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

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.

Sometimes the Bureau’s efforts were simply strange. Late in 1968, the FBI’s Philadelphia office pondered how it might react to the counterculture’s rising interest in the occult. “Some leaders of the New Left, its followers, the Hippies and the Yippies, wear beads and amulets,” an agent observed. “New Left youth involved in anti-Vietnam activity have adopted the Greek letter ‘Omega’ as their symbol. Self-proclaimed yogis have established a following in the New Left movement.” Under those “conditions,” he argued, it might be effective if “a few select top-echelon leaders of the New Left be subjected to harassment by a series of anonymous messages with a mystical connotation.”

As examples of such messages, the agent enclosed two sketches: a beetle, with the caption “Beware! The Siberian Beetle”; and a toad, with the caption “Beware! The Asiatic Toad.” The recipient, he explained, would be

"left to make his own interpretation as to the significance of the symbol and the message and as to the identity of the sender. The symbol utilized does not have to have any real significance but must be subject to interpretation as having a mystical, sinister meaning.

If all of COINTELPRO had resembled the Siberian beetle plan, it would be a minor part of history: unconstitutional but clueless and ultimately harmless, the product of the same blundering Bureau that felt the need to file a report on the Monkees. (The Los Angeles field office claimed that a concert by the band had included left-wing “subliminal messages.”) But the FBI’s activities were often darkerand more dangerous. When the Senate investigated COINTELPRO, the chief of the Bureau’s Racial Intelligence Section claimed that “no one was killed” after the FBI falsely tagged him or her as a snitch. Someone asked if this had been a matter of planning or just sheer luck. “Oh, it just happened that way, I’m sure,” the officer replied.9

This is where the study of conspiracy theories becomes a hall of mirrors. The feds didn’t just infiltrate and disrupt dissident groups; they made sure the groups knew that they were being infiltrated and disrupted, so activists would suspect one another of being police agents. In effect, COINTELPRO functioned as a conspiracy to defeat subversive conspiracies by convincing the alleged subversives that they were being conspired against.

While all that was going on, the CIA was engaged in its own program of domestic political surveillance. With the flair of a villain in a campy James Bond rip-off, the agency called it Operation CHAOS. And in the Nixon White House, an aide named Tom Charles Huston was drawing up plans for yet another countersubversive operation, one that would roll back restrictions Hoover had imposed in 1966 and also expand the powers of the CIA and military intelligence to spy at home. Huston wanted to revive the use of “black bag jobs”—in plain English, the use of break-ins. He wanted to make it easier for the feds to tap phones and read people’s mail. He wanted to send more FBI informants to college campuses and devote more CIA resources to watching students abroad. And he wanted the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency, and military intelligence to answer to an Interagency Group on Internal Security staffed by the White House.

The Huston Plan was stopped, but not because of anyone’s civil libertarian scruples. It was blocked by J. Edgar Hoover, who had no interest in submitting to an interdepartmental committee.


Published with permission from Harper Collins Publishers, Inc. 

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