that "future COINTELPRO actions will be considered on a highly selective, individual basis with tight procedures to insure absolute security. "The results are apparent in the record of the subsequent years:

-A virtual war on the American Indian Movement, ranging from forgery of documents, infiltration of legal defense committees, diversion of funds, intimidation of witnesses and falsification of evidence, to the para-military invasion of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and the murder of Anna Mae Aquash, Joe Stuntz and countless others;

-Sabotage of efforts to organize protest demonstrations at the 1972 Republican and Democratic Party conventions. The attempted assassination of San Diego Univ. Prof. Peter Bohmer, by a "Secret Army Organization" of ex-Minutemen formed, subsidized, armed, and protected by the FBI, was a part of these operations;

-Concealment of the fact that the witness whose testimony led to the 1972 robbery-murder conviction of Black Panther leader Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt was a paid informer who had worked in the BPP under the direction of the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department;

-Infiltration and disruption of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and prosecution of its national leaders on false charges (Florida, 1971-74);

-Formation and operation of sham political groups such as "Red Star Cadre," in Tampa, Fla., and the New Orleans "Red Collective" (1972-76);

-Mass interrogation of lesbian and feminist activists, threats of subpoenas, jailing of those who refused to cooperate, and disruption of women's health collectives and other projects (Lexington, KY., Hartford and New Haven,Conn., 1975);

-Harassment of the Hispanic Commission of the Episcopal Church and numerous other Puerto Rican and Chicano religious activists and community organizers (Chicago, New York City, Puerto Rico, Colorado and New Mexico, 1977);

-Entrapment and frame-up of militant union leaders (NASCO shipyards,San Diego, 1979); and

-Complicity in the murder of socialist labor and community organizers (Greensboro, N.C., 1980).


All this, and maybe more, occurred in an era of reform. The use of similar measures in today's very different times cannot be itemized in such detail, since most are still secret. The gravity of the current danger is evident, however, from the major steps recently taken to legitimize and strengthen political repression, and from the many incidents which are coming to light despite stepped-up security.

The ground-work for public acceptance of repression has been laid by President Reagan's speeches reviving the old red-scare tale of worldwide "communist take-overs" and adding a new bogeyman in the form of domestic and international "terrorism." The President has taken advantage of the resulting political climate to denounce the Bill of Rights and to red-bait critics of US intervention in Central America. He has pardoned the FBI officials convicted of COINTELPRO crimes, praised their work, and spoken favorably of the political witchhunts he took part in during the 1950s.

For the first time in US history, government infiltration to "influence" domestic political activity has received official sanction. On the pretext of meeting the supposed terrorist threat, Presidential Executive Order 12333 (Dec. 4, 1981) extends such authority not only to the FBI, but also to the military and, in some cases, the CIA. History shows that these agencies treat legal restriction as a kind of speed limit which they feel free to exceed, but only by a certain margin. Thus, Reagan's Executive Order not only encourages reliance on methods once deemed abhorrent, it also implicitly licenses even greater, more damaging intrusion. Government capacity to make effective use of such measures has also been substantially enhanced in recent years:

-Judge Webster's highly-touted reforms have served mainly to modernize the FBI and make it more dangerous. Instead of the back-biting competition which impeded coordination of domestic counter-insurgency in the 60s, the Bureau now promotes inter-agency cooperation. As an equal opportunity employer, it can use Third World and female agents to penetrate political targets more thoroughly than before. By cultivating a low-visibility corporate image and discreetly avoiding public attack on prominent liberals, the FBI has regained respectability and won over a number of former critics.

-Municipal police forces have similarly revamped their image while upgrading their repressive capabilities. The police "red squads" that infiltrated and harassed the 60s' movements have been revived under other names and augmented by para-military SWAT teams and tactical squads as well as highly-politicized community relations and "beat rep" programs, in which Black, Hispanic and female officers are often conspicuous. Local operations are linked by FBI-led regional anti-terrorist task forces and the national Law Enforcement Intelligence Unit (LEIU).

-Increased military and CIA involvement has added political sophistication and advanced technology. Army Special Forces and other elite military units are now trained and equipped for counter-insurgency (known as"low-intensity warfare"). Their manuals teach the essential methodology of COINTELPRO, stressing earlier intervention to neutralize potential opposition before it can take hold.

The CIA's expanded role is especially ominous. In the 60s, while legally banned from "internal security functions," the CIA managed to infiltrate the Black, student and antiwar movements. It also made secret use of university professors, journalists, labor leaders, publishing houses, cultural organizations and philanthropic fronts to mold US public opinion. But it apparently felt compelled to hold back--within the country--from the kinds of systematic political destabilization, torture, and murder which have become the hallmark of its operations abroad. Now, the full force of the CIA has been unleashed at home.

