COINTELPRO and the Federal Government’s
Clandestine Attack on the U.S. Constitution
Paranoia strikes deep / into your life it will creep
it starts when you’re always afraid
step out of line and they’ll come
and take you away… — Buffalo Springfield
By James Retherford / The Rag Blog / August 25, 2009
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? — Juvenal, Satires, VI, 347
During the 1960s, movement activists discovered a new definition of the clinical term, paranoia. If classic paranoia is an irrational response to irrational fears, then the new paranoia could be defined as an irrational response to rational fears. One of the FBI COINTELPRO’s most effective initiatives was to create and exploit paranoia in order to disrupt the organizing work of the American Left.
The following is a list, both paranoid and rational, of known and suspected COINTELPRO operations that I experienced as an underground newspaper editor in Bloomington, Indiana, and later as a writer and anti-war organizer in New York City. Please note that because of continued secrecy surrounding many federal covert operations I am forced to include events that are unproven but fit the COINTELPRO profile. This illustrates precisely why paranoia proved to be such an effective weapon against dissidents:
1. Sometime in late 1967, small calibre gunshots fired through my front door in Bloomington, Indiana. Later this was revealed to be a “fear” tactic used by the FBI against activists, usually carried out by off-duty local police officers or members of right-wing support groups (such as the Bloomington Ku Klux Klan who months later firebombed an African-American bookstore near the Indiana University campus). (The offices of Space City! in Houston were shot up in similar fashion, with the local police and KKK later implicated.)
2. Publication in a local right-wing newspaper of a rude, crude caricature intended to ridicule my appearance and politics. (Note: one wonders whether FBI field agents perhaps had too much time on their hands — the cartoon made great refrigerator art.) In Los Angeles, a COINTELPRO-produced Black Panther “coloring book” exploited tensions between the Panthers and white cops, on one hand, and Ron Karenga’s black nationalist US, on the other.
When the smoke had cleared, Black Panthers Bunchy Carter and John Huggins had been shot to death on the UCLA campus, and Geronimo Pratt, targeted by a COINTELPRO operation to “neutralize Pratt as an effective BPP functionary,” spent 27 years in prison falsely imprisoned on a murder charge based solely on the testimony of FBI and Los Angeles Police Department informant Julius Butler. Pratt’s conviction was vacated in 1997 when his defense team discovered Butler’s secret “business relationship” with the police.
3. A probable “snitch jacket”operation in Bloomington, revealed in 1967 when friends told me that someone was spreading rumors that I was an undercover agent. During this period, snitch rumors also were rampant about other local activists, narc rumors about some notable potheads, persistent rumors about impending busts. (One local crazy figured out where the rumors were coming from and started his own counter-counter intelligence rumor campaign: a plot to spike the Bloomington drinking water supply with LSD. The reverse rumor operation peaked when the governor publicly announced plans to call out the National Guard to circle and protect the waters of Lake Lemon, and we — temporarily — had to find a new place to go skinny dipping.)
4. A fairly recent discovery, thanks to Texan Geoffrey Rips, that Director Hoover himself approved an attempt by the Indianapolis field office to publish a fake “underground newspaper” — called Armageddon News — in another crude attempt to discredit The Spectator and divide the local New Left leadership. Hoover himself critiqued the first issue, chiding his field officers for failing to use words and phrases that would sound “authentic” to students.
A note to Ragsters: the FBI created a similar faux underground newspaper in Austin during this time. It was called Longhorn Tales (though a more apt name would have been The Bull Sheet.) I have not spoken with anyone in Bloomington or in Austin who remembers seeing either of the FBI’s “journalistic” enterprises. However, I briefly examined Armageddon Times at the Indiana University Archives several years ago and have to say that it was NOT one of COINTELPRO’s most effective endeavors.
5. Use of the sympathetic courts to “railroad” activists into prison: While this tactic was successful in imprisoning African American, Native American, and hispanic leaders for decades, it was also used against white activists such as myself. In December 1967 I learned that I was the subject of two federal grand indictments alleging Selective Service law violations. (In January a third indictment was announced.) The indictments were so specious that one must wonder whether the government’s intention was actually to gain a conviction or merely to overextend the Bloomington movement’s limited resources and put The Spectator out of business. The government’s “case” was pathetic, as evidenced by the fact that Attorney General Ramsey Clark ordered the federal prosecutor to stop the investigation and later to drop all charges. The judge refused, and in June 1968 I went on trial.
