The FBI’s War on the Left: A Short History of COINTELPRO

Alex Zambito
https://www.eastman.org/sites/default/files/styles/gallery_overlay/public/MURDEROF-1971-4%281%29.jpg?itok=-4yG0sCRThroughout its history the United States has billed itself as an open society upholding the free exchange of ideas. We are told that, unlike people in less-enlightened countries, Americans do not have to worry about being persecuted for their political beliefs. Of course, this has never been true. From its very inception, the US government has been restricting free-speech through legislation such as the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798- not to mention the restriction on expression for the enslaved. Americans usually consider this a thing of the past, but political repression continued throughout the 20th century to this day, but in more covert forms. In this essay, I will explore the historical development of the US government’s system of covert domestic political repression, its consolidation, and its culmination in the FBI’s COINTELPRO program.

The FBI has its origins in the General Intelligence Division which was created in 1919 by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer to collect information on radical organizations. J. Edgar Hoover, who would remain in power for the next several decades, was appointed as its head.[1] The GID was immediately used in the infamous Palmer Raids- a series of mass arrests and deportations targeting “alien” members of radical movements. The raids began on November 7, 1919 when GID agents raided offices of the United Russian Workers across the country arresting 650 people and deporting at least 43 without due process.  The crescendo of the raids came on January 2, 1920 when GID agents descended on radical groups in over 30 cities across the country, arresting at least 3,000 people.[2] Much of this repression was directed at the Communist Party USA, with Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson announcing on January 19th that membership in the CPUSA was enough to warrant deportation of immigrants.[3] The raids were finally ended by a court ruling in June 1920, but by then the damage had already been done. Left-wing organizations were effectively decimated with Communist Party membership dropping from over 27,000 in 1919 to just over 8,000 the next year.[4]​

Along with the Palmer raids, the Bureau utilized numerous other methods to harass radical groups. In 1919, Hoover targeted Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. The Bureau employed several infiltrators in the UNIA to uncover information which could be used in trumped up criminal charges against Garvey. After numerous charges of criminal activity failed to stick, the Bureau managed to obtain a conviction against Garvey on mail fraud in 1925. He was deported to Jamaica in 1927.
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By the mid-1920s, Hoover was able to renounce the FBI’s past political operations. Aside from participating in repression of major strikes, the Bureau would be true to its word for the next decade. But as the Communist Party began to regain relevance- reaching 66,000 members by 1939- Hoover gained approval from President Roosevelt to resume repression of “subversive activities”. Although Roosevelt later altered this directive as the Soviet Union became a key ally in the fight against Nazi Germany, it would not prevent Hoover from using it as justification for later counter-intelligence activities.[6]

After World War II ended and the Cold War began, Communism became enemy #1 with the CP becoming a natural target. In coordination with the CIA, the FBI began a program of intercepting and inspecting the international communications of US citizens. This was particularly focused on the mail and cables between the US and Soviet Union.[7] Additionally, the Bureau would frequently use other forms of information gathering such as “surreptitious entry” and “bugging” CP offices.[8] The FBI also cooperated with the IRS to gather information on targeted groups and single them out for harassment from the IRS.[9]​

Additionally, the FBI would perfect the divide and conquer techniques it would later use to great effect in official COINTELPRO programs against the CP. The Bureau used infiltrators to exploit internal divisions within the party, such as over Khrushchev’s denunciations of Stalin.[10] The Bureau also used “anonymous mailings” in various ways to disrupt party activities. Agents would send letters to party members warning about the treacherous activities of others in the party, hoping to stir up factional disputes.[11] This was also a common ploy in the FBI’s “snitch jacketing” technique to portray loyal party members as informants. This was also frequently accomplished by informants within the party spreading rumors, forged informant reports, or “interviews” where agents would publicly speak with a target to create the impression the party member was an informant.[12]

Anonymous letters and interviews would also be used to impact the personal lives of party members or disrupt alliances the party would make with other groups. Agents would contact the employers or landlords of party members in efforts to get them fired or evicted. Additionally, if the CP were seeking to cooperate with other organizations, agents would send derogatory information to these organizations to prevent an alliance.[13]

These were the FBI’s covert methods in the battle against domestic communism, but it also played a direct role in the overt repression. The FBI played an active role in the rise of McCarthyism by cultivating “friendly media” outlets which would be used to disseminate derogatory information about the CP. Further, the Bureau aided anti-Communist private organizations such as the American Legion and anti-Communist congressmen, with FBI agents even writing their speeches.[14]

