The Ghost of COINTELPRO

Attorney General John Ashcroft has made a public pitch to dump the guidelines put in place in the 1970s that ban FBI spying on domestic organizations.

Ashcroft says the guidelines are obsolete and hinder the hunt for domestic terrorists. Eliminating them would give the FBI carte blanche authority to surveil, and plant agents in churches, mosques and of course, political groups. It would also permit FBI agents to interrogate individuals. They could do all this without having to show probable cause of criminal wronging.

The FBI would again have unbridled power to determine what groups and individuals it could target.

Ashcroft is banking that most Americans and public officials have a short or no memory of the colossal havoc the super-secret, and blatantly illegal counter-intelligence COINTELPRO program wreaked on the lives of thousands of innocent Americans during the 1950s and 1960s. The mandate of the program, spelled out in one of the piles of secret documents released by Senate investigators in 1976, was to "disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and neutralize" groups and individuals the FBI considered politically objectionable. Those targeted were not foreign spies, terrorists, or suspected of criminal acts.

The FBI patterned COINTELPRO on the methods used by its Counter-intelligence Division and Internal Security Sections during the 1940s and 1950s. The aim then was to nail spies, saboteurs, and individuals and groups that advocated overthrowing the government. The arsenal of dirty tactics included non-court authorized wiretaps, undercover plants, agent provocateurs, poison pen letters, black bag jobs, and the compiling of secret dossiers. Local FBI offices were given wide discretion to pick its targets and the tactics they could use.

In those years, the FBI's favored targets were the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party. But this changed in the mid-1960s. Driven by a grotesque mix of personal racism and paranoia, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover kicked the program into even higher gear. His goal was to demolish the Black Muslims, Black Panthers, civil rights organizations and their leaders, especially Martin Luther King. The FBI assembled a small army of more than 7,500 "ghetto informants" (known) and hundreds of FBI agents in a deadly national campaign to harass and intimidate thousands of African-Americans.

The FBI listed the individuals targeted under categories variously called, "Rabble Rouser Index," "Agitator Index," and the "Security Index." The results were immediate and devastating. Thousands were expelled from schools, lost jobs, evicted from their homes, and offices, and publicly slandered. Few of these individuals were indicted, convicted or even accused of any crimes. FBI documents released in 1976 revealed that the agency devoted less than 20 percent of its spy activities to organized crime, solving bank robberies, murders, rapes and interstate theft. By contrast, more than half of its spy targets were political groups.

In 1967, the FBI dredged up yet another ominous tactic it its secret war: preventative detention. FBI officials in the Philadelphia office boasted that they had jailed members of the Black Nationalist group, RAM, on any charge they could think of. RAM members were held for months with no charges filed, and with no hint that any would be. Hoover was thrilled at the illegal detention tactic and ordered all 41 FBI field offices to copy it.

Three decades later it has carbon copied this tactic to round up and detain more than 1,000 persons in its search for accomplices in the September 11 terror massacre. Most of the detainees, as was the case with the RAM members, have not been charged with any crimes. A study by the Justice Department found that nearly 70 percent of the detainees were released with no charges filed. Not one of those currently in custody is charged with conspiracy in the September 11 terror massacre. The Justice Department has given no indication that any indictments are forthcoming for terrorist activities.

With the death of Hoover in 1974 and congressional disclosure of the illegal program, the Justice Department publicly assured that COINTELPRO was a thing of the hideous past and that it had implemented ironclad control over FBI activities. The obituary was premature. During the 1980s the FBI waged a five-year covert war against CISPES, and 215 religious and pacifist groups and leaders that opposed American foreign policy in Central America. In the 1990s it mounted covert campaigns against Silo Plowshares, an anti-nuclear weapons group, Earth First, the American Indian Movement, and Arab-American groups during the 1991 Gulf War. The FBI tactics were reruns of those the Justice Department swore were dead and buried.

Ashcroft hasn't yet decided whether he'll scrap the guidelines. If he does, he solemnly promises that the FBI will not trample on the rights and liberties of religious and political groups. That's a promise the thousands whose lives were ruined by COINTELPRO will find hard to believe.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion Web site: www.thehutchinsonreport.com.

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