I had rather take my chance that some traitors will escape detection than spread abroad a spirit of general suspicion and distrust, which accepts rumor and gossip in place of undismayed and unintimidated inquiry. – Learned Hand
It is not lost on this writer what was being hotly debated before being trumped by events in Syria (and before Syria was in turn trumped by the GOP-initiated government shutdown). What we were talking about was this government’s domestic spying program as revealed in information given by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The always appropriate concern when it comes national security and surveillance is that what is supposed to be used to protect us can — and far too often does — become a tool used to oppress and harass the perceived political opponents of whatever administration happens to be in office; that the instruments used for surveillance will be aimed at those who dissent from the prevailing party line.
This suspicion was not hatched in the fevered mind of – yes, here’s that phrase again – a conspiracy theorist, or from a paranoid cabal of political radicals. No, this conclusion is drawn from an accurate knowledge of history. Snowden’s account, no matter how compelling, is just another incident in a long history of abuses of power.
What was COINTELPRO?
The Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, was a series of covert (and at times illegal) projects conducted by the FBI that aimed at surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting and disrupting domestic political organizations. An operation by the NSA called Project MINARET targeted the personal communications of leading Americans, including Senators Frank Church and Howard Baker, civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr., and journalists and athletes who criticized the Vietnam War.
The FBI has used covert operations against domestic political groups from its genesis; nevertheless, covert operations under the official COINTELPRO label took place between 1956 and 1971. The COINTELPRO playbook is still being used to this day, and has been alleged to include discrediting targets through psychological warfare, smearing individuals and groups using forged documents and by planting false reports in the media, harassment, wrongful imprisonment and illegal violence, including assassination. The FBI’s official statement for these actions was that they were “protecting national security, preventing violence, and maintaining the existing social and political order.”
It’s always amazing how many evils are done and how many transgressions are committed for “our own good” — for our “protection.” According to “The FBI: A History, by Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones,”
“FBI records show that 85% of COINTELPRO resources targeted groups and individuals that the FBI deemed “subversive,” including communist and socialist organizations; organizations and individuals associated with the Civil Rights Movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and others associated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Congress of Racial Equality and other civil rights organizations; black nationalist groups; the American Indian Movement; a broad range of organizations labeled “New Left”, including Students for a Democratic Society and the Weathermen; almost all groups protesting the Vietnam, as well as individual student demonstrators with no group affiliation; the National Lawyers Guild; organizations and individuals associated with the women’s rights movement; nationalist groups such as those seeking independence for Puerto Rico, United Ireland, and Cuban exile movements including Orlando Bosch’s Cuban Power and the Cuban Nationalist Movement; and additional notable Americans —even Albert Einstein, who was a socialist and a member of several civil rights groups, came under FBI surveillance during the years just before COINTELPRO’s official inauguration.
The remaining 15% of COINTELPRO resources were expended to marginalize and subvert white hate groups, including the Ku Klux Klan and the National States’ Rights Party.”
The 85 to 15 percent COINTELPRO targeting ratio between leftist social justice groups and racist right-leaning groups reflects the attitudes held by not only those in leadership at the FBI, but also a great deal of those in the American government. Think about it: when the FBI was essentially committing crimes against American citizens, was there a great deal of pushback from any party? Yes, there were members of the Democratic Party that called for more transparency and investigations, but their voices were in the minority – it took a presidential scandal called Watergate to get any focus on certain COINTELPRO activities.
COINTELPRO and the suppression of dissent
In 1969 when the Black Panthers created a breakfast for children program, it didn’t take long before they were on the radar of the FBI. Claiming the program served to indoctrinate children, the Bureau directed field offices to “formulate specific counterintelligence techniques to disrupt this nefarious activity.” The FBI stepped up its efforts to recruit Blacks to infiltrate the Black Panther Party.
One of the more high profile COINTELPRO operations was against the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party, which resulted in the assassination of chapter head Fred Hampton during a Dec. 4, 1969 police raid on the chapter headquarters. FBI agent Gregg York remarked: “We expected about twenty Panthers to be in the apartment when the police raided the place. Only two of those Black niggers were killed, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.”
In the weeks that followed, public pressure led to a series of investigations. An FBI ballistic expert established that all but one of the more than 90 shots had been fired by the police. All charges against the Panthers were dropped, no police were indicted. But the families of Hampton and Clark and the survivors of the raid sued the government for violation of their civil rights. Years later, the case was closed when federal and local governments and the police agreed to an out-of-court settlement of $1.8 million dollars.
In the book detailing some of the covert activities of the FBI, titled “War At Home: Covert Action Against U.S. Activists and What We Can Do About It” by Brian Glick, we further know what other groups endured at the hands of the FBI:
In 1973, the Bureau led a paramilitary invasion of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota as American Indian Movement (AIM) activists gathered there for symbolic protests at Wounded Knee, the site of an earlier U.S. massacre of Native Americans. The FBI directed the entire 71-day siege, deploying federal marshals, U.S. Army personnel, Bureau of Indian Affairs police, local GOONs (Guardians of the Oglala Nation, an armed tribal vigilante force), and a vast array of heavy weaponry.
In the following years, the FBI and its allies waged all-out war on AIM and the Native people. From 1973-76, they killed 69 residents of the tiny Pine Ridge reservation, a rate of political murder comparable to the first years of the Pinochet regime in Chile. To justify such a reign of terror and undercut public protest against it, the Bureau launched a complementary program of psychological warfare.