I did not go on trial, however, for technical violations of the Selective Service act, though that is what was written on the indictments. Rather I was put on trial for the editorial content of The Spectator. Lengthy excerpts of articles and editorials were recited into the court record to build a case of sedition. I was portrayed as a revolutionary advocating the violent overthrow of the government, a communist subversive, a seditious traitor. Every time my attorney attempted to object on grounds of relevance to the actual charges, he was overruled by the trial judge, who, time and again, ruled that the prosecution’s relentless political attack was relevant to the case. I was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to six years in federal prison.
Next the judge ruled that my appeal had been improperly filed, and I was incarcerated for almost three months while my new attorney, Leonard Boudin (representing the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee), successfully appealed for my right to appeal. A year later, noting that my order to appear for “additional processing” was not only unsigned but also hand written on blank note paper, rather than official Selective Service stationary as required by law, and that I “was never officially declared delinquent by the Selective Service System,” a stipulated prerequisite for draft law prosecution, Federal Circuit Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on October 2, 1969, overturned all convictions with a strongly worded rebuke to the prosecution and the presiding district trial judge.
6. Discovery of a new “snitch jacket” operation in New York City, where I had moved in late 1968 to assist Boudin’s preparation of my appeal. As before, friends told me about a rumor that I was an FBI informer. At the time, such rumors were rampant in the close-knit Lower East Side activist community, and, indeed, the Movement had been hard hit by police infiltrators and agents provocateurs, notably Crazy George Demerle in the Sam Melville bombing case.
7. Proverbial cracks, hisses, and buzzes during telephone conversations.
8. Numerous observations of New York Police Red Squad and the ubiquitous Detective Finnegan taking photographs as activists entered and exited public meetings at Washington Square Church and other popular Movement meeting places.
9. Discovery of an electronic surveillance operation set up in an adjoining apartment on West Sixteenth Street near Eighth Avenue. The FBI and local authorities moved my next-door neighbor to another location and then used his apartment to eavesdrop on my activities. During this time frame, the same thing happened to my friends Stew Albert and Judy Gumbo (see below).
After I met my neighbor in the hallway with suitcases in hand, leaving for what he said was a theatre gig in upstate New York, I became suspicious when I ran into a crew cut white male — 30ish, wearing suit, tie and London Fog trenchcoat, and looking very out-of-his-element in this dilapidated tenement building — leaving the neighbor’s apartment. When he had gone down the stairs, I tapped on the apartment door. When no one answered, I edged my way out on the fire escape landing through my living room window and peeked into the neighbor’s window. Inside the dark room in front of the common wall separating the two apartments, I spotted banks of green-glowing VU meters illuminating slowly moving tape reels.
10. A couple weeks later, I was awakened by a loud banging on my door. I opened it to discover a half-dozen trenchcoat-clad clones, some very large, nasty-looking guys wearing jeans and jackboots, and about a dozen uniformed SWAT police carrying shotguns lining the hallway. Stepping forth, one of the men identified himself as a federal marshal and handed me a subpoena to appear to a federal grand jury hearing.
11. The Guy Goodwin Grand Jury. Following the bombing of a washroom in the Capitol Building in Washington, the FBI faced increased pressure from the White House to catch some radicals. First they seized my friend Leslie Bacon, age 19, from her bed in the Student Mobilization collective house in Washington, D.C., and transported her incommunicado by automobile to Seattle where they put her, represented by counsel arranged by the government, in front of a specially convened grand jury. For two days, Leslie answered seemingly innocuous questions about her personal life and friends. This was the beginning of the infamous Guy Goodwin grand juries; Goodwin used the names revealed by Leslie to issue subpoenas for grand jury proceedings all over the U.S.
