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The Legacy of COINTELPRO

The repression of dissident groups can be traced far back into US history, at least to the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, by which "the Federalists sought to suppress political opposition and to stamp out lingering sympathy for the principles of the French Revolution," or to the judicial murder of four anarchists for "having advocated doctrines" which allegedly lay behind the explosion of a bomb in Chicago's Haymarket Square after a striker had been killed by police in May 1886. 135 The Pinkerton Detective Agency, a private investigating agency of the nineteenth century, made extensive use of informants, strike-breakers and provocateurs.

During the first World War, when the long-time, powerful head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover led the Bureau of Investigation, there was a "mass deprivation of rights incident to the deserter and selective service violator raids in New York and New Jersey in 1918..." 136 What happened is that 35 Bureau Agents assisted by police and military personnel and a "citizens auxiliary" of the Bureau, "rounded up some 50,000 men without warrants of sufficient probable cause for arrest."
In 1920 the Bureau, along with Immigration Bureau agents, carried on the "Palmer Raids" (authorized by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer), which, in 33 cities rounded up 10,000 persons. The Church Committee report 137 talks of "the abuses of due process of law incident to the raids," quoting a scholarly study 138 that these raids involved "indiscriminate arrests of the innocent with the guilty, unlawful seizures by federal detectives..." and other violations of constitutional rights.
The Church Committee cites a report of distinguished legal scholars 139 made after the Palmer Raids, and says the scholars "found federal agents guilty of using third-degree tortures, making illegal searches and arrests, using agents provocateurs...."

Attorney General Palmer justified his actions "to clean up the country almost unaided by any virile legislation" on grounds of the failure of Congress "to stamp out these seditious societies in their open defiance of law by various forms of propaganda":

Upon these two basic certainties, first that the "Reds" were criminal aliens, and secondly that the American Government must prevent crime, it was decided that there could be no nice distinctions drawn between the theoretical ideals of the radicals and their actual violations of our national laws. Palmer's "information showed that communism in this country was an organization of thousands of aliens, who were direct allies of Trotzky." Thus "the Government is now sweeping the nation clean of such alien filth," with the overwhelming support of the press, until they perceived that their own interests were threatened. 140

Elsewhere he described the prisoners as follows:

Out of the sly and crafty eyes of many of them leap cupidity, cruelty, insanity, and crime; from their lopsided faces, sloping brows, and misshapen features may be recognized the unmistakable criminal type.

Palmer's declared purpose was "to tear out the radical seeds that have entangled American ideas in their poisonous theories." 141
One early FBI target was Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Under his leadership, UNIA, which to this day remains the largest organization of African Americans ever assembled, devoted itself mainly to the realization of various "bootstrapping" strategies (i.e., undertaking business ventures as a means of attaining its twin goals of black pride and self-sufficiency).

Nonetheless, despite UNIAs explicitly capitalist orientation, or maybe because of it, Hoover launched an inquiry into Garvey's activities in August 1919. When this initial probe revealed no illegalities, Hoover, railing against Garvey's "pro-Negroism," ordered that the investigation be not only continued but intensified. UNIA was quickly infiltrated by operatives recruited specifically for the purpose, and a number of informants developed within it. Still, it was another two years before the General Intelligence Division was able to find a pretext - Garvey's technical violation of the laws governing offerings of corporate stock - upon which to bring charges of "mail fraud." Convicted in July 1923 by an all-white jury, the UNIA leader was first incarcerated in the federal prison at Atlanta, then deported as an undesirable alien in 1927. By then, the organization he'd founded had disintegrated. Hoover, in the interim, had vowed to prevent anyone from ever again assuming the standing of what he called a "Negro Moses."

World War II brought a return of the FBI to counterintelligence operations as President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a series of instructions establishing the basic domestic intelligence structure for the federal government. Roosevelt was advised by Hoover to proceed with the utmost degree of secrecy:
In considering the steps to be taken for the expansion of the present structure of intelligence work, it is believed imperative that it proceed with the utmost degree of secrecy in order to avoid criticism or objections which might be raised to such an expansion by either ill-informed persons or individuals having some ulterior motive ... Consequently, it would seem undesirable to seek any special legislation which would draw attention to the fact that it was proposed to develop a special counterespionage drive of any great magnitude. 142

According to William C. Sullivan, Hoover's assistant for many years:

Such a very great man as Franklin D. Roosevelt saw nothing wrong in asking the FBI to investigate those opposing his lend-lease policy -- a purely political request. He also had us look into the activities of others who opposed our entrance into World War II, just as later Administrations had the FBI look into those opposing the conflict in Vietnam. It was a political request also when he [Roosevelt] instructed us to put a telephone tap, a microphone, and a physical surveillance on an internationally known leader in his Administration. It was done. The results he wanted were secured and given to him. Certain records of this kind ... were not then or later put into the regular FBI filing system. Rather, they were deliberately kept out of it. 143

