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A dirty history of repression

June 21, 2002 | Pages 6 and 7

"DETECT AND neutralize" suspected terrorists. That's the guiding mission of the FBI's new security guidelines issued May 30 to fight the "war on terrorism."

The new tools at the feds' disposal include "online research," even if it isn't connected to an investigation--and agents' right to attend public meetings, such as religious and political events.

The National Lawyers Guild has published a guide to your civil rights and liberties after the USA-PATRIOT Act and other legislation. Read or download the pamphlet from the Guild's Web site.

Add this to the broad police powers granted in the USA-PATRIOT Act, and it's clear that George W. Bush and his henchman John Ashcroft are trying to return to the days of the FBI's Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO.

They're using the fear of another terrorist attack like September 11 to strengthen their power to spy on political opponents. Here, ELIZABETH SCHULTE tells the dirty history of COINTELPRO--and how the federal government's goons were ultimately pushed back.

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FBI DIRECTOR J. Edgar Hoover officially began COINTELPRO in 1956, although the agency had unofficially been carrying out the program's goals for years. COINTELPRO's initial aim was to destroy the remnants of the Communist Party (CP) after it had been all but decimated by the McCarthyite witch-hunts of the early 1950s.

The FBI not only infiltrated the CP and kept surveillance files on its activities, but worked to sow divisions between members and destroy its reputation. According to late revelations, COINTELPRO tactics included sending fictional materials to CP members designed to "create dissention and cause disruption"; leaking information obtained by informants to the media; and adversely affecting credit or employment status.

Congress--Democrats and Republicans alike--made sure that the money flowed into the FBI's twisted scheme of dirty tricks. And the fear and paranoia whipped up during the Cold War made easy work of the FBI's goal of finishing off the CP.

But Hoover and his buddies had other fish to fry. COINTELPRO was also turned on the civil rights movement.

From 1946-60, the FBI operated 3,000 wiretaps and 800 bugs on the NAACP, a mainstream civil rights group. The feds targeted movement leaders like Martin Luther King, including cooking up a plot to get King to commit suicide by threatening to expose extramarital affairs. Opponents of the Vietnam War also faced the feds' attention.

But the FBI got especially busy in the late 1960s, with the explosion of urban rebellions in the North and the rise of revolutionary Black organizations like the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

The Panthers captured the mood of urban Blacks--anger at police brutality, racism and urban poverty--and drew many people to its revolutionary conclusions. The U.S. government set out to destroy the group, using a two-pronged approach--infiltrate and sow divisions, and cut off the organization at its head.

The assault on the Panthers was COINTELPRO's most extensive and vicious operation. In 1969, FBI agents in San Diego and Los Angeles stoked a conflict between the Panthers and a rival Black nationalist group, leading to deadly shootouts. Agents were sent into local chapters as agents provocateurs. But in other cases, the FBI was more direct, conducting regular raids and arrests at Panther headquarters.

In the early hours of December 9, 1969, Chicago police stormed the apartment of Panther leader Fred Hampton, submachine guns blazing. When the assault was over, the cops had fired 90 shots--and their victims just one. Hampton and Mark Clark were dead.

While COINTELPRO succeeded in hammering the Panthers, it also exposed the U.S. government's capability for repression, which profoundly radicalized large numbers of people. And ultimately, despite its vicious repression, the federal government could not silence the antiwar and Black Power struggles.

Opposition to the Vietnam War only grew as the imperial goals of the U.S. war were exposed to growing numbers. The military defeat in Vietnam and the widespread sympathy for social movements at home put pressure on the government to wind up COINTELPRO.

In addition, the Watergate scandal--which revealed that the government's dirty tricks went all the way up to President Nixon's Oval Office--also set the tone for COINTELPRO's fall.

In 1967, polls showed that more than 50 percent of the U.S. population believed that student protesters, Black nationalists, gays and atheists were "dangerous and harmful to the country." By 1973, 88 percent of people instead put "government officials who try to use official intelligence agencies for political advantage" in the menace category.

Ultimately, COINTELPRO was ended, and Congress put new restrictions on the powers of the FBI and other law enforcement and security agencies. Of course, the FBI's surveillance of dissent continued. But they had to do it in secret--and on a more limited basis.

Now, Bush and Ashcroft want this dirty secret from the 1960s to again become the official and accepted law of the land. We can't let them get away with it.

Ashcroft's war on our civil rights

WHO'S THE real threat--alleged "dirty bomber" Abdullah al-Muhajir or Attorney General John Ashcroft?

It's Ashcroft by a wide margin. The highest-ranking law enforcement official in the country has spent his political life menacing anyone who isn't rich and white and male.

Ashcroft thinks that all abortions should be banned--without exception. As a senator, he was one of three cosponsors of the Human Life Amendment, which would not only outlaw abortions but some forms of contraception.

Reviewing his record as a U.S. senator and as governor and attorney general of Missouri, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote: "Mr. Ashcroft has built a career out of opposing school desegregation in St. Louis and opposing African Americans for public office."

The problem with the war on drugs, Ashcroft believes, is that the U.S. hasn't been fighting hard enough. Which is no doubt why, as attorney general, he orchestrated a Justice Department campaign to crack down on medical use of marijuana--even in states where voters approved referendums legalizing medicinal marijuana.

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