In one operation, the FBI fabricated reports that AIM ‘Dog Soldiers’ planned widespread ‘sniping at tourists’ and ‘burning of farmers’ in South Dakota. The son of liberal U.S. Senator (and Arab-American activist) James Abourezk, was named as a “gunrunner,” and the Bureau issued a nationwide alert picked up by media across the country.
To the same end, FBI undercover operatives framed AIM members Paul ‘Skyhorse’ Durant and Richard ‘Mohawk’ Billings for the brutal murder of a Los Angeles taxi driver. A bogus AIM note taking credit for the killing was found pinned to a signpost near the murder site, along with a bundle of hair said to be the victim’s “scalp. ” Newspaper headlines screamed of ‘ritual murder’ by ‘radical Indians.’ By the time the defendants were finally cleared of the spurious charges, many of AIM’s main financial backers had been scared away and its work among a major urban concentration of Native people was in ruin.
From 1972-1974, La Raza Unida Party of Texas was plagued with repeated, unsolved COINTELPRO-style political break-ins. Former government operative Eustacio ‘Frank’ Martinez has admitted that after the close of COINTELPRO, the U. S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) paid him to help destroy La Casa de Carnalisimo, a Chicano community anti-drug program in Los Angeles. Martinez, who had previously infiltrated the Brown Berets and the Chicano Moratorium, stated that the ATF directed him to provoke bombings and plant a drug pusher in La Casa.
In 1973, Chicano activist and lawyer Francisco ‘Kiko’ Martinez was indicted in Colorado on trumped-up bombing charges and suspended from the bar. He was forced to leave the United States for fear of assassination by police directed to shoot him ‘on sight.’ When Martinez was eventually brought to trial in the 1980s, many of the charges against him were dropped for insufficient evidence and local juries acquitted him of others. One case ended in a mistrial when it was found that the judge had met secretly with prosecutors, police, and government witnesses to plan perjured testimony, and had conspired with the FBI to conceal video cameras in the courtroom.
What the historical record has shown is that state and local law enforcement has often been used as ancillaries in implementing and forwarding FBI or government policy – which sometimes includes unconstitutional activities. In like manner, since 9/11, the New York City Police Department has established an intelligence operation that in some ways has been even more aggressive than the NSA. At its core is a spying operation targeting Arab- and Muslim-Americans where they live, work and pray.
The NYPD’s “Demographics Unit,” as it was known until 2010, has secretly infiltrated Muslim student groups, sent informants into mosques, eavesdropped on conversations in restaurants, barbershops and gyms, and built a vast database of information. The program was established with help from the CIA – by law, barred from domestic spying. Reports have shown that the NYPD has labeled at least 50 Muslim organizations, including a dozen mosques, as terrorist groups. This designation has allowed them to carry out what are called “terrorism enterprise investigations,” sending undercover informants into mosques to spy on worshipers and make secret recordings.
When we, because of prejudicial and political reasons, deem certain groups to be the enemy, they become citizens without a country – unworthy of sympathy or human consideration.
This writer knows full well that there are actual terrorists and very real threats to our country. This is exactly why the illegal acts of FBI, and by extension our government, are so reprehensible. When trumped up charges, harassment and suppression of groups exercising their constitutional right to dissent is policy, the moral high ground and legitimacy that’s needed to justify rightful governmental and law enforcement actions is lost. And as a result, we are at greater risk.
Let’s return to where we began in this writing: how the national security apparatus becomes a political tool in the hands of those in power. COINTELPRO and other covert operations by governmental agencies have literal, social and political blood on their hands. As is usually the case, these issues were addressed before; a diagnosis given and a prescription ignored.
The Church Committee was the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, a U.S. Senate committee chaired by Senator Frank Church – Democrat from Idaho – in 1975. As you read this excerpt from their report, you can easily see that the echoes of injustice from the past are just as resonate today:
“The answer to each of these questions is disturbing. Too many people have been spied upon by too many Government agencies and too much information has been collected. The Government has often undertaken the secret surveillance of citizens on the basis of their political beliefs, even when those beliefs posed no threat of violence or illegal acts on behalf of a hostile foreign power. The Government, operating primarily through secret informants, but also using other intrusive techniques such as wiretaps, microphone “bugs” surreptitious mail opening, and break-ins, has swept in vast amounts of information about the personal lives, views, and associations of American citizens. Investigations of groups deemed potentially dangerous — and even of groups suspected of associating with potentially dangerous organizations — have continued for decades, despite the fact that those groups did not engage in unlawful activity.
Groups and individuals have been harassed and disrupted because of their political views and their lifestyles. Investigations have been based upon vague standards whose breadth made excessive collection inevitable. Unsavory and vicious tactics have been employed — including anonymous attempts to break up marriages, disrupt meetings, ostracize persons from their professions, and provoke target groups into rivalries that might result in deaths. Intelligence agencies have served the political and personal objectives of presidents and other high officials. While the agencies often committed excesses in response to pressure from high officials in the Executive branch and Congress, they also occasionally initiated improper activities and then concealed them from officials whom they had a duty to inform.
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 Constitutional system of checks and balances has not adequately controlled intelligence activities. Until recently the Executive branch has neither delineated the scope of permissible activities nor established procedures for supervising intelligence agencies. Congress has failed to exercise sufficient oversight, seldom questioning the use to which its appropriations were being put. Most domestic intelligence issues have not reached the courts, and in those cases when they have reached the courts, the judiciary has been reluctant to grapple with them.”