The passage in 1940 of the Smith Act, made "sedition" a peacetime as well as a wartime offense. The doctrine was laid out clearly by Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson in his opinion upholding of the Smith Act on the grounds "that it was no violation of free speech to convict Communists for conspiring to teach or advocate the forcible overthrow of the government, even if no clear and present danger could be proved." For if the clear and present danger test were applied, Jackson argued, "it means that Communist plotting is protected during its period of incubation; its preliminary stages of organization and preparation are immune from the law, the Government can move only after imminent action is manifest, when it would, of course, be too late." Thus there must be "some legal formula that will secure an existing order against revolutionary radicalism.... There is no constitutional right to `gang up' on the Government." Opposition tendencies, however minuscule, must be nipped in the bud prior to "imminent action."

Hoover claimed that in 1940, "advocates of foreign isms" had succeeded in boring into every phase of American life, masquerading behind front organizations. 144 In 1939, Hoover told the House Appropriations Committee that his General Intelligence Division had compiled extensive indices of individuals, groups, and organizations engaged in subversive activities, in espionage activities, or any activities that are possibly detrimental to the internal security of the United States.. . . Their backgrounds and activities are known to the Bureau. These indexes will be extremely important and valuable in a grave emergency. 145

After World War II, the FBI's attention turned from fascism to communism. This was the beginning of the Cold War. In March of 1946, Hoover informed Attorney General Tom Clark that the FBI had

found it necessary to intensify its investigation of Communist party activities and Soviet espionage cases and it was taking steps to list all members of the Communist party and any others who might be dangerous in the event of a break with the Soviet Union, or other serious crisis involving the United States and the USSR.. . . It might be necessary in a crisis to immediately detain a large number of American citizens. 146

As for the Communist party, "ordinary conspiracy principles" sufficed to charge any individual associated with it "with responsibility for and participation in all that makes up the Party's program" and "even an individual," acting alone and apart from any "conspiracy," "cannot claim that the Constitution protects him in advocating or teaching overthrow of government by force or violence." 147

In 1948, the Mundt-Nixon bill, calling for the registration of the Communist party, was reported out of Nixon's House Committee on Un-American Activities. Senate liberals objected, and after a Truman veto they proposed as a substitute "the ultimate weapon of repression: concentration camps to intern potential troublemakers on the occasion of some loosely defined future 'Internal Security Emergency'," 148 including, as one case, "insurrection within the United States in aid of a foreign enemy." 149

This substitute was advocated by Benton, Douglas, Graham, Kefauver, Kilgore, Lehman, and Humphrey, then a freshman senator. Humphrey later voted against the bill, though he did not retreat from his concentration camp proposal. In fact, he was concerned that the conference committee had brought back "a weaker bill, not a bill to strike stronger blows at the Communist menace, but weaker blows." The problem with the new bill was that those interned in the detention centers would have "the right of habeas corpus so they can be released and go on to do their dirty business." 150
In 1949 the attorney general's list was established, excluding members of "communist front organizations" from federal employment, since their influence on government policies would be such that those policies will either favor the foreign country of their ideological choice or will weaken the United States government domestically or abroad to the ultimate advantage of the ... foreign power. Consequently, [Mr. Hoover] urged that attention be given to the association of government employees with front organizations. These included not only established fronts but also temporary organizations, spontaneous campaigns, and pressure movements so frequently used by subversive groups. If a disloyal employee was affiliated with such fronts, he could be expected to influence government policy in the direction taken by the group. 151

The first formal COINTELPRO, aimed at the U.S. Communist Party, commenced on August 28, 1956. Although this was the first instance in which the Internal Security Branch was instructed to employ the full range of extralegal techniques developed by the bureau's counterintelligence specialists against a domestic target in a centrally coordinated and programmatic way, the FBI had conducted such operations against the CP and to a lesser extent the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) on an ad hoc basis at least as early as 1941.

Instructively, Hoover began at the same time to include a section on "Negro Organizations" in reports otherwise dedicated to "Communist Organizations" and "Axis Fifth Columnists." In 1954 there was also the Communist Control Act, a statute outlawing the CP and prohibiting its members from holding certain types of employment.

Viewed against this backdrop, it is commonly believed that, however misguided, COINTELPRO-CPUSA was in some ways well intended, undertaken out of a genuine concern that the CP was engaged in spying for the Soviet Union. Declassified FBI documents, however, reveal quite the opposite. While espionage and sabotage "potentials" are mentioned almost as afterthoughts in the predicating memoranda, unabashedly political motives take center stage. The objective of the COINTELPRO was, as Internal Security Branch chief Alan Belmont put it at the time, to block the CP's "penetration of specific channels of American life where public opinion is molded" and to prevent thereby its attaining "influence over the masses."

