SUPPLEMENTARY DETAILED STAFF REPORTS
ON INTELLIGENCE ACTIVITIES AND THE
RIGHTS OF AMERICANS
TO STUDY GOVERNMENTAL OPERATIONS
WITH RESPECT TO
UNITED STATES SENATE
APRIL 23 (under authority of the order of April 14), 1976
COINTELPRO: THE FBI'S COVERT ACTION PROGRAMS AGAINST AMERICAN CITIZENS
I. INTRODUCTION AND SUMMARY
COINTELPRO is the FBI acronym for a series of covert action programs directed against domestic groups. In these programs, the Bureau went beyond the collection of intelligence to secret action defined to "disrupt" and "neutralize" target groups and individuals. The techniques were adopted wholesale from wartime counterintelligence, and ranged from the trivial (mailing reprints of Reader's Digest articles to college administrators) to the degrading (sending anonymous poison-pen letters intended to break up marriages) and the dangerous (encouraging gang warfare and falsely labeling members of a violent group as police informers).
This report is based on a staff study of more than 20,000 pages of Bureau documents, depositions of many of the Bureau agents involved in the programs, and interviews of several COINTELPRO targets. The examples selected for discussion necessarily represent a small percentage of the more than 2,000 approved COINTELPRO actions. Nevertheless, the cases demonstrate the consequences of a Government agency's decision to take the law into its own hands for the "greater good" of the country.
COINTELPRO began in 1956, in part because of frustration with Supreme Court rulings limiting the Government's power to proceed overtly against dissident groups; it ended in 1971 with the threat of public exposure. 1 In the intervening 15 years, 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. 2
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 unexpressed major premise of the programs was that a law enforcement agency has the duty to do whatever is necessary to combat perceived threats to the existing social and political order.
A. "Counterintelligence Program": A Misnomer for Domestic Covert Action
COINTELPRO is an acronym for "counterintelligence program."
Counterintelligence is defined as those actions by an intelligence agency intended to protect its own security and to undermine hostile intelligence operations. Under COINTELPRO certain techniques the Bureau had used against hostile foreign agents were adopted for use against perceived domestic threats to the established political and social order. The formal programs which incorporated these techniques were, therefore, also called "counterintelligence." 2a
"Covert action" is, however, a more accurate term for the Bureau's programs directed against American citizens. "Covert action" is the label applied to clandestine activities intended to influence political choices and social values. 3
B. Who Were the Targets?
1. The Five Targeted Groups
The Bureau's covert action programs were aimed at five perceived threats to domestic tranquility: the "Communist Party, USA" program (1956-71) ; the "Socialist Workers Party" program (1961-69) ; the "White Hate Group" program (1964-71) ; the "Black Nationalist-Hate Group" program (1967-71) ; and the "New Left" program (1968-71).
2. Labels Without Meaning
The Bureau's titles for its programs should not be accepted uncritically. They imply a precision of definition and of targeting which did not exist.
Even the names of the later programs had no clear definition. The Black Nationalist program, according to its supervisor, included "a great number of organizations that you might not today characterize as black nationalist but which were in fact primarily black." 3a Indeed, the nonviolent Southern Christian Leadership Conference was labeled as a Black Nationalist "Hate Group.'' 4 Nor could anyone at the Bureau even define "New Left," except as "more or less an attitude." 5
Furthermore, the actual targets were chosen from a far broader group than the names of the programs would imply. The CPUSA program targeted not only Party members but also sponsors of the National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee 6 and civil rights leaders allegedly under Communist influence or simply not "anti-Communist." 7 The Socialist Workers Party program included non-SWP sponsors of antiwar demonstrations which were cosponsored by the SWP or the Young Socialist Alliance, its youth group. 8 The Black Nationalist program targeted a range of organizations from the Panthers to SNCC to the peaceful Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 9 and included most black student groups. 10 New Left targets ranged from the SDS 11 to the Interuniversity Committee for Debate on Foreign Policy, 12 from all of Antioch College ("vanguard of the New Left") 13 to the New Mexico Free University 14 and other "alternate" schools, 15 and from underground newspapers 16 to students protesting university censorship of a student publication by carrying signs with four-letter words on them. 17
C. What Were the Purposes of COINTELPRO?
The breadth of targeting and lack of substantive content in the descriptive titles of the programs reflect the range of motivations for COINTELPRO activity: protecting national security, preventing violence, and maintaining the existing social and political order by "disrupting" and "neutralizing" groups and individuals perceived as threats.
