Martin Luther King Jr.; Jane Fonda; Malcolm X; Yoko Ono; Fred Hampton; Jean Seberg. What do these people all have in common? Depends on who you ask. If you asked the FBI of the 50s, 60s, or 70s, then they’d tell you that every one of these individuals was affiliated with Communists and seeking to undermine the authority of the US government and perhaps even burn the country to the ground. That’s because, at some point, each one of those people was a target of the FBI’s infamous operation COINTELPRO (pronounced Co-Intel-Pro).
COINTELPRO was started to fight Communism within the US during a period of extreme paranoia amongst government officials. The program’s scope increased dramatically in little time, and, before long, it focused most of its efforts on subverting black nationalist groups, like the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam. Under the direction of famous overreacher J. Edgar Hoover, the agency did just about whatever it felt was necessary. By the mid-1970s, though, a Senate committee found that the FBI’s actions were totally illegal. Though technically shut down around that time, many people believe that the program continues today under a different codename.
Today, COINTELPRO has a legacy as. one of the darkest marks in the history of the US government, with decades of illegal efforts to crush the opposition. Let’s explore.
On March 8th, 1971, the world witnessed one of the most significant sporting events ever. “The Fight of the Century” pitted Smokin’ Joe Frazier against Muhammad Ali in New York City. The American public and boxing fans worldwide were glued to their screens, but perhaps no one watched the fight closer than the FBI. Muhammad Ali was the most prominent Muslim in America and a member of the Nation of Islam, a religious group and black nationalist movement. Ali was also an outspoken opponent of America’s war in Vietnam, refusing to fight in the war. In other words, he was one of the FBI’s primary targets, and they were watching his biggest fight ever.
The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI knew where the agency’s attention would be that evening. So, the anonymous group sent operatives to a small, two-person FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, the location of thousands of top-secret files. When employees showed up the next day, they found their file cabinets empty. The infiltrators stole more than 1,000 documents containing details on FBI wiretapping, media manipulation, and other illegal practices to fight opposition groups within US borders.
After a few weeks, the culprits began mailing documents to newsrooms around the country. The Attorney General caught word and threatened legal action. In most cases, the threats worked. However, at the Washington Post, the Executive Editor immediately got to work verifying the 14 documents that he had received. The papers contained stories of the FBI coercing authorities in Philadelphia to spy on African-American activist groups in blatantly illegal ways. Once the rumors were confirmed, the Washington Post published them on March 24th, 1971. Emboldened by the Post’s actions, other news outlets began publishing their information. Before long, the word COINTELPRO was on the lips of every informed American.
By the end of the year, longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover announced the end of the program, stating that future covert operations would be approved on a case by case basis. In 1975, Idaho Senator Frank Church opened a Senate committee to investigate abuses of power throughout the US intelligence community, and the FBI was front and center throughout the proceedings.
The committee’s final report of 1976 stated in clear language that the FBI’s actions were blatantly illegal. The program violated the constitutional rights of Americans. Legal ramifications were either not considered or cast aside under the guise of “national security.” Senior officials not only had knowledge of the operation but were involved in some of the most heinous acts. The report stated that “Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that.”
That was in 1976, 20 years after the illegal program was started. To be clear, the FBI conducted covert operations against domestic political groups for decades. With the rise of Communism, they went on a witch-hunt, investigating anyone with even the loosest ties to the ideology. In August of 1956, the ever-paranoid and power-hungry Hoover placed all the FBI’s anti-communist actions under one umbrella, creating clear goals and rules for engagement with the establishment of the Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO.
The purpose was to “increase factionalism, cause disruption and win defections” within the Communist Party, and “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” the movement and, critically, its leaders. In doing so, the program adopted six goals for weakening their opposition:
1. Create a negative public image for target groups.
2. Break down internal organization by creating conflicts.
3. Create dissension between groups.
4. Restrict access to public resources.
5. Restrict the ability to organize protests.
6. Restrict the ability of individuals to participate in group activities.
In achieving these six goals, the program adopted five tactics. The first was infiltration. FBI members would join target organizations, sometimes in surprising numbers. The most well-known example of this is within the only right-wing group that COINTELPRO ever targeted, the Ku Klux Klan. FBI testimony during the Church Committee revealed that 20 percent of all KKK members were “undercover” agents. Coincidentally, it was the FBI’s inability to take down the KKK from within that justified COINTELPRO’s creation. Still, the FBI used this same tactic on almost every target. Not only did sleeper agents disrupt activity, but they sowed distrust amongst the ranks, as leaders struggled to identify who the trustworthy members were.
The program also relied on a variety of psychological tricks. This included planting false media stories, publishing fake announcements, and sending anonymous letters. They strongarmed employers, landlords, school officials, and others into mistreating activists just to make their lives harder. Perhaps the most nefarious, though, was forging correspondence between parties to incite conflict between them. In one example, an FBI agent claimed to be a member of the Black Panthers, a prominent African-American group. The agent sent a letter to the leader of the US Organization, a similar group, claiming knowledge of a Black Panther plot to assassinate the US Organization’s leader, Ron Karenga. The claim was entirely false, but it increased tensions between the two parties, resulting in almost a dozen deaths.
The FBI also made a point of harassing activists with constant legal pressure and threats. FBI Agents coerced police officers into giving false testimonies and forging evidence to arrest and imprison activists. The IRS targeted individuals that they deemed risks, placing them under the federal government’s watchful eye. This tactic was also used to force supporters into silence under the threat of subpoena or other legal actions.
