COINTELPRO: The FBI’s Secret War on the Civil Rights Movement

The FBI’s counterintelligence programs (COINTELPRO) of the 1950’s, ’60s, and ’70s formed one of the most infamous domestic initiatives in US history, targeting organizations and individuals whom the FBI saw as threatening the racist, capitalist status quo. Through surveillance, misinformation, frame-ups, and assassinations of radical leaders, the FBI sowed mistrust, ruined reputations, turned husbands against wives, and cost many their jobs or lives.

The Church Committee, a Senate body that held hearings on COINTELPRO after its exposure in the early 1970’s, estimated that as of 1976 the FBI maintained over 500,000 domestic intelligence files. Those being spied upon included student activists, the black liberation movement, the women’s liberation movement, and socialist organizations, as well as more “mainstream” religious organizations and political candidates. 26,000 individuals were on a list of people to be placed in concentration camps in the event of a “national emergency.”

Civil Rights Movement

The FBI did not hesitate to break the law or violate supposedly Constitutionally-protected freedoms of speech and association. After COINTELPRO director William C. Sullivan concluded in a 1963 memo that Martin Luther King, Jr. was “the most dangerous Negro in the future of this nation,” he wrote: “it may be unrealistic to limit [our actions against King] to legalistic proofs that would stand up in court or before Congressional Committees.”

The FBI waged an intense war against Martin Luther King up until his assassination in 1968, and a civil trial in 1999 concluded that forces linked to the state were involved in his murder. They bugged his hotel rooms, tried to provoke IRS investigations against him, and harassed magazines that published articles about him. The Bureau sent him a doctored tape which claimed to prove he had participated in orgies with prostitutes. The accompanying note read: “King, you are done … There is only one way out for you,” urging him to commit suicide or else the tape would be leaked to the media.

The official rationale for COINTELPRO was that the organizations under surveillance were likely to commit acts of violence. In fact, few arrests were ever made for violent crimes. Most targeted organizations, such as King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, were explicitly non-violent, whereas FBI activities were often directly or indirectly responsible for violence against activists.

The most brutal attacks were reserved for the black liberation movement. In 1967, the FBI established the “Black Nationalist Hate Groups” program to “prevent a coalition of militant black nationalist groups, … prevent the rise of a messiah who could unify and electrify the militant nationalist movement,” and “prevent … groups and leaders from gaining respectability by discrediting them.” The more organizations succeeded at mobilizing the community and linking civil rights with demands for deeper economic and structural change, the more they became FBI targets.

The formation of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) crystallized the growing militancy and support for socialism in the black community. By 1969, they were the number one focus of the FBI. BPP chairwoman Elaine Brown wrote: “the FBI used the full weight of its counterintelligence program to lay waste to the party.”

Agents in L.A. stirred up tensions between the Panthers and an organization called United Slaves (U.S.), which resulted in at least four BPP members being killed by the U.S. The FBI had sent derogatory cartoons and threats to Panther members “signed” by the U.S. After the murders, a local FBI office learned that the two groups were trying to talk out their differences peacefully. Their response? Send more cartoons to provoke further violence.

The FBI’s utter disdain for the law was also revealed in the case of Panther leader Geronimo Pratt. Pratt spent 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. His conviction was overturned only after it was revealed that the FBI was spying on a BPP meeting Pratt attended in Oakland at the same time the murder was being committed in L.A.

Limits of Democracy

Government persecution of US citizens involved in legal political activities did not begin with COINTELPRO. Previous attempts include the campaign against W.E.B. DuBois and the NAACP, and the anti-communist/anti-labor Palmer raids. But COINTELPRO was the first large-scale, systematic use of modern intelligence techniques to repress political opponents of the ruling class.

The US government officially ended COINTELPRO in 1971 under enormous pressure from popular movements. After its defeat in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, the ruling class was forced to accept a series of reforms that curtailed the repressive powers of the police, FBI, and other agencies.

These reforms were intended to restore confidence in the government and included the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which distinguished between foreign intelligence-gathering and domestic law enforcement, setting strict standards of judicial oversight for the latter.

However, as Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall explain in The COINTELPRO Papers: “By discontinuing use of the term ‘COINTELPRO,’ the Bureau gave the appearance of acceding to public and congressional pressure. In reality, it protected its capacity to continue precisely the same activity under other names.” In the late 1980’s an FBI informant admitted he was paid by the FBI to infiltrate and disrupt the Central American solidarity organization CISPES from 1981 to 1984.

Rolling Back Reforms

The horrific terrorist attacks of 9/11 gave the ruling elite an opportunity to reverse the reforms of the 1970’s by substantially restricting civil liberties and strengthening the repressive powers of the state. This process had already begun before 9/11, using the pretexts of the wars on drugs and crime and earlier anti-terrorist legislation.

The Patriot Act, passed shortly after 9/11, is a massive attack on democratic rights. It breaks down the barrier between foreign and domestic intelligence established in FISA, and gives law enforcement new powers to conduct surveillance and confiscate property based solely on suspicion of terrorist activity.

A host of other repressive measures have accompanied the Patriot Act. Fear of deportation and indefinite detention without trial have become the norm for Arab and Muslim communities.

Yet another shocking attempt to restrict civil liberties came to light in February. The Center for Public Integrity obtained copies of a secret draft bill prepared by the Justice Department and distributed to the Vice President and House Speaker for review. The proposed legislation would allow the government to take away a person’s U.S. citizenship if they are a member of, provide support to a group designated as “terrorist.” It would authorize creation of a DNA database of suspected terrorists and repeal consent decrees passed to limit police spying in major cities.

The lesson of COINTELPRO is that when the ruling class’s interests are threatened, the Constitution will not stop them from trying to repress those threats. The Patriot Act and other “anti-terrorist” legislation gives the government further repressive powers that can be used to attack the working class and the oppressed.

These laws are inevitably implemented in a racist fashion. COINTELPRO especially targeted African Americans, while today the Patriot Act especially targets immigrants and Muslims. Like COINTELPRO, the Patriot Act is a threat to all anti-war, union, and civil rights activists and anyone else the government perceives as “dangerous.”

We cannot rely on our “justice system,” the Democrats, or the Republicans to protect our hard-won freedoms. Our democratic rights can only be defended by mass struggles of the working class and ultimately by abolishing the inherently undemocratic capitalist system.

COINTELPRO was defeated by the mass movements of the ’60s and ’70s. Similarly today, by building a powerful movement of workers, people of color, and young people, we can defeat these new racist, undemocratic laws.

Justice #33, February 2003