1. Protecting National Security
The first COINTELPRO, against the CPUSA, was instituted to counter what the Bureau believed to be a threat to the national security. As the chief of the COINTELPRO unit explained it:
We were trying first to develop intelligence so we would know what they were doing [and] second, to contain the threat.... To stop the spread of communism, to stop the effectiveness of the Communist Party as a vehicle of Soviet intelligence, propaganda and agitation. 17a
Had the Bureau stopped there, perhaps the term "counterintelligence" would have been an accurate label for the program. The expansion of the CPUSA program to non-Communists, however, and the addition of subsequent programs, make it clear that other purposes were also at work.
2. Preventing Violence
One of these purposes was the prevention of violence. Every Bureau witness deposed stated that the purpose of the particular program or programs with which he was associated was to deter violent acts by the target groups, although the witnesses differed in their assessment of how successful the programs were in achieving that goal. The preventive function was not, however, intended to be a product of specific proposals directed at specific criminal acts. Rather, the programs were aimed at groups which the Bureau believed to be violent or to have the potential for violence.
The programs were to prevent violence by deterring membership in the target groups, even if neither the particular member nor the group was violent at the time. As the supervisor of the Black Nationalist COINTELPRO put it, "Obviously you are going to prevent violence or a greater amount of violence if you have smaller groups." (Black Nationalist supervisor deposition, 10/17/75, p. 24.) The COINTELPRO unit chief agreed: "We also made an effort to deter or counteract the propaganda ... and to deter recruitment where we could. This was done with the view that if we could curb the organization, we could curb the action or the violence within the organization." 17b In short, the programs were to prevent violence indirectly, rather than directly, by preventing possibly violent citizens from joining or continuing to associate with possibly violent groups. 18
The prevention of violence, is clearly not, in itself, an improper purpose; preventing violence is the ultimate goal of most law enforcement. Prosecution and sentencing are intended to deter future criminal behavior, not only of the subject but also of others who might break the law. In that sense, law enforcement legitimately attempts the indirect prevention of possible violence and, if the methods used are proper, raises no constitutional issues. When the government goes beyond traditional law enforcement methods, however, and attacks group membership and advocacy, it treads on ground forbidden to it by the Constitution. In Brandenberg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969), the Supreme Court held that the government is not permitted to "forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or law violation except where such advocacy is directed toward inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action." In the absence of such clear and present danger, the government cannot act against speech nor, presumably, against association.
3. Maintaining the Existing Social and Political Order
Protecting national security and preventing violence are the purposes advanced by the Bureau for COINTELPRO. There is another purpose for COINTELPRO which is not explicit but which offers the only explanation for those 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. 19
The "New Left" COINTELPRO presents the most striking example of this attitude. As discussed earlier, the Bureau did not define the term "New Left," and the range of targets went far beyond alleged "subversives" or "extremists." Thus, for example, two student participants in a "free speech" demonstration were targeted because they defended the use of the classic four-letter-word. Significantly, they were made COINTELPRO subjects even though the demonstration "does not appear to be inspired by the New Left" because it "shows obvious disregard for decency and established morality." 20 In another case, reprints of a newspaper article entitled "Rabbi in Vietnam Says Withdrawal Not the Answer" were mailed to members of the Vietnam Day Committee "to convince [them] of the correctness of the U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam." 21 Still another document weighs against the "liberal press and the bleeding hearts and the forces on the left" which were "taking advantage of the situation in Chicago surrounding the Democratic National Convention to attack the police and organized law enforcement agencies." 22 Upholding decency and established morality, defending the correctness of U.S. foreign policy, and attacking those who thought the Chicago police used undue force have no apparent connection with the expressed goals of protecting national security and preventing violence. These documents, among others examined, compel the conclusion that Federal law enforcement officers looked upon themselves as guardians of the status quo. The attitude should not be a surprise; the difficulty lies in the choice of weapons.
