Some of you may be aware of COINTELPRO (acronym for COunter INTELligence PROgram), the secret operation run by the FBI during the days of J. Edgar Hoover where they engaged in all manner of covert activities such as infiltrating religious, civil rights, and anti-war movements and having their agents try to get those groups to engage in illegal actions that would discredit them and land the leaders in jail. While the groups strongly suspected the presence of FBI informants and provocateurs in their midst, they could not prove it and the FBI denied it.
But the FBI was exposed by the courageous actions of a group of activists who broke into an FBI office in 1971 and removed documents that provided convincing evidence of the nefarious activities the FBI was engaged in. That is an amazing story that deserves to be much more widely known than it currently is.
One of the documents referred to a program known as COINTELPRO and reporters started looking into it and this led to revelations about the vast scope of the FBI’s criminality. As a result, in 1976 the US Senate convened the Church Committee (named after senator Frank Church) and instituted reforms to prevent further such abuses of people’s rights.
But it looks like the FBI is back to its old ways and has quietly eroded the protections enacted as a result of the Church Committee. The Intercept has released a dossier of new covert activities by the FBI, many using paid informants, that involve infiltration and covert surveillance of a vast range of people in political, religious, journalistic groups. Glenn Greenwald and Betsy Reed provide a guide to the vast hidden powers of the FBI that the trove of reports reveal.
Now, thanks to our access to these documents — which include the FBI’s governing rulebook, known as the DIOG, and classified policy guides for counterterrorism cases and handling confidential informants — The Intercept is able to share a vital glimpse of how the FBI understands and wields its enormous power.
For example, the bureau’s agents can decide that a campus organization is not “legitimate” and therefore not entitled to robust protections for free speech; dig for derogatory information on potential informants without any basis for believing they are implicated in unlawful activity; use a person’s immigration status to pressure them to collaborate and then help deport them when they are no longer useful; conduct invasive “assessments” without any reason for suspecting the targets of wrongdoing; demand that companies provide the bureau with personal data about their users in broadly worded national security letters without actual legal authority to do so; fan out across the internet along with a vast army of informants, infiltrating countless online chat rooms; peer through the walls of private homes; and more. The FBI offered various justifications of these tactics to our reporters. But the documents and our reporting on them ultimately reveal a bureaucracy in dire need of greater transparency and accountability.
The Church Committee reforms were publicly debated and democratically enacted, based on the widespread fears of sustained FBI overreach brought to light by aggressive reporters like Seymour Hersh. It is simply inexcusable to erode those protections in the dark, with no democratic debate.
As we enter the Trump era, with a nominated attorney general who has not hidden his contempt for press freedoms and a president who has made the news media the primary target of his vitriol, one of the most vital weapons for safeguarding basic liberties and imposing indispensable transparency is journalism that exposes information the government wants to keep suppressed. For exactly that reason, it is certain to be under even more concerted assault than it has been during the last 15 years. The revealing, once-secret FBI documents The Intercept is today reporting on, and publishing, demonstrate why protecting press freedom is more critical than ever.
When these new revelations about the FBI are combined with what Edward Snowden revealed about the NSA and other intelligence agencies, it is clear that the US government has resurrected the COINTEDLPRO program in new guises.
Back then the reason given for these excesses was fighting communism. Now the reason given is fighting terrorism. What should be clear is that those reasons are largely camouflage. What the government really fears are ordinary people organizing themselves to fight against the corporate and national security state apparatus.