Privacy SOS

COINTELPRO is not dead—it’s the FBI’s second highest-ranked priority

In the early 1970s, a full 77% percent of the FBI files at one Pennsylvania office pertained to dissidents, including draft dodgers, antiwar activists, black radicals, and other left-wing organizers. We know this because a group of brave activists, frustrated by the fact that their complaints about FBI harassment were not taken seriously in the mainstream press, broke into an FBI office and stole hundreds of pages of documents. The Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI delivered the documents to newspapers, and then went on with their lives as if nothing happened.

This week, some of those activists came forward to disclose their identites, after nearly 43 years in the shadows. In the immediate wake of the Media, Pennsylvania robbery, J. Edgar Hoover directed 200 FBI agents to chase down and arrest the culprits. They were never found. Hoover died about a year after the robbery blew the lid off of his best kept secret, the political spying and intimidation campaign called COINTELPRO, which stands for 'counterintelligence program'. The robbery, subsequent investigative journalism, and congressional hearings on the FBI's programs sparked the first real reforms targeting FBI domestic spying.

As a result of those activities, the FBI was saddled with a slate of new rules, among them Attorney General guidelines stipulating that the nation's most powerful law enforcement agency couldn't spy on someone unless it had reason to believe that person was involved with criminal activity. After 9/11, all of that went out the window. Today, the FBI can spy on anyone at all, for no good reason whatsoever.

That's why another piece of major FBI news this week, while alarming, doesn't come as much of a shock. The FBI admitted that it has ceased to even pretend that its main mission concerns federal law enforcement. Instead of worrying about things like actual crimes, such as murder or perjury, the FBI will now focus almost entirely on 'intelligence', which we hear has something to do with the altogether vague and constantly shape-shifting concept of 'national security'.

Why change the FBI's primary mission from law enforcement to national security? Perhaps that makes it easier to riddle someone with bullets without providing a legitimate explanation to the public? After all, when people ask: "What the hell happened down there?" the FBI can mumble "National security," and expect to get away with it.

The national security card also comes in handy when the Department of Justice wants to keep its legal interpretations of privacy and civil liberties statutes secret from the public. 'We'd love to be able to tell you what we think the law says, but unfortunately that's classified national security information.' Just say the magic words 'National security,' and watch the law disappear before your eyes.

As the hilarious @FearDept put it on Twitter:

An FBI spokesman told the press:

"When our mission changed after 9/11, our fact sheet changed to reflect that. We rank our top 10 priorities and CT [counterterrorism] is first, counterintel is second, cyber is third. So it is certainly accurate to say our primary function is national security."

There you have it. The FBI admits publicly that counterintelligence is its second priority. Fighting crime doesn't even rank among the top three. According to the agency itself, the bad old days of COINTELPRO are far from over.

As for interstate criminal enterprises, they should consider this a gift. Unless they dabble in economic justice organizing, the FBI probably isn't very interested in them or their criminal activity.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.