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FBI files and assassination plots, oh my!

The recently revealed assassination plot against Occupy Wall Street leaders isn’t the first such scheme to be uncovered in publicly released FBI files. 

You’ve likely heard by now of the mysterious plot directed against OWS, revealed in the FBI files published by the Partnership for Civil Justice. There are two references to this apparent assassination plot in the 112 pages of documents. The first occurs in a document so heavily redacted that we don’t know who wrote it, or from which FBI office it originated. Here’s the relevant section:

An identified [redacted] of October planned to engage in sniper attacks against protesters in Houston, Texas, if deemed necessary. An identified [redacted] had received intelligence that indicated the protesters in New York and Seattle planned similar protests in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin, Texas. [Redacted] planned to gather intelligence against the leaders of the protest groups and obtain photographs, then formulate a plan to kill the leadership via suppressed sniper rifles.

Seven pages later in the file dump, in a Jacksonville, Florida FBI "Domain Program Management – Domestic Terrorism” document, there’s another reference to this murder plot. There the FBI briefly makes note of an unknown party’s “interest[] in developing a long-term plan to kill local Occupy leaders via sniper fire." The group or person with the “interest” in these murders is redacted from the publicly available files.

The natural response to this revelation is and largely has been: Why didn’t the FBI warn people they were the targets of an assassination plot? 

TechDirt’s Timothy Geigner puts it like this:

What's plain as day is that some group somewhere was plotting to murder OWS leadership in Texas. It's also clear that the FBI never bothered to inform the targets of the threats against their lives. This stands in apparent contrast to how closely they worked and coordinated with private banks to handle the OWS protests as a whole. And, remember, this is the same FBI who has put tremendous effort over the past few years into breaking up its own terrorist plots. You'd think that when it had a chance to go after actual plots to assassinate leaders of a political movement, they might, you know, actually do something and then trumpet the success in stopping a real plot. Apparently not.

The news shocked people who paid any attention to it. (Admittedly, that wasn’t very many people — the story was universally ignored in the mainstream press.) But it isn’t the first time heavily redacted FBI files released pursuant to a FOIA request have revealed a would-be assassination attempt on the lives of political activists.

Fred Wilkinson, the First Amendment felon

Back in 1964, political organizer, housing and civil liberties advocate and House Un-American Activities Committee resistor Frank Wilkinson was almost assassinated. Wilkinson didn’t find out about the designs on his life until decades later, however, after he’d finally pried his 132,000 page FBI file out of the bureau’s hands.

In a must-read account of Wilkinson’s inspiring life and work, First Amendment Felon: The Story of Frank Wilkinson, His 132,000-Page FBI File, and His Epic Fight for Civil Rights and Liberties, Robert Sherrill writes:

On March 4, 1964, when Frank was out of jail and doing field organizing full tilt, he was almost assassinated. It remains unclear precisely who instigated it. We know the FBI was working hard to monitor his every movement, and to disrupt his activities, so they must have known of this? Yes, there is a two page FBI teletype marked "urgent" of the date, talking about the assassination. Five lines are blacked out and then "contacted by an undisclosed source to assist in an assassination attempt on Frank Wilkinson…" It notes he was to speak at a private home to an ACLU group in Los Angeles. It notes the FBI "will stake out residents…." And "matter will be closely followed and pertinent developments promptly reported." A follow-up memo from shortly after, initialed by Hoover, notes "that no attempt has been made on the life of Wilkinson and there have been no further developments in this matter." Under orders from the Federal District Court, the FBI subsequently confirmed that house was staked out by the L.A. Police’s Anti-Subversive division.

Like the 2012 revelation of an occupy assassination plot, the disclosure of the FBI’s knowledge of a plot against Wilkinson’s life raised "a few pertinent questions."


Who instigated the assassination? To this day this is not confirmed. Were the L.A. police officers staking out the house to have done the act, or just watch someone else do it? We don’t know. Did the FBI warn Wilkinson that he might be killed? No. Did the FBI ever tell Wilkinson his life had been or still might be in danger? No. Did the FBI know who was to do the assassination? We can’t tell, but it sounds like it from the file. If the FBI didn’t know the alleged assassin, did it try to find out? Not from record of the files. Did it prosecute or refer this for local law enforcement to prosecute? No.

This memo alone makes a laughingstock of any allegation that the FBI was tasked to protect citizens. It clearly assigned itself the job of spying on people engaged in dissent activity, without letting evidence of the worst kind of criminal conduct (i.e., assassination) get in the way of some important spying.


By 1983, when these files became public, activists were a little jaded from seeing the results of a civil suit against Chicago prosecutors and police proving that they, with active FBI assistance, had assassinated Black Panther Party activists Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in 1969. The guilt of law enforcement in that Chicago case also was upheld in February 1983 by the U.S. Supreme Court. And yet this evidence of related FBI behavior just a few years previously, against a white guy like Frank, showed a clear pattern of behavior.

We don’t know and probably never will know who set out to assassinate Frank Wilkinson or any OWS leaders because the FBI will probably never tell us. But we know the bureau didn’t warn the public or activists in the movement about threats against them, back in the 1960s or in 2012. And given what we know about the FBI's history, that's enough to make you wonder.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.