-All of the agencies involved in covert operations have had time to learn from the 60s and to institute the "tight procedures to insure absolute security" that FBI officials demanded after COINTELPRO was exposed in 1971. Restoration of secrecy has been made easier by the Administration's steps to shield covert operations from public scrutiny. Under Reagan, key FBI and CIA files have been re-classified "top secret." The Freedom of Information Act has been quietly narrowed through administrative reinterpretation. Funds for covert operations are allocated behind closed doors and hidden in CIA and defense appropriations.

Government employees now face censorship even after they retire, and new laws make it a federal crime to publicize information which might tend to reveal an agent's identity. Despite this stepped-up security, incidents frighteningly reminiscent of 60s' COINTELPRO have begun to emerge.

The extent of the infiltration, burglary and other clandestine government intervention that has already come to light is alarming. Since the vast majority of such operations stay hidden until after the damage has been done, those we are now aware of undoubtedly represent only the tip of the iceberg. Far more is sure to lie beneath the surface.

Considering the current political climate, the legalization of COINTELPRO, the rehabilitation of the FBI and police, and the expanded role of the CIA and military, the recent revelations leave us only one safe assumption: that extensive government covert operations are already underway to neutralize today's opposition movements before they can reach the massive level of the 60s.


Domestic covert action has now persisted in some form through at least the last seven presidencies. It grew from one program to six under Kennedy and Johnson. It flourished when an outspoken liberal, Ramsey Clark, was Attorney General (1966-68). It is an integral part of the established mode of operation of powerful, entrenched agencies on every level of government. It enables policy-makers to maintain social control without detracting from their own public image or the perceived legitimacy of their method of government. It has become as institutional in the US as the race, gender, class and imperial domination it serves to uphold.

Under these circumstances, there is no reason to think we can eliminate COINTELPRO simply by electing better public officials. Only through sustained public education and mobilization, by a broad coalition of political, religious and civil libertarian activists, can we expect to limit it effectively.

In most parts of the country, however, and certainly on a national level, we lack the political power to end covert government intervention, or even to curb it substantially. We therefore need to learn how to cope more effectively with this form of repression.

The next part of this pamphlet examines the methods that were used to discredit and disrupt the movements of the 60s and suggests steps we can take to deflect or reduce their impact in the 80s.


-Check out the authenticity of any disturbing letter, rumor, phone call or other communication before acting on it.

-Document incidents which appear to reflect covert intervention, and report them to the Movement Support Network Hotline: 212/477-5562.

-Deal openly and honestly with the differences within our movements (race, gender, class, age, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, personality, experience, physical and intellectual capacities, etc.) before the FBI and police exploit them to tear us apart.

-Don't rush to expose a suspected agent. Instead, directly criticize what the suspect says and does. Intra-movement witchhunts only help the government create distrust and paranoia.

-Support whoever comes under government attack. Don't be put off by political slander, such as recent attempts to smear radical activists as "terrorists." Organize public opposition to FBI investigations, grand juries, show trials and other forms of political harassment.

-Above all, do not let them divert us from our main work. Our most powerful weapon against political repression is effective organizing around the needs and issues which directly affect people's lives.



Agents are law enforcement officers disguised as activists.

Informers are non-agents who provide information to a law enforcement or intelligence agency. They may be recruited from within a group or sent in by an agency, or they may be disaffected former members or supporters.

Infiltrators are agents or informers who work in a group or community under the direction of a law enforcement or intelligence agency. During the 60s the FBI had to rely on informers (who are less well trained and harder to control) because it had very few black, Hispanic or female agents, and its strict dress and grooming code left white male agents unable to look like activists. As a modern equal opportunity employer, today's FBI has fewer such limitations.

What They Do: Some informers and infiltrators quietly provide information while keeping a low profile and doing whatever is expected of group members. Others attempt to discredit a target and disrupt its work. They may spread false rumors and make unfounded accusations to provoke or exacerbate tensions and splits. They may urge divisive proposals, sabotage important activities and resources, or operate as "provocateurs" who lead zealous activists into unnecessary danger. In a demonstration or other confrontation with police, such an agent may break discipline and call for actions which would undermine unity and detract from tactical focus.

Infiltration As a Source of Distrust and Paranoia: While individual agents and informers aid the government in a variety of specific ways, the general use of infiltrators serves a very special and powerful strategic function. The fear that a group may be infiltrated often intimidates people from getting more involved. It can give rise to a paranoia which makes it difficult to build the mutual trust which political groups depend on. This use of infiltrators, enhanced by covertly-initiated rumors that exaggerate the extent to which a particular movement or group has been penetrated, is recommended by the manuals used to teach counter-insurgency in the U.S. and Western Europe.

Covert Manipulation to Make A Legitimate Activist Appear to be an Agent: An actual agent will often point the finger at a genuine, non-collaborating and highly-valued group member, claiming that he or she is the infiltrator. The same effect, known as a "snitch jacket," has been achieved by planting forged documents which appear to be communications between an activist and the FBI, or by releasing for no other apparent reason one of a group of activists who were arrested together. Another method used under COINTELPRO was to arrange for some activists, arrested under one pretext or another, to hear over the police radio a phony broadcast which appeared to set up a secret meeting between the police and someone from their group.

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