COINTELPRO all over again

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.


  1. says

    The FBI’s stated goals for COINTELPRO were “maintaining the existing social and political order” and of course “protecting national security,” in part because of frustration with pesky Supreme Court rulings that limited the government’s power to quash political dissidents (i.e. leftists). After the Church Committee shined light on these activities, some cosmetic reforms were made but the surveillance and other tactics continued.

    For example, as recently as a few years ago the explicitly non-violent Occupy movement was monitored by the “NYPD Counterterrorism Bureau, Terrorism Threat Analysis Group.” NYPD’s “Demographics Unit” was set up with help from the CIA. If the Occupiers are terrorists, we’re all terrorists. I brought them food, blankets and medical supplies. Was that material support?

    The worst part of all of this, and one I’ve seen little far too coverage of, is that mass surveillance doesn’t even work to stop terrorist attacks. The U.S. government was tipped twice about Tamerlan Tsarnaev by the Russian Federal Security Bureau, and he was put on a terrorist watch list eighteen months before the Boston Marathon bombings. Hello, NSA? Faisal Shahzad (the “Times Square Bomber”), Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the “Underwear Bomber”) and Richard Reid (the “Shoe Bomber”) were all stopped by civilian bystanders in the process of executing their attacks. (See also.) Now, whether it works for “maintaining the existing social and political order” — which is a racist, sexist, classist, corrupt, imperialist, rapaciously capitalist plutocracy in a permanent state of war — is another question entirely, and in my opinion the really important one.

  2. dmcclean says

    This article will be much more interesting after it becomes “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”, or after “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.”

    I actually agree with your conclusions, and with the likelihood that we will later find something like what you are suggesting, but as it’s written this article is in WND/EIR territory: rant about a scary analogy to history, elaborate at length and in detail about that history in hopes that readers will think your historical sourcing somehow evidences your contemporary claim, and confidently speculate about how the facts will prove you right later.

    The only thing in the post that might be called evidence is a link to an equally-speculative blog post which itself links to a CBC article.

    That CBC article shares your post’s strange assumption that the only valid threat in the world comes from al Qaeda, which (a) is racist, (b) is clearly inaccurate on the merits, and (c) is totally irrelevant unless you adopt the security establishment’s preferred framing of these issues in which the ends justify the means.

    The same CBC article says that “[t]he secret documents do not reveal the precise targets of so much espionage by the NSA — and possibly its Canadian partner…”, but nevertheless confidently asserts that the surveillance was “widespread”, without explaining how the authors reached the “widespread” conclusion. Did you notice how they even smuggled a conclusion (“so much espionage”) into the first sentence too? (They don’t link to the source documents in question, because for some reason news organizations still haven’t figured out what this internet thing is all about.)

    The CBC article, the Marcy Wheeler article, and yours all make an issue of the phrase “issue-based extremists”. I agree that such language has been abused in the past and will be again. I don’t agree that its import is necessarily any different from that of the word “terrorist”, though. Both have a history of abuse, both accurately describe approximately the same extant phenomenon. All three articles also gloss over the fact that some such extremists do follow the G-8, G-20, and World Bank meetings around committing violence and setting things on fire, confidently assuming that because they aren’t “al Qaeda” nothing worse will ever happen. (And I agree that in many of these instances official responses have been unnecessarily violent and restrictive, that’s an orthogonal issue which the CBC article attempts to conflate.)

    To summarize my objection: find and include evidence that it’s “COINTELPRO all over again”, then go on an indignant rant about how it’s COINTELPRO all over again and elaborate about what COINTELPRO was. Putting the horse before the cart is what distinguishes skepticism, rationalism, and journalism from pseudo-journalism and conspiracy theory.

  3. wtfwhateverd00d says

    Seems dumb of me to say this, but I would like to see a graph of NSA expenditures and illegal excursions over time.

    I don’t think all of this can be blamed on 9/11, I think a lot of it is just “normal” (or abnormal) behavior of bureaucracies, especially in the realm of Moore’s law and how we dealt with that which both made old fashioned wiretaps much less useful, and also made much deeper spying, data warehousing, pattern analysis, possible.

    If it wasn’t 9/11, it would have been anything.

    I would certainly believe that Occupy was monitored by all the Gov’t TLA agencies, but I think Occupy imploded on its own from good intentions and a lack of planning and foresight.

    I mean, the finger voting crapola, the human megaphoning, all that shit that Colbert and Stewart mocked was never going to be able to survive a winter during the revolution.

  4. wtfwhateverd00d says

    Way too much social justice warrior bullshit in Occupy’s diet.

    Sugary feel good crap that just made them fat and implode of gravitational collapse.

  5. sailor1031 says

    Wow. All of this so we can live in a free, democratic society protected from those evil enemies who would destroy the constitution and our american way of life. Wow!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *