COINTELPRO and the Federal Government’s
Clandestine Attack on the U.S. Constitution
The FBI eventually acknowledged conducting 2,218 separate COINTELPRO actions from mid-1956 through mid-1974.
By James Retherford / The Rag Blog / August 4, 2009
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
— Juvenal, Satires, VI, 347
[A version of this series was originally researched and written six years ago. It describes in chilling detail how the U.S. government surreptitiously conspired to maintain lockdown social control of American citizens in the period up to and including post-Watergate. Go here for the introduction to and earlier installments of “Who Watches the Watchman.”]
In 1973 a group who identified themselves as the “Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI” turned the tables on the FBI by pulling their own “blackbag job” on a bureau field office in Media, Pa. More than a thousand pages of secret COINTELPRO files were “liberated;” the information obtained was widely distributed through left and peace movement channels and was headlined the following week in the Washington Post.
One year later, as the Watergate political scandal began to unravel when one of the five men who were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters was discovered to be an employee of the Committee to Re-elect the President, a government-wide effort was undertaken to convince the public that its institutions were fundamentally sound, albeit in need of fine tuning and a bit of housecleaning. Televised congressional hearings were staged to “get to the bottom of Watergate,” a spectacle which soon led to the resignations of a number of Nixon officials, the brief imprisonment of several, and the resignation of the president himself.
President Nixon’s forced resignation on August 9, 1974, was described in the nation’s press as “a stunning vindication of our constitutional system.” Yet the Watergate affair — hyped by the media as affirmation that the Fifth Estate is alive and well — instead merely demonstrated the press’ continued subservience to power and official ideology. Until a year after the dust had settled over Watergate, there was virtually no mention of the clandestine government programs of violence and disruption.
Beginning in 1974, the Senate held hearings to investigate COINTELPRO and other intelligence agency abuses, and in 1975 President Gerald Ford appointed Vice President Nelson Rockefeller to head the Commission on CIA Activities. Chaired by Senator Frank Church, the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, known as the Church Committee, produced an extensive series of reports entitled, “Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans,”encompassing not only COINTELPRO, but also a wide variety of other subjects, including: (1) electronic surveillance by the National Security Agency, (2) domestic CIA mail opening programs, (3) the misuse of the IRS, (4) the assassination of President Kennedy, (5) covert actions abroad, (6) assassination plots involving foreign leaders, and (7) various topics related to military intelligence.
The Church committee found that COINTELPRO, presumably set up to protect national security and prevent violence, actually engaged in other actions “which had no conceivable rational relationship to either national security or violent activity. The unexpressed major premise of much of COINTELPRO is that the bureau has a role in maintaining the existing social order, and that its efforts should be aimed toward combating those who threaten that order.” This meant that the FBI would act against individuals and organizations simply because they were critical of government policy.
The Church committee report gives examples of such violations of the right of free speech and association in which the FBI targeted people because they opposed U.S. foreign policy, or criticized the Chicago police actions at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The documents assembled by the Church committee “compel the conclusion that federal law enforcement officers looked upon themselves as guardians of the status quo” and cite the surveillance and harassment of Martin Luther King Jr., as an example. The committee concluded that:
Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that… The Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.
The Church committee’s conclusions with regard to COINTELPRO were based on a staff study of more than 20,000 pages of FBI documents, including depositions by many of the agents involved in the operations. The FBI eventually acknowledged conducting 2,218 separate COINTELPRO actions from mid-1956 through mid-1974. These, the bureau conceded, were undertaken in conjunction with other significant illegal activities, to wit: 2,305 warrantless telephone taps, 697 buggings, and the opening of 57,846 pieces of mail. Though an indication of the magnitude of FBI illicit criminality, this itemization was far from complete. The counterintelligence campaign against the Puerto Rican independence movement was not mentioned at all, while whole categories of operational techniques — assassinations, for example, and obtaining false convictions against key activists — were not divulged at all.
Although COINTELPRO and many of the other government covert domestic spy operations were first exposed during the Watergate period, they were virtually ignored by the national press. Writing in Public Eye, a journal published by Political Research Associates, an independent investigative organization, Chip Berlet asserts that major news organizations were silent about the excesses of the government’s secret anti-democratic operations because many of them “willingly cooperated with the FBI knowing they were participating in counterintelligence programs.” For instance, Berlet states, “in 1966 the FBI provided the Chicago Daily News with information that a local Black communist leader owned a ghetto apartment house with building code violations. The resulting article was picked up locally and nationally, resulting in tremendous loss of credibility for the activist.” Berlet further cites many instances in which journalists worked with the FBI and “promised not to reveal that the bureau had suggested coverage or provided information.”
Among the prominent daily newspapers providing support for FBI counterintelligence actions were the New York Daily News, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Hearst chain newspapers were frequently cited as “cooperative,” as Berlet discovered in reading the FBI files, and on one occasion the FBI ordered its bureaus to collect data to assist a Newhouse chain reporter develop his story.
Television stations WHDH in Boston, KTTV in Los Angeles, and WCKT in Miami actively supported COINTELPRO. WCKT-TV, for instance, worked closely with the FBI in preparing a thirty-minute color documentary on the Nation of Islam; “each and every film segment produced by the station” was submitted to the FBI to insure that the FBI was satisfied “and that nothing was included” which in any way was “be contrary” to FBI interests.
[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
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.