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Roots of the NSA: How the White Panthers Saved the Movement and the FISA Court was Created

A slice of history reveals the ugliness of the FBI's COINTELPRO campaign to disrupt the important social justice movements that exploded in the 1960s.

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On the Monday following the Watergate break-in, the Supreme Court decided U.S. vs. U.S. District Court (Keith) ex rel Sinclair, which struck down the Nixon/Mitchell program of warrantless domestic political wiretapping. The aftermath, leading to Nixon's resignation, revealed the ugliness of the FBI's COINTELPRO campaign to disrupt the civil rights, black liberation, anti-war, youth, women, environmental, LGBT and other social justice movements that exploded in the 1960s.

That led to the Church Commission, which recommended various checks on the FBI's power to disrupt political dissent and the creation of Foreign Intelligence Security (FISA) Court, which is today the subject of great controversy in the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations about the massive data mining and surveillance of U.S. citizens and their communications (not to mention that of the rest of the world). Particularly since 9/11 and the passage of the Patriot Act, progressives and civil libertarians have protested the quasi-police state expansion and militarization of U.S. law enforcement, including infiltration of legal groups and the open quashing of political speech (see Occupy Movement), accompanied by widespread electronic surveillance.

The FISA Court (one of whose first judges was the Honorable Ralph Guy, who was the U.S. Attorney when the Keith case started in Michigan in 1970) supposedly protects U.S. citizens from warrantless electronic surveillance. Progressives have complained that the Court (secretive, one-sided, loaded with compliant judges) is a joke. But it was still not responsive enough for Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Ashcroft and they simply ignored it on many occasions. After the Snowden releases, there have been congressional calls to strength FISA. But with the National Security Agency and the FISA Court judges admitting that even they do not understand how all of these electronic surveillance and data gathering programs work, it is nothing but a fig leaf, and a shriveled one at that. History has shown that we cannot legislate or litigate our way to liberation.

The Beginning: Bombings and Conspiracies

In early August 1970, two thin white guys with Afros and purple T-shirts that said “White Panther Party” (WPP) came into the National Lawyers Guild office in Detroit. A few weeks earlier, Lawrence (Pun) Plamondon, the first white revolutionary in modern times to make the FBI’s Top 10, had been arrested in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for allegedly throwing a beer can out of a van. He was being driven to a hiding place by Jack Forrest and another member of the WPP. They pled guilty to harboring a fugitive.

Pun, Jack and John Sinclair (at that time doing nine and a half to 10 years in Michigan’s Jackson Penitentiary for two joints) had been charged earlier for the 1968 dynamite bombing of the CIA recruitment office in Ann Arbor. Pun, already facing numerous charges around the county, went underground at the news of the indictment and ultimately to Algeria, where Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers (BPP) was also a fugitive. But there wasn’t any marijuana, alcohol or hippie girls in Algeria, so Pun did not last long. Because the FBI had infiltrated the WPP and their informant was sleeping with Pun’s wife, they were hot on his trail.

The guys who walked into the Guild office were John’s younger brother (Chief of Staff of the WPP) and the Minister of Propaganda. They announced they were going to New York to get Bill Kunstler and Len Weinglass to represent Sinclair and Plamondon. Would I be willing to represent Forrest and act as local counsel? Never having handled a felony or been in federal court (still technically being employed by Legal Services), I naturally said yes. It did not seem like a big risk. Kunstler and Weinglass were the two most prominent lawyers in the country after the Chicago 7 trial. I assumed they would not take the case. I was wrong.