These activities would create a general context for the US government’s legal attacks against the CP leadership. FBI agents would use selective law enforcement to harass the party and its members. Party members were frequently arrested for minor or spurious causes. For example, a secretary of the Alabama branch of the CP was arrested and convicted of possessing “seditious literature” for carrying copies of The Nation and The New Republic. He was sentenced to 100 days hard labor and fined $100.[15] This culminated in the government’s use of the Smith Act to prosecute Communist Party members. The Smith Act was passed in 1940 and created criminal penalties for advocating the forcible overthrow of the US government and required all adult non-citizen residents to register with the federal government. It would be used to prosecute eleven top Communist Party members in 1949. All eleven were convicted with ten being sentenced to five to ten years and one- a World War II veteran- sentenced to three.[16] Similar cases would occur across the country, with frequent FBI interference in the judicial process.[17]
https://www.eastman.org/sites/default/files/styles/gallery_overlay/public/MURDEROF-1971-2.jpg?itok=rjCgbXIaThe assassination of Fred Hampton

The official COINTELPRO program would not begin until 1956, although this was just a formalization of already existing FBI practices. Even though the Communist Party had already been decimated by the mid-1950s, the majority of COINTELPRO operations were carried out against the party. However, the most impactful COINTELPRO activities in this period were against other left-wing and civil rights movements. Some of the groups targeted were called “Black Extremist” groups. The Nation of Islam was an early target of this program, with the FBI maintaining massive files on just Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. The FBI would go on to play a role in driving a wedge between the two.
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As would become a habit for the FBI, the parameters for which groups qualified as “Black Extremists” was expansive. Organizations that would eventually come under the COINTELPRO purview included the NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC.[19] The FBI infamously wiretapped Martin Luther King Jr. and sent him anonymous letters encouraging him to commit suicide.[20]

COINTELPRO would reach its zenith in the late 60ss and early 70s with the inauguration of COINTELPRO-Black Panther and COINTELPRO-New Left. As with its counterintelligence activities against the CP, the Bureau’s tactics ranged from the petty to the outright murderous. Bureau infiltrators of New Left student organizations were instructed to uncover evidence of members’ “depravity” to be publicized.[21] Agents would even contact targets’ parents to inform them of their child’s subversive activities. The FBI also sought to prevent these groups from exercising their first amendment rights by preventing speaking events and public demonstrations. Further, given that many of these groups were popular on college campuses, the Bureau targeted academics friendly to radical groups, seeking to get them disciplined or fired.[22]

The Bureau also attempted to instigate violence between target groups and violence-prone rival political organizations or criminal organizations. In 1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sent a memorandum to FBI field offices instructing them to devise plans to exploit the conflict between the Black Panther Party and Ron Karenga’s Black Nationalist “US” organization.[23]

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This was accomplished through infiltrators, anonymous mailings, and forged propaganda. For instance, the Los Angeles field office responded to Hoover’s call for proposals reporting:[24]

​“The Los Angeles Office is currently preparing an anonymous letter for Bureau approval which will be sent to the Los Angeles Black Panther Party supposedly from a member of the ‘US’ organization in which it will be stated the youth group of the ‘US’ organization is aware of the [Black Panther Party] ‘contract’ to kill RON KARENGA, leader of ‘US’, and they, ‘Us’ members, in retaliation have made plans to ambush leaders of the [Party] in Los Angeles. It is hoped this counterintelligence measure will result in an ‘US’ and [Black Panther Party] vendetta.”

Agents also distributed forged propaganda meant to increase tensions between the BPP and US, such as this cartoon attributed to US:[25]
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This strategy would bear fruits as hostilities between the two groups spilled over into violent confrontations resulting in the deaths of four BPP members, including prominent members John Huggins and Bunchy Carter. Despite Bureau protestations that it never intended to encourage violence, the FBI continued to encourage hostility between the two groups even after these killings. This is illustrated by a 1970 report from the FBI’s Los Angeles office:[26]

​“Information received from local sources indicate that, in general, the membership of the Los Angeles BPP is physically afraid of US members and take premeditated precautions to avoid confrontations.

In view of their anxieties, it is not presently felt that the Los Angeles BPP can be prompted into what could result in an internecine struggle between the two organizations…

The Los Angeles Division is aware of the mutually hostile feelings harbored between the organizations and the first opportunity to capitalize on the situation will be maximized. It is intended that US Inc. will be appropriately and discreetly advised of the time and location of BPP activities in order that the two organizations might be brought together and thus grant nature the opportunity to take her due course.”