D. What Techniques Were Used?
1. The Techniques of Wartime
Under the COINTELPRO programs, the -rsenal of techniques used against foreign espionage agents was transferred to domestic enemies. As William C. Sullivan, former Assistant to the Director, put it,
This is a rough, tough, dirty business, and dangerous. It was dangerous at times. No holds were barred.... We have used [these techniques] against Soviet agents. They have used [them] against us. . . . [The same methods were] brought home against any organization against which we were targeted. We did not differentiate. This is a rough, tough business. 23
Mr. Sullivan's description -- rough, tough, and dirty -- is accurate. In the course of COINTELPRO's fifteen-year history, a number of individual actions may have violated specific criminal statutes; 24 a number of individual actions involved risk of serious bodily injury or death to the targets (at least four assaults were reported as "results" ; 25 and a number of actions, while not illegal or dangerous, can only be described as "abhorrent in a free Society." 26 On the other hand, many of the actions were more silly than repellent.
The Bureau approved 2,370 separate counterintelligence actions. 27 Their techniques ranged from anonymously mailing reprints of newspaper and magazine articles (sometimes Bureau-authored or planted) to group members or supporters to convince them of the error of their ways, 28 to mailing anonymous letters to a member's spouse accusing the target of infidelity ; 29 from using informants to raise controversial issues at meetings in order to cause dissent, 30 to the "snitch jacket" (falsely labeling a group member as an informant) 31 and encouraging street warfare between violent groups ; 32 from contacting members of a "legitimate group to expose the alleged subversive background of a fellow member 33 to contacting an employer to get a target fired; 34 from attempting to arrange for reporters to interview targets with planted questions, 35 to trying to stop targets from speaking at all ; 36 from notifying state and local authorities of a target's criminal law violations, 37 to using the IRS to audit a professor, not just to collect any taxes owing, but to distract him from his political activities. 38
2. Techniques Carrying A Serious Risk of Physical, Emotional, or Economic Damage.
The Bureau recognized that some techniques were more likely than others to cause serious physical, emotional, or economic damage to the targets. Any proposed use of those techniques was scrutinized carefully by headquarters supervisory personnel, in an attempt to balance the "greater good" to be achieved by the proposal against the known or risked harm to the target. If the "good" was sufficient, the proposal was approved. 39 For instance, in discussing anonymous letters to spouses, the agent who supervised the New Left COINTELPRO stated:
[Before recommending approval] I would want to know what you want to get out of this, who are these people. If it's somebody, and say they did split up, what would accrue from it as far as disrupting the New Left is concerned? Say they broke up, what then....
[The question would be] is it worth it? 39a
Similarly, with regard to the "snitch jacket" technique -- falsely labeling a group member as a police informant -- the chief of the Racial Intelligence Section stated:
You have to be able to make decisions and I am sure that labeling somebody as an informant, that you'd want to make certain that it served a good purpose before you did it and not do it haphazardly. . . . It is a serious thing. . . . As far as I am aware, in the black extremist area, by using that technique, no one was killed. I am sure of that. 40
Moore was asked whether the fact that no one was killed was the result of "luck or planning." He answered:
"Oh, it just happened that way, I am sure." 41
It is thus clear that, as Sullivan said, "No holds were barred, 42 although some holds were weighed more carefully than others. When the willingness to use techniques which were concededly dangerous or harmful to the targets is combined with the range of purposes and criteria by which these targets were chosen, the result is neither "within bounds" nor "justified" in a free society. 43
E. Legal Restrictions Were Ignored
What happened to turn a law enforcement agency into a law violator? Why do those involved still believe their actions were not only defensible, but right? 44
The answers to these questions are found in a combination of factors: the availability of information showing the targets' vulnerability gathered through the unrestrained collection of domestic intelligence; the belief both within and without the Bureau that it could handle any problem; and frustration with the apparent inability of traditional law enforcement methods to solve the problems presented.
