Refuse and Resist!
Cointelpro Revisited -
Spying & Disruption
By Brian Glick
author of War at Home, South End Press
A History To Learn From-
What Was Cointelpro?
"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
How Do We Know About It?
COINTELPRO was discovered in March, 1971, when 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 . . .
How Did It Work?
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
1. Infiltration: Agents and informers did not merely spy on political
activists. Their main function was to discredit and disrupt. Various
means to this end are analyzed below.
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 Native
American movements, these assaults -- including outright political
assassinations -- were so extensive and vicious that they amounted to
terrorism on the part of the government.
Who Were The Main Targets?
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
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
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.
What Effect Did It Have?
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,
- COINTELPRO distorted the public's view of radical groups in a way
that helped to isolate them and to legitimize open political
- 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.
For more information on FBI COINTELPRO operations, see:
Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, Agents of Repression: The FBI's
Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian
Movement, 1990, South End Press, Boston
Eds. Jim Fletcher, Tanaquil Jones, & Sylvere Lotringer, Still Black,
Still Strong: Survivors of the War Against Black Revolutionaries,
1993, Semiotext(e), New York
Brian Glick, War At Home: Covert Action Against U.S. Activists and
What We Can Do About It, 1989, South End Press, Boston
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