Hoover's Long Shadow (COINTELPRO)

Hoover's Long Shadow

Commentary, Earl Ofari Hutchinson,
Pacific News Service, Nov 24, 2003

Editor's Note: The release of a confidential FBI memo detailing FBI surveillance of antiwar protesters shows that the FBI is once again in position to quell dissent and disrupt political organizing.

When Attorney General John Ashcroft dumped the old 1970s guidelines that banned FBI spying on domestic organizations last year, he also publicly pledged that the FBI would not be back in the spy business. But a recently released memorandum sent by FBI officials to local police departments is proof that FBI agents, if not back in the spy business, are inching up on it.

The memo, written before last October's anti-Iraq war protests, urged police to keep close tabs on protesters. FBI officials claim that their aim isn't to harass or intimidate protesters or chill political dissent, but simply to ferret out violence-prone radicals.

But that's what FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover claimed four decades ago. During the 1960s, Hoover kicked into high gear a super-secret and blatantly illegal counter-intelligence program called COINTELPRO, which targeted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other black and anti-war protest leaders as well as thousands of innocent Americans. The mandate of the program was spelled out in one of the stacks of secret documents released by Senate investigators in 1976: to "disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and neutralize" groups and individuals the FBI considered politically objectionable. Those targeted in nearly all cases were not foreign spies, terrorists or individuals suspected of criminal acts.

The results were devastating. Thousands were expelled from schools or lost their jobs, were evicted from their homes or were publicly slandered. Few COINTELPRO targets were indicted, convicted or even accused of any crime. Hoover gave local FBI offices wide discretion to pick and choose targets and the tactics they could use to go after them.

A striking feature of Hoover's approach to political spying was the close coordination between the FBI and local police departments. This was apparent when the FBI launched deadly search and destroy missions jointly with local police in several cities in 1969 against the Black Panther Party.

With the death of Hoover in 1972 and Congressional disclosure of the illegal program, the Justice Department publicly assured Congress that COINTELPRO was a thing of the past, and issued new guidelines to prevent such abuses in the future.

That wasn't entirely true. During the 1980s the FBI waged a five-year covert spy campaign against dozens of religious and pacifist groups and individuals who opposed American foreign policy in Central America. In the 1990s it mounted covert campaigns against civil rights, environmental, Native American and nuclear disarmament groups, as well as Arab-American groups. The FBI tactics used against these groups were a close replica of the tactics that the 1970s guidelines supposedly banned.

The new guidelines that Ashcroft put in place in 2002 -- heartily endorsed by President Bush and silently approved by most Congressional Democrats -- are supposed to make it easier to nail potential terrorists and their supporters. They give the FBI carte blanche authority to plant agents in and place under surveillance churches, mosques and political groups. They also permit FBI agents to roam at will through the Internet to hunt for potential subversives. They can do all this without having to show probable cause of criminal wrongdoing. This again gives the FBI unbridled power to determine what groups and individuals it can target.

That doesn't mean the FBI will again blatantly and brazenly twist and ultimately break the law, violate civil liberties or commit willful acts of violence as it did in the past. But it does make it much easier for FBI officials to skirt the law if they so choose when dealing with protest organizations. There's some evidence that that's exactly what has happened. Antiwar activists have complained that FBI agents have infiltrated antiwar meetings in some cities, and that local police have fiercely grilled antiwar demonstrators in New York City about their political ties. Some activists say their names have wound up on the government's "no fly" list, the list the airlines can use to deny passengers the right to board an airplane.

Ashcroft, Bush and FBI officials have relentlessly used the threat of more domestic terror attacks to sell Congress and the public on expanded FBI powers. Few would dispute the need for the FBI to use all legal means to apprehend those who are a legitimate threat to commit terrorist attacks in the United States. But if the past is any indication, the enemies of the state can be just about any and everyone Ashcroft, Bush and FBI officials suspect or, worse, finger. Hoover had no compunction about pointing fingers, and the FBI memo is a disturbing signal that fingers are again being pointed at the antiwar movement.



PNS contributor Earl Ofari Hutchinson (ehutchi344 [at] aol [dot] com) is a political analyst and the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).