I was one of seven activists commanded to testify in New York. Our response was quite appropriate. Stew Albert, a large man with a big blonde afro, wore a custom-made rainbow-sequined dress with appliqué spelling out the name “Bernardine” (for Bernardine Dohrn, the Weather Underground spokeswoman who had announced the group’s responsibility for the Capitol bombing and a number of other equally provocative “armed” actions). Judy “Gumbo” Clavet and Santa Barbara-Isla Vista activist Sandra Wardwell dressed as witches and carried broomsticks… to assist Goodwin in his witch hunt.
I rented a gorilla costume and showed up at the grand jury chambers as King Cong — remember, Goodwin was looking for, ah, gorilla fighters… Only Walter Teague (who headed a National Liberation Front support group with perhaps the longest set of initials in U.S. movement history) actually got invited into the chamber — he was wearing his “Walter Teague” working class disguise, i.e., plaid flannel work shirt, jeans, and work boots, and thus probably looked less frightening to the geriatrics who typically serve on grand jury panels. Walter was quickly dismissed after he recited the litany of constitutional amendments which our legal team was using to launch a legal challenge to the government’s “witch hunt.”
Goodwin eventually was forced to call off all grand jury probes when it became obvious that the government could not make any cases without producing volumes of evidence obtained from illegal wiretaps, electronic surveillance, and other illicit operations.
12. “Dumpster diving” and trashcan espionage: several weeks after the subpoena was served, my apartment house superintendent stopped me on my way in. With a big grin splashed across his face, he asked me if I knew that the FBI had been pulling up in a big garbage truck and hauling off trash for the entire building.
13. In the summer of 1974, Fred Newman’s small New York City Upper West Side psychotherapy cult, newly merged into Lyndon LaRouche’s National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC), went to the FBI and Justice Department with the story that I had harbored fugitives such as Jane Alpert, at that time on the FBI most-wanted list as one of Sam Melville’s accomplices. The Newmanites also told the FBI that I was working with the Weather Underground.
At that time, I was “underground” myself, having moved my infant son to safety far away from the Newman cult in whose hands Jesse had been criminally neglected, abused, and almost killed. The group was under investigation for child endangerment. This was the period when NCLC was staging violent attacks on public meetings held by the Communist Party USA and the Socialist Workers Party, when Chairman LaRouche appeared to be mentally unstable and a number of suspected agents (including Zeke Boyd, who had been thrown out of the Baltimore Black Panther chapter as an agent provocateur) had moved into secondary leadership positions and were orchestrating the group’s orgy of thuggery and intimidation. Many New York activists already had concluded that NCLC had, by this time, become a front for the government’s attack on the anti-racism/anti-imperialism movement.
14. As late as 1990 or 1991, in the midst of a very mellow buzz, my telephone range, and the disturbing voice of a man who said something like, “Hey, Jim. This is [name unintelligible]. I’ve been wondering what you’ve been up to. I haven’t seen you since I ran into you at the Indianapolis jail in 1968.” The diction was neither African American nor Southern White, which meant he had not been in lock-up with me. My heightened sense of awareness told me that he sounded like an FBI bureaucrat assigned to work an old case file, trying to scare up some action.
[James Retherford knows firsthand what it was like to be targeted by COINTELPRO. A founder and editor of The Spectator in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1966, Retherford is a director of the New Journalism Project, the nonprofit organization that publishes The Rag Blog.]
- James Retherford: Who Watches the Watchman?, Introduction,
- James Retherford: Who Watches the Watchman? J. Edgar Hoover and COINTELPRO, Part I.
- James Retherford: Who Watches the Watchman? Attacks on ‘Negroism’ and CPUSA, Part II.
- James Retherford : Who Watches the Watchman? The Espionage Octopus, Part III
- James Retherford : Who Watches the Watchman? The Huston Plan, Part IV
- James Retherford : Who Watches the Watchman? Watergate and COINTELPRO, Part V
Also see James Retherford : Brandon Darby, The Texas 2, and the FBI’s Runaway Informants by James Retherford / The Rag Blog / May 26, 2009
And for more background on the history of informants in Texas, read The Spies of Texas by Thorne Dreyer / The Texas Observer / Nov. 17, 2006.