There is no doubt that Congress and the public looked to the Bureau for protection against domestic and foreign threats. As the COINTELPRO unit chief stated:
At this time [the mid-1950s] there was a general philosophy too, the general attitude of the public at this time was you did not have to worry about Communism because the FBI would take care of it. Leave it to the FBI.
I hardly know an agent who would ever go to a social affair or something, if he were introduced as FBI, the comment would be, "we feel very good because we know you are handling the threat." We were handling the threat with what directives and statutes were available. There did not seem to be any strong interest of anybody to give us stronger or better defined statutes. 45
Not only was no one interested in giving the Bureau better statutes (nor, for that matter, did the Bureau request them), but the Supreme Court drastically narrowed the scope of the statutes available. The Bureau personnel involved trace the institution of the first formal counterintelligence program to the Supreme Court reversal of the Smith Act convictions. The unit chief testified:
The Supreme Court rulings had rendered the Smith Act technically unenforceable.... It made it ineffective to prosecute Communist Party members, made it impossible to prosecute Communist Party members at the time. 46
This belief in the failure of law enforcement produced the subsequent COINTELPROs as well. The unit chief continued:
The other COINTELPRO programs were opened as the threat arose in areas of extremism and subversion and there were not adequate statutes to proceed against the organization or to prevent their activities. 47
Every Bureau witness deposed agreed that his particular COINTELPRO was the result of tremendous pressure on the Bureau to do something about a perceived threat, coupled with the inability of law enforcement techniques to cope with the situation, either because there were no pertinent federal statutes, 48 or because local law enforcement efforts were stymied by indifference or the refusal of those in charge to call the police.
Outside pressure and law enforcement frustration do not, of course, fully explain COINTELPRO. Perhaps, after all, the best explanation was proffered by George C. Moore, the Racial Intelligence Section chief:
The FBI's counterintelligence program came up because there was a point -- if you have anything in the FBI, you have an action-oriented group of people who see something happening and want to do something to take its place. 49
F. Command and Control
While that "action-oriented group of people" was proceeding with fifteen years of COINTELPRO activities, where were those responsible for the supervision and control of the Bureau? Part of the answer lies in the definition of "covert action"-- clandestine activities. No one outside the Bureau was supposed to know that COINTELPRO existed. Even within the Bureau, the programs were handled on a "need-to-know" basis.
Nevertheless, the Bureau has supplied the Committee with documents which support its contention that various Attorneys General, advisors to Presidents, members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee, and, in 1958, the Cabinet were at least put on notice of the existence of the CPUSA and White Hate COINTELPROs. The Bureau cannot support its claim that anyone outside the FBI was informed of the existence of the Socialist Workers Party, Black Nationalist, or New Left COINTELPROs, and even those letters or briefings which referred (usually indirectly) to the CPUSA and White Hate COINTELPROs failed to mention the use of techniques which risked physical, emotional, or economic damage to their targets. In any event, there is no record that any of these officials asked to know more, and none of them appears to have expressed disapproval based on the information they were given.
As the history of the Domestic Intelligence Division shows, the absence of disapproval has been interpreted by the Bureau as sufficient authorization to continue an activity (and occasionally, even express disapproval has not sufficed to stop a practice). Perhaps, however, the crux of the "command and control" problem lies in the testimony by one former Attorney General that he was too busy to know what the Bureau was doing, 50 and by another that, as a matter of political reality, he could not have stopped it anyway. 51
Whether the Attorney General can control the Bureau is still an open question. The Peterson Committee, which was formed within the Justice Department to investigate COINTELPRO at Attorney General Saxbe's request, worked only with Bureau-prepared summaries of the COINTELPRO files. 52 Further, the fact that the Department of Justice must work with the Bureau on a day-to-day basis may influence the Department's judgment on Bureau activities. 53
If COINTELPRO had been a short-lived aberration, the thorny problems of motivation, techniques, and control presented might be safely relegated to history. However, COINTELPRO existed for years on an "ad hoc" basis before the formal programs were instituted, and more significantly, COINTELPRO-type activities may continue today under the rubric of "investigation."