The Bureau used a similar technique with Operation Hoodwink, where the Bureau attempted to spark conflict between the Communist Party and the criminal organization La Cosa Nostra, as well as criminal elements within reaction unions such as the Teamsters. Fortunately, this attempt did not lead to any reported physical conflicts.[27] [28]
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Additionally, the FBI liked to use a specific form of infiltrator known as “Agents Provocateurs” who would encourage members to commit violent or criminal acts. For example, a member of the Weather Underground arrested for a conspiracy to bomb Detroit police facilities was actually an FBI informant, Larry Grathwohl. Grathwohl reportedly instructed members on how to build bombs and participated in the group’s bombing of a Cincinnati public school.[29] One of the most famous provocateurs was “Tommy the Travler” Tongyai who traveled around college campuses in the northeast encouraging students to bomb military research facilities.[30]

As they did with the CP, the Bureau cooperated with local law enforcement to harass targeted groups and their members. Officials sought to stop targets frequently, hoping to arrest and convict them on minor charges. They would also attempt to frame targets for crimes they did not commit. This is exemplified by the case of Geronimo Pratt- a prominent member of the Los Angeles branch of the BPP. After numerous attempts to convict Pratt on trumped up charges failed, Pratt was accused of the 1968 “Tennis Court Murder”. On December 18, 1968, a white couple, Caroline and Kenneth Olsen, were robbed and shot by two black men on a tennis court in Santa Monica, California. Caroline Olsen would die a week later. In August 1969, an anonymous letter was delivered to the Los Angeles Police Department claiming Pratt had committed the murder and had been bragging about it. Pratt was also positively identified by Kenneth Olsen, leading to Pratt’s arrest and eventual conviction in 1972. Of course, the FBI was heavily involved in the trial. The anonymous letter turns out to have been written by Julius Butler, an FBI infiltrator, who would become a key prosecution witness. Additionally, the Bureau had at least one infiltrator in Pratt’s defense team keeping the Bureau informed on defense strategy. And the prosecution concealed the fact that Kenneth Olsen had initially identified another man, Ronald Perkins, as his wife’s killer and that police had purposefully influenced his identification. Pratt would remain in jail for a crime he did not commit until 1997 when his case was invalidated due to the prosecution’s suppression of evidence.[31]

But the worst of COINTELPRO was the Bureau’s use of violent raids and political assassinations. On April 6, 1968 a group of Panthers were confronted by police officers in west Oakland. Gunfire was exchanged and the police cordoned off the block. After an hour and a half, the Panthers attempted to surrender, but when unarmed ‘Lil Bobby Hutton emerged from a nearby basement, he was shot dead by police officers.[32] In a more overt case, Chicago police officers, with the assistance of the FBI, assassinated Fred Hampton in 1969. They were assisted by an FBI infiltrator, William O’Neal, who provided detailed floor plans of Hampton’s apartment.[33]

This is far from an exhaustive exploration of the FBI’s counterintelligence programs. The FBI targeted numerous groups such as the Socialist Workers’ Party, American Indian Movement, etc. that I was unable to cover here. While COINTELPRO was brought to light by the Church Committee in the 1970s and, subsequently, formally ended, the FBI has definitely continued its counterintelligence activities. In recent years, it has been revealed that the FBI maintains a list of “Black Identity Extremists”.[34] With this in mind, I think it is incredibly important for leftists to learn the history of COINTELPRO. With this knowledge we can more thoroughly safeguard our organizations against the inevitability of government subversion.

​Citations

[1]Churchill, W., & Vander Wall, J. (2001). COINTELPRO Papers. Retrieved 2020, from https://www.freedomarchives.org/Documents/Finder/Black%20Liberation%20Disk/Black%20Power!/SugahData/Government/COINTELPRO.S.pdf, 297

[2] Admin. (2020, July 24). AG Palmer Promises “War on Reds,” Delivers Palmer Raids. Retrieved October 03, 2020, from https://todayinclh.com/?event=ag-palmer-promises-war-on-reds-delivers-palmer-raids

[3]Churchill, W., & Vander Wall, J. (2001). COINTELPRO Papers, Retrieved 2020, from https://www.freedomarchives.org/Documents/Finder/Black%20Liberation%20Disk/Black%20Power!/SugahData/Government/COINTELPRO.S.pdf, 299

[4]“Communist Party Membership by Districts 1922-1950.” Accessed October 3, 2020. https://depts.washington.edu/moves/CP_map-members.shtml.

