FBI Domestic Intelligence Activities


COINTELPRO Revisited - Spying & Disruption

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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