From the outset, considerable emphasis was placed on intensifying the bureau's long-standing campaign to promote factional disputes within the Party. To this end, the CP was infiltrated more heavily than ever before. It has been estimated that by 1965 approximately one-third of the CP's nominal membership consisted of FBI infiltrators and paid informants, while bona fide activists were systematically snitch jacketed. A formal "Mass Media Program" was also created, "wherein derogatory information on prominent radicals was leaked to the news media."

The programs directed against the Communist party continued through the 1960s, with such interesting innovations as Operation Hoodwink from 1966 through mid-1968, designed to incite organized crime against the Communist party through documents fabricated by the FBI, evidently in the hope that criminal elements would carry on the work of repression and disruption in their own manner. 152

In October 1961, the "SWP Disruption Program" was put into operation against the Socialist Workers Party. The grounds offered, in a secret FBI memorandum, were the following: the party had been "openly espousing its line on a local and national basis through running candidates for public office and strongly directing and/or supporting such causes as Castro's Cuba and integration problems...in the South." The SWP Disruption Program, put into operation during the Kennedy administration, reveals very clearly the FBI's understanding of its function: to block legal political activity that departs from orthodoxy, to disrupt opposition to state policy, to undermine the civil rights movement.

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CISPES

The FBI has continued to violate the constitutional rights of citizens through the 1980's, up to 1990, as revealed by Ross Gelbspan in his book Break-Ins, Death Threats And The FBI. Utilizing thousands of pages of FBI documents secured through the Freedom of Information Act, Gelbspan found that activists who opposed U.S. policy in Central America "experienced nearly 200 incidents of harassment and intimidation, many involving...break-ins and thefts or rifling of files." Gelbspanís intent was to "add a small document to the depressingly persistent history of the FBI as a national political police force."

During the 1980's as the FBI waged an "active measures" campaign against the Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), a former FBI informant, Frank Varelli, became disillusioned with the Bureau's attempt to destroy CISPES. Acting on disinformation supplied by the murderous Salvadoran National Guard, false information was forwarded by the FBI to the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The National Guard claimed that one FMLN coalition member, the Armed Revolutionary Group (GAR), "were to promote in North America a strong and violent campaign of agitation and propaganda on behalf of FMLN-FDR, having obtained immediate support from different sectors of North American society. Among the groups providing support were labor unions, Gay Power groups, Pro- Abortion groups, groups involved in the women's liberation movement, and organizations that are opposed to the strengthening of the military forces of the US." 153
Although not a shred of evidence existed linking these North American organizations to the GAR, the groups were included in the National Guard communique -- at the direct request of the FBI.
According to Varelli, "Can you imagine if gay rights groups, abortion rights groups, the Equal Rights Amendment groups were known to support a group that had killed more than 20 police and soldiers in a year?" The informant added, "Once the FBI had this data in their files, they could proceed to investigate all these other groups. What is even worse, the FBI knew that this material from the National Guard was strictly disinformation. But they passed the same material along to the Secret Service, the Defense Intelligence Agency and other agencies in the intelligence community without alerting them to the fact that it was completely fabricated." 154
The FBI found it "imperative to formulate some plan of attack against CISPES," not because of its suspected involvement in terrorism or any other criminal activity, but because of its association with "individuals [deleted] who defiantly display their contempt for the U.S. government by making speeches and propagandizing their cause." In plain English, CISPES was politically objectionable to the Bureau - no more, or less - and was therefore deliberately targeted for repression. 155
The investigation was ultimately expanded to include not only CISPES itself, but nearly 2000 organizations and individuals with which CISPES had some sort of interactive relations. This included pastors of local churches who were sympathetic to the Salvadorean peasantry, and Duke University, which provided meeting space.
The Bureau admits it paid Varelli from 1981 to 1984 to infiltrate CISPES. Varelli has testified that the FBI's stated objective was to "break" CISPES. He recounts a modus operandi straight out of the annals COINTELPRO - from break-ins, bogus publications and disruption of public events to planting guns on CISPES members and seducing CISPES leaders in order to get blackmail photos for the FBI. 156
Alerted by Varelli's disclosures, the Center for Constitutional Rights obtained a small portion of the Bureau's CISPES files and released them to the press. The files show the U.S. government targeting a very broad range of religious, labor and community groups opposed to its Central America policies. They confirm that the FBI's objective was to attack and "neutralize" these groups. 157 Mainstream media coverage of these revelations elicited a flurry of congressional investigations and hearings. Publicly exposed, the FBI tried to scapegoat the whistle blower. Its in-house investigation found Varelli "unreliable" and held that his reports of CISPES terrorism were false. The Bureau denied any violation of the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens or involvement in the hundreds of break-ins reported by Central America activists. A grand total of six agents received "formal censure" and three were suspended for 14 days. FBI Director William Sessions declared the case closed, a mere "aberration" due to "failure in FBI management." 158

End

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