The fourth tactic was to undermine public opinion of a group or leader. Not only could this turn followers against a movement, but it could deny leaders the opportunity to share their message on a national stage. The most famous example of this was with Martin Luther King Jr. However, sometimes this strategy took on somewhat absurd forms, like producing documentaries filled with fabricated claims about leaders.
Finally, where all else failed, the FBI would resort to simple illegal force. This involved break-ins, searches, beatings, and assassinations to intimidate activists into silence. The most famous example was with the Black Panther’s Chicago leader Fred Hampton. Hampton personally experienced just about every COINTELPRO tactic, including fake letters that turned some of his allies against him. Hampton was considered particularly dangerous because he was pushing for what he called a “rainbow coalition.” This coalition would tie the Panthers with other activist groups, especially those seeking civil rights for other races. Hampton proved a difficult man to destroy, so the FBI took their tactics to another level.
The Bureau had an informant in Hampton’s inner circle, a man named William O’Neal, whom they supplied with a powerful sleeping drug. O’Neal drugged Hampton, and the police, under the FBI’s direction, raided his apartment in the middle of the night. While Hampton slept, he was shot twice in the head. Police reports showed that the Black Panthers didn’t fire a single shot at the officers that night, but several Panthers were killed in the raid.
This story not only shows the blatant illegality of the FBI’s actions, but it also reveals their preferred targets. Despite its founding as an anti-Communist program, COINTELPRO focused most of its efforts on African-American activism. Communists were only the program’s primary target for about two months. By October of ’56, Hoover circulated a memo informing the agency that surveillance and counter-activities against black leaders were part of COINTLEPRO. His reasoning? The African-American movement was, allegedly, full of Communists. This claim relied on the FBI’s inability or unwillingness to differentiate between primarily black groups, even those with opposite beliefs and tactics. While some organizations preached Marxism, others were overtly against it. But Hoover showed no loyalty to facts. In 1969, a special agent tasked with following the Black Panthers in San Francisco wrote to Hoover that “the Panthers were primarily engaged in feeding breakfast to children.” Hoover threatened to torpedo the agent’s career if he didn’t change the report to include fabricated stories of the Panther’s crimes.
In reality, COINTELPRO operated against almost any left-leaning group, from women’s rights groups to the American Indian Movement, the Anti-Vietnam movement, and Puerto Rican Nationalists. The one exception was the KKK, though the FBI was ineffective against them. But, while many of these organizations received terrible treatment, the worst was saved for the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
The FBI began watching MLK when he was a part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Despite preaching non-violence and denouncing Communism, the SCLC was made a prime target. This was, in large part, due to MLK’s charisma and articulate, impassioned speeches. The FBI’s greatest fear was the emergence of a “Black Messiah” character, someone who could unify the movement. MLK was the prime suspect here, though Malcolm X and Fred Hampton also earned this title at different times.
In 1963, MLK organized the March on Washington. More than 200,000 Americans turned out to hear the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In response, Hoover petitioned Attorney General Robert Kennedy to approve a wiretap of King’s telephone under COINTELPRO. Kennedy resisted, insisting that MLK had no connections to Communism, and thus fell outside the program’s scope. However, Kennedy gave Hoover limited permission to tap MLK’s phone, ordering that, when it became clear that the civil rights leader wasn’t a communist, that the surveillance end. The Church Committee eventually proved that the wiretaps showed MLK did not support Communism, but Hoover’s vendetta against King was not about to slow down.
In the mid-60s, MLK criticized the FBI for its lack of responses to white supremacist terrorism in the south. Hoover saw this as a personal attack and declared King to be the “most notorious liar” in the United States. The world community disagreed, as shown by King’s nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize. Hoover, afraid of King’s growing fame, had the FBI send the leader a special package. It contained audio recordings from phones and hotel rooms that documented King’s sexual indiscretions along with a letter. The letter read, “There is only one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation”.
Follow-up communication clarified the message. If King didn’t commit suicide before accepting the Nobel Prize, the FBI would out him as an adulterer. King refused, and the tapes were leaked. Years later, after his death, Hoover urged FBI officials to continue the smear campaign against MLK to ensure that his legacy would not endure.
This effort to tarnish the dead was not reserved for King, though. A white civil rights leader named Viola Liuzzo received similar treatment. Liuzzo was killed by the KKK after they realized that she was driving with an African-American man in her passenger seat. Following her death, the FBI spread rumors that Liuzzo was a Communist and had abandoned her family to, quote, “have sexual relationships with African Americans.” Both these claims were demonstrably false. The worst part, though, was that one of the Klansman who killed Liuzzo was an FBI agent who “infiltrated” the KKK under the guise of COINTELPRO.
There is no end to the horrendous stories of the FBI’s abuse of power under COINTELPRO. Yet, despite countless examples of racism, sexism, and disregard for the law, the repercussions were nonexistent. The Church Committee’s final report stated, “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 only lasting effect of the Church Committee was a new law restricting the FBI and CIA from carrying out assassinations. COINTELPRO was ordered to be disbanded, but many American citizens believe that the activities have continued, just under a different name. Since the Reagan administration, the rise in counterterrorism activities has led to a handful of similar programs, some of which are still in place today. The truth is, we have no idea just how far the Bureau and other federal agencies have gone in stamping out opposition.
What do you think? Has the FBI, and the American intelligence community as a whole, ever done something more wicked than COINTELPRO? As the Church Committee stated, the FBI’s tactics were excessive even if their targets were violent extremists. But, is there any point where the government should be able to act beyond the scope of the law, under the guise of national security? Most importantly, what is the FBI, or any other intelligence agency in any country, doing to subvert opposition, civil rights leaders, and others who are simply hoping to make the world a better place?