1. The Grey Area Between Counterintelligence and Investigation
The word "counterintelligence" had no fixed meaning even before the programs were terminated. The Bureau witnesses agreed that there is a large grey area between "counterintelligence" and "aggressive investigation," and that, headquarters supervisors sometimes had difficulty in deciding which caption should go on certain proposals. 54
Aggressive investigation continues, and may be even more disruptive than covert action. An anonymous letter (COINTELPRO) can be ignored as the work of a crank; an overt approach by the Bureau ("investigation") is not so easily dismissed. 55 The line between information collection and harassment can be extremely thin.
2. Is COINTELPRO Continuing?
COINTELPRO-type activities which are clearly not within the "grey area" between COINTELPRO and investigation have continued on at least three occasions. Although all COINTELPROs were officially terminated "for security reasons" on April 27, 1971, the documents discontinuing the program provided:
In exceptional circumstances where it is considered counterintelligence action is warranted, recommendations should be submitted to the Bureau under the individual case caption to which it pertains. These recommendations will be considered on an individual basis. 56
The Committee requested that the Bureau provide it with a list of any "COINTELPRO-type" actions Since April 28,1971. The Bureau first advised the Committee that a review failed to develop any information indicating post termination COINTELPRO activity. Subsequently, the Bureau located and furnished to the Committee two instances of COINTELPRO-type operations. 57 The Committee has discovered a third instance; four months after COINTELPRO was terminated, information on an attorney's political background was furnished to friendly newspaper sources under the so-called "Mass Media Program," intended to discredit both the attorney and his client. 58
The Committee has not been able to determine with any greater precision the extent to which COINTELPRO may be continuing. Any proposals to initiate COINTELPRO-type action would be filed under the individual case caption. The Bureau has over 500,000 case files, and each one would have to be searched. In this context, it should be noted that a Bureau search of all field office COINTELPRO files revealed the existence of five operations in addition to those known to the Petersen committee. 59 A search of all investigative files might be similarly productive.
3. The Future of COINTELPRO
Attitudes within and without the Bureau demonstrate a continued belief by some that covert action against American citizens is permissible if the need for it is strong enough. When the Petersen Committee report on COINTELPRO was released, Director Kelley responded, "For the FBI to have done less under the circumstances would have been an abdication of its responsibilities to the American people." He also restated his "feeling that the FBI's counterintelligence programs had an impact on the crises of the time and, therefore, that they helped to bring about a favorable change in this country." 60 In his testimony before the Select Committee, Director Kelley continued to defend COINTELPRO, albeit with some reservations:
What I said then, in 1974, and what I believe today, is that the FBI employees involved in these programs did what they felt was expected of them by the President, the Attorney General, the Congress, and the people of the United States. . . .
Our concern over whatever abuses occurred in the Counterintelligence Programs, and there were some substantial ones, should not obscure the underlying purpose of those programs.
We must recognize that situations have occurred in the past and will arise in the future where the Government may well be expected to depart from its traditional role, in the FBI's case, as an investigative and intelligence-gathering agency, and take affirmative steps which are needed to meet an imminent threat to human life or property. 62
Nor is the Director alone in his belief that faced with sufficient threat, covert disruption is justified. The Department of Justice promulgated tentative guidelines for the Bureau which would have permitted the Attorney General to authorize "preventive action" where there is a substantial possibility that violence will occur and "prosecution is impracticable." Although those guidelines have now been dropped, the principle has not been rejected. MUCH MUCH MORE: http://www.icdc.com/~paulwolf/cointelpro/churchfinalreportIIIa.htm