HUTCHINSON: Cointelpro Rides Again

At the same time that President Bush dumped the old 1970s guidelines that banned FBI spying on domestic organizations, he also solemnly swore to honor the Constitution and respect all freedoms. The new guidelines do anything but that. They give the FBI carte blanche authority to surveil, and plant agents in churches, mosques and of course, political groups. It will permit FBI agents to ransack 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 who and what groups and individuals it can target.

But in saying that giving the FBI complete freedom to spy won’t jeopardize civil liberties, Bush either has no memory of why the 1970s guidelines were put in place or he truly believes that the war on terrorism must override the freedoms that he promises to respect. If the latter is the reason he has unleashed the FBI, Bush won’t be any different than other recent presidents. Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon claimed that the battle to nail domestic subversives, i.e. Communists, Socialists, black nationalists, Black Panthers and civil rights leaders, most notably Martin Luther King Jr., justified, bending, twisting, and ultimately breaking the law and violating civil liberties.

They winked and nodded as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover launched the super-secret, and blatantly illegal counter-intelligence COINTELPRO program that targeted thousands of innocent Americans during the 1960s. The mandate of the program, spelled out in one of the stacks 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 in nearly all cases were not foreign spies, terrorists, or individuals suspected of criminal acts.

The FBI patterned COINTELPRO on the methods used by its Counter-intelligence Division and Internal Security Sections during the 1940’sand 1950s. The aim then was to bag 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.

Driven by a grotesque mix of personal racism and paranoia, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover kicked the program into high gear in the 1960s. The FBI assembled thousands of "ghetto informants" and hundreds of FBI agents in a deadly national campaign to harass and intimidate African-American groups. 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 sl andered. 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 twenty percent of its spy activities to organized crime, solving bank robberies, murders, rapes and interstate theft. More than half of its spy targets were political organizations.

Hoover gave local FBI offices wide discretion to pick and choose their targets, and the tactics they could use. The new guidelines, like the old FBI spy campaign, gives local agents the same wide discretion to determine what groups or individuals it can investigate and what tactics they can use to investigate them.

With the death of Hoover in 1972 and congressional disclosure of the illegal program, the Justice Department publicly assured that COINTELPRO was a thing of the past and that it had implemented ironclad control over FBI activities. It didn’t. During the 1980s, the FBI waged a five-year covert spy campaign against dozens of religious and pacifist groups and leaders that opposed American foreign policy in Central America. In the 1990s it mounted covert campaigns against civil rights, environmental, and Native American, anti-nuclear disarmament groups, and Arab-American groups. The FBI tactics used against these groups were an exact repeat of the tactics that the 1970s guidelines supposedly banned.

Attorney-General John Ashcroft says that the FBI will not use its restored powers to wage war on law-abiding groups, or maintain illicit files and dossiers on prominent citizens. But FBI officials said the same thing during the 1960s. Then, as now, those in the press, and the few liberal Democrats that occasionally questioned FBI abuses, had to accept their denials. No government agency in those days would dare attempt to compel the FBI to prove it didn’t illegally spy. In the current climate of political fear, it remains to be seen if Congressional agencies will be any more diligent in their oversight of the FBI this time around.

Bush says that scrapping the old ban on FBI spying will give the FBI tools to defeat terrorism. But if the past is any indication, the enemies of the state can be just about any and everyone FBI agents finger. And despite Bush’s promises to respect the Constitution, who can or will dispute them? Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).

This article originally appeared in Salon June 3, 2002

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