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United States of Paranoia: How the FBI Spied and Lied So Conspiracy Theorists Would Sound Crazy

Jesse Walker's new book—The United States of Paranoia—explores how the fear of intrigue and subversion influences our national identity.

Photo Credit: Harper Collins


The following is an excerpt from Jesse Walker's new book, The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory ( Harper Collins Publishers, Inc, 2013): 

The special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Diego office had a plan. An antidraft activist in the area was convinced that the Bureau was watching him—he kept telling people that his phone was tapped, his home bugged, his every move observed. With “a small push in the right direction,” the agent believed, the activist would start exhibiting “obvious paranoid tendencies,” and that would “completely neutralize him in his several leadership capacities.”

So let’s make a big show of spying on the man, the investigator suggested. Maybe we could build a spooky-looking mechanism from a bicycle part and an old transistor radio, then drop it off near his front steps one night. “In the event he displayed the contraption to anyone,” the officer argued, “its crude construction would ultimately neutralize any allegation that it originated or is being utilized by the FBI.” And if the target tried to tell people it was a bugging device, they’d ridicule him.

Headquarters wasn’t convinced. The problem wasn’t that the plan was unethical, unconstitutional, or absurd. It was that the activist might not be important enough to be “a suitable target for counter-intelligence action.” The agent was told to investigate the fellow further, then “resubmit your request if his importance to the New Left movement warrants such attention.” In other words, the Bureau should spend more time spying on the man before it tried to convince the man he was being spied on.

It was November 1968, and that was just one of hundreds of operations against domestic dissidents that FBI agents were proposing, and frequently carrying out, as a part of COINTELPRO, a program to disrupt and neutralize political movements that the Bureau deemed subversive. When it was launched in 1956, COINTELPRO had been aimed at the remnants of the Communist Party and at the groups the party had allegedly infiltrated. Gradually the program’s targets had expanded. COINTELPRO–Communist Party USA was joined by COINTELPRO–Socialist Workers Party, then COINTELPRO–White Hate Groups, then COINTELPRO– Black Nationalist/Hate Groups, then COINTELPRO–New Left.

The White Hate Groups effort was a watershed. The previous COINTELPROs had been designed with the Enemy Outside in mind: The Bureau’s target might have nothing to do with Soviet subversion, but the idea that it might be linked to Soviet subversion was always in play. But even J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s famously anti-Communist director, found it difficult to argue that the Reds controlled the Klan. Once the White Hate Groups program began in 1964, the sociologist David Cunningham has noted, many more groups could “be thought of as ‘subversive’ and therefore suitable targets for counterintelligence programs. No longer did a subversive group have to be controlled by or intimately tied to a hostile foreign power.” Because the Bureau was aiming its fire at the radical Right, powerful liberals were happy to sign off on the program, setting a precedent that made it easier later for the Bureau to target the antiwar movement and the Black Panthers.

Under COINTELPRO, FBI agents infiltrated political groups and spread rumors that loyal members were the real infiltrators. They tried to get targets fired from their jobs, and they tried to break up the targets’ marriages. They published deliberately inflammatory literature in the names of the organizations they wanted to discredit, and they drove wedges between groups that might otherwise be allied. In Baltimore, the FBI’s operatives in the Black Panther Party were instructed to denounce Students for a Democratic Society as “a cowardly, honky group” who wanted to exploit the Panthers by giving them all the violent, dangerous “dirty work.” The operation was apparently successful: In August 1969, just five months after the initial instructions went out, the Baltimore FBI reported that the local Panther branch had ordered its members not to associate with SDS members or attend any SDS events.

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