An Infamous Anniversary



This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most repressive programs of any law enforcement agency in the history of the United States.  It was in 1956 that the FBI began what was called COINTELPRO, which was an acronym for Counterintelligence Program. Under the close scrutiny and direction of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI waged a war against almost all organizations that could be considered “subversive” - ranging from anti-war organizations to civil rights groups.  According to a memo from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, the purpose of this program was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize” subversive organizations. In fact, if any black leader emerged, Hoover wanted the Bureau to “pinpoint potential troublemakers and neutralize them before they exercised their potential for violence.”


High on Hoover’s list was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who became a principal target.  The FBI tapped his telephone conversations, threatened his life, committed blackmail to discredit him, and even sent him a letter suggesting that he commit suicide. All of this was eventually confirmed in a Senate hearing headed by Frank Church in 1976, it was discovered that the FBI conducted more than 200 “black bag” jobs, where FBI agents broke into offices and homes of mostly black radical groups in order to destroy equipment, steal and copy files, take money, plant drugs and even in one case start a fire that destroyed the Watts Writers Workshop in Los Angeles. Blackmail, illegal surveillance tactics, arson, perjury, smear campaigns, and allegations of assassination were a few of the methods used by the FBI and local law enforcement against civil rights and antiwar movement members.


The word “neutralize,” noted above, should be taken to mean within intelligence organizations “assassination (commonly used historically by the CIA). The FBI launched a major offensive against the Black Panther Party (BPP). By the mid-1960s, peace marches and peaceful demonstrations for civil rights clashed with the less patient, more confrontational strategies of organizations like the Black Panther Party (BPP). According to various sources, at least six and maybe seven Black Panther leaders were killed with the help of the FBI.  The most famous killing was the assassination of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago.  These two were shot in their sleep by Chicago police, who had been provided with a detailed floor plan of the house by an FBI informant (who had, incidentally, drugged Hampton and Clark).


As such BPP leaders as Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seals, and Eldridge Cleaver began to embrace the words of Malcolm X to resist the white power structure, they began to promote the notion of self defense as means to attain civil rights. To a power structure that was well enmeshed in the practice of economic and racial exploitation and oppression, talk about self-defense by the lower classes, and particularly blacks, was frightening. In fact, when members of the BPP began arming themselves, within the parameters of California law, the power structure was more than frightened—they were terrified. Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, urged the state legislature to quickly change the law and “disarm” the BPP.


FBI files made available to the public through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the file on the BPP in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, had accumulated nearly 2,900 pages. There were Black Panther Party affiliates in most cities across the United States during the 1960s and early 1970s. This suggests that tens of thousands of pages on the Black Panther Party, as a whole, may have been collected.


Antiwar organizations, such as Students for a Democratic Party (SDS), were also targeted by law enforcement under COINTELPRO. Abbie Hoffman, a leader in the antiwar movement, had more than 13,000 pages in his FBI file. COINTELPRO barely made a ripple in the national press at the time it was revealed. This was because at about the same time, Watergate made the headlines and dominated the news for several years.  Apparently crimes by or against elite groups matter more than crimes against or by the powerless.


The FBI has had a long history of involvement in these kinds of activities, starting with the old Bureau of Investigation (formed in 1908).  This agency was involved in gross violations of civil liberties during the infamous Red Scare of 1919-1920, largely under the leadership of one of its staff members, a man named John Edgar Hoover. COINTELPRO is merely one of the FBI's largest undertakings.