[5] Marcus Garvey.” FBI File on Marcus Garvey, Part4, document no. 190-1781-6, 10 Aug. 1922. The FBI: Federal Bureau of Investigation, US Department of Justice, https://vault.fbi.gov/marcus-garvey/marcus-garvey-part-04-of-12/view

[6] Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate: Together with Additional, Supplemental, and Separate Views. Vol. II. Washington: U.S. Govt. https://www.transformation.dk/www.raven1.net/cointeldocs/churchfinalreportIIb.htm Accessed: 2020

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate: Together with Additional, Supplemental, and Separate Views. Vol. III. Washington: U.S. Govt. http://www.aarclibrary.org/publib/church/reports/book3/pdf/ChurchB3_1_COINTELPRO.pdf Accessed:2020, 45

[11] Ibid, Pgs. 33-49.

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] O’Reilly, Kenneth. “The FBI and the Origins of McCarthyism.” The Historian 45, no. 3 (1983): 372-93. Accessed October 4, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24445173.

[15] Churchill, W., & Vander Wall, J. (2001). COINTELPRO Papers. P. 318, Retrieved 2020, from https://www.freedomarchives.org/Documents/Finder/Black%20Liberation%20Disk/Black%20Power!/SugahData/Government/COINTELPRO.S.pdf

[16] McElroy, Wendy. “Smith Act Tyranny Against Communists.” The Future of Freedom Foundation, March 5, 2018. https://www.fff.org/explore-freedom/article/smith-act-tyranny-communists/.

[17] Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate: Together with Additional, Supplemental, and Separate Views. Vol. III. Washington: U.S. Govt. http://www.aarclibrary.org/publib/church/reports/book3/pdf/ChurchB3_1_COINTELPRO.pdf Accessed:2020, 57

[18] Chicago. Bureau of Investigation. Chicago Letters. Chicago: Bureau of Investigation, 1969. http://docs.noi.org/fbi_january_22_1969.pdf

[19] Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate: Together with Additional, Supplemental, and Separate Views. Vol. III. Washington: U.S. Govt. http://www.aarclibrary.org/publib/church/reports/book3/pdf/ChurchB3_1_COINTELPRO.pdf Accessed:2020, 5

[20] Gage, Beverly. “What an Uncensored Letter to M.L.K. Reveals.” The New York Times. The New York Times, November 11, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/16/magazine/what-an-uncensored-letter-to-mlk-reveals.html.

[21]  Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate: Together with Additional, Supplemental, and Separate Views. Vol. III. Washington: U.S. Govt. http://www.aarclibrary.org/publib/church/reports/book3/pdf/ChurchB3_1_COINTELPRO.pdf Accessed:2020, 24

[22] Ibid, Pg. 56

[23] “Federal Bureau of Investigation – Initial Memo on Fomenting Violence Against Black Panther Party.” Genius. Accessed October 4, 2020. https://genius.com/Federal-bureau-of-investigation-initial-memo-on-fomenting-violence-against-black-panther-party-annotated.

[24] Bloom, Joshua, and Waldo E. Martin. Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016, 218

[25] Los Angeles. Bureau of Investigation. Things to do Today. Los Angeles: Bureau of Investigations, 1969. http://collection-politicalgraphics.org/detail.php?type=browse&id=1&term=Black+Panther+Party&page=3&kv=54716&record=141&module=objects

[26] Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate: Together with Additional, Supplemental, and Separate Views. Vol. III, Washington: U.S. Govt. https://www.aarclibrary.org/publib/church/reports/book3/pdf/ChurchB3_3_BlackPanthers.pdf Accessed: 2020, 24

[27] “Hoodwink.” FBI Files for Operation Hoodwink, part 1, document no. 100-159407, 29 Nov. 1967. The FBI: Federal Bureau of Investigation, US Department of Justice, https://vault.fbi.gov/cointel-pro/hoodwink/cointel-pro-hoodwink-part-01-of-01/view

[28] “Hoodwink.” FBI Files for Operation Hoodwink, par1, document no. 100-49252, 25 Jan. 1968. The FBI: Federal Bureau of Investigation, US Department of Justice, https://vault.fbi.gov/cointel-pro/hoodwink/cointel-pro-hoodwink-part-01-of-01/view

[29] Newton, Michael. The FBI Encyclopedia. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2012, 133

[30] Churchill, Ward, and Jim VanderWall. Agents of Repression: the FBI’s Secret Wars against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. Cambridge, MA: South End Pr., 2008, 48.

[31] Ibid, 77-94

[32]  Bloom, Joshua, and Waldo E. Martin. Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016, 118-120.

[33] Churchill, Ward, and Jim VanderWall. Agents of Repression: the FBI’s Secret Wars against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. Cambridge, MA: South End Pr., 2008, 64-77.

[34] Speri, Alice. “The Strange Tale of the FBI’s Fictional ‘Black Identity Extremism’ Movement.” The Intercept, March 23, 2019. https://theintercept.com/2019/03/23/black-identity-extremist-fbi-domestic-terrorism/.