It is becoming increasingly apparent that the massive NSA spying program has less to do with combating terrorism and is instead just a modern and highly sophisticated version of COINTELPRO (COounter INTELligence PROgram), the secret spying network the FBI set up in 1956 to supposedly combat the threat of Communism but expanded to infiltrate, monitor, subvert, and destroy those organizations whose activists were simply engaged in actions that the US government did not like. Rising public protests against the Vietnam war and social and economic injustice was something that the government was determined to suppress.
Mike Cassidy and Will Miller describe the breadth of the actions against the government’s targets, which went well beyond legal boundaries.
When congressional investigations, political trials and other traditional legal methods of repression failed to counter the growing movements of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, and even helped fuel them, the FBI and police moved outside the law. They used secret and systematic methods of fraud and force, far beyond mere surveillance, to sabotage constitutionally protected political activity. The purpose of the program was, in FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s own words, to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit and otherwise neutralize” specific groups and individuals. Its targets in this period included the American Indian Movement, the Communist Party, the Socialist Worker’s Party, Black Nationalist groups, and many members of the New Left (SDS, and a broad range of anti-war, anti-racist, feminist, lesbian and gay, environmentalist and other groups). Many other groups and individuals seeking racial, gender and class justice were targets who came under attack, including Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, the NAACP, the National Lawyer’s Guild, SANE-Freeze, American Friends Service Committee, and many, many others.
They say that COINTELPRO strategy basically fell into four categories.
- First, there was infiltration. Agents and informers did not merely spy on political activists. The main purpose was to discredit and disrupt. Their presence served to undermine trust and scare off potential supporters. They also exploited this fear to smear genuine activists as agents.
- Second, there was psychological warfare from the outside. They planted false media stories and published bogus leaflets and other publications in the name of targeted groups. They forged correspondence, sent anonymous letters, and made anonymous telephone calls. They spread misinformation about meetings and events, set up pseudo movement groups run by agents, and manipulated or strong-armed parents, employers, landlords, school officials and others to cause trouble for activists.
- Third, there was harassment through the legal system, used to harass dissidents and make them appear to be criminals. Officers gave perjured testimony and presented fabricated evidence as a pretext for false arrests and wrongful imprisonment. They discriminatorily enforced tax laws and other government regulations and used conspicuous surveillance, “investigative” interviews, and grand jury subpoenas in an effort to intimidate activists and silence their supporters.
- Fourth and finally, there was extralegal force and violence. The FBI and police threatened, instigated and conducted break-ins, vandalism, assaults, and beatings. The object was to frighten dissidents and disrupt their movements. In the case of radical Black and Puerto Rican activists (and later Native Americans), these attacks, including political assassinations, were so extensive, vicious, and calculated that they can only be accurately called a form of official “terrorism.”
In 1971, predecessors of Edward Snowden released secret files they had obtained from an FBI office and released them to the media, blowing the lid off the entire program, leading to investigations of all the dirty tricks that the government had been involved in and calls for the program to be shut down.
But the government merely shifted its focus and what Snowden has revealed is that the NSA has transformed the old COINTELPRO program into a more virulent form. Marcy Wheeler describes a new Canadian Broadcasting Corporation report that says that the NSA monitored the activity of people protesting the G20 meeting in Toronto in 2010. What is significant is that it is acknowledged that there was no al Qaeda threat but that the NSA was monitoring what it described as “issue-based extremists”, which can be translated as anyone who cares passionately about something to do something about it.
So just as COINTELPRO used the Communist threat as a cover to subvert democracy by undermining perfectly legal political activity against the government, so has the NSA used the al Qaeda terrorist threat as a cover to undermine the government’s present day critics.
It is only a matter of time before we learn, via Snowden or someone else inspired by him, that the NSA used its surveillance powers to play a key role in crushing the Occupy Wall Street movement, which we know that the oligarchy and the one-percenters were worried about. The concerted effort at the federal, state, and local governments to disrupt and remove protesters raises strong suspicions of this.
For almost all governments, the enemy they are most afraid of is not some external threat but of their own citizenry organizing to fight for justice.
It is time to face the fact that while the proximate goal of the NSA, FBI, CIA and all the other government agencies is stated to be to fight terrorism, and this is used to garner public support, their ultimate goal is to suppress their own people by any means necessary.