Privacy SOS

Secrecy and manipulation: On the FBI’s propaganda war and the shaping of public opinion

Longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was obsessed with the public's perception of him and his enemies. As a result of this obsession, an agent could do no wrong greater than publicly embarrass the director or the bureau. Hoover knew that image and representation were more important than reality, so he worked hard to hide the truth from the public and his congressional purse-string-holders, and spin fabulous tales starring himself and his sharp-dressing agents as great American heroes.

Secrecy was central to this operation.

At the end of a long memo ordering agents nationwide to develop plans for the infiltration, monitoring, and disruption of anti-Jim Crow groups like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Hoover wrote, in typical fashion:

Counterintelligence operations must be approved by the Bureau. Because of the nature of this program each operation must be designed to protect the Bureau’s interest so that there is no possibility of embarrassment to the Bureau. Beyond this the Bureau will give every possible consideration to your proposals.

In other words: Please come up with innovative ways to destroy the Black Liberation Movement; the only proposals that will be rejected are those that might expose our operation and make us look bad.

Deft media manipulation played a key role in the FBI's image management, as well.

Hoover was media savvy. He didn’t just work painstakingly to keep secret the FBI’s scandalous COINTELPRO operations against communists, the New Left, and black and anti-war activists. He also went on the offensive, both to promote a completely fraudulent image of the FBI as defender of law and order, and to paint his political enemies as fools, criminals, or traitors.

Among Hoover's pro-FBI propaganda operations was his work as a consultant on the Warner Brothers television show, "The F.B.I.", which ran on ABC from 1965 until 1974. According to Betty Medsger’s book ‘The Burglary’, the show’s details were "carefully controlled by the director himself. He required that all scripts be approved by him." The same applied to the 1959 film "The FBI Story" starring James Stewart.

The godfather of the FBI also went to great lengths to get media and government actors to parrot his talking points, and to smear his enemies for him. While the information he collected on activists couldn’t often be used against people in court rooms—after all, they weren’t breaking the law—Hoover could strategically leak selected intelligence to friendly journalists, who would print smears of radicals without ever mentioning the FBI as a source. Again, protecting the bureau’s secret programs was of paramount importance, so these leaks could only be doled out to the most subservient and FBI friendly among the press.

The FBI didn’t stop at friendly leaks, however. One particularly advanced FBI propaganda effort against activists unfolded in the summer of 1968 in Miami, Florida. An August 5, 1968 memo from Hoover to field agents in dozens of cities, marked “Racial Intelligence,” begins:

The Bureau wants to bring a highly successful counterintelligence operation to the attention of all counterintelligence officers, so that all offices will be aware of the type of results that can be obtained in this program.

The Miami Division developed a source at a local television station and the source produced a news special on black nationalists and on the New Left. Miami requested Bureau authority to furnish the source background data of a public source nature when the source indicated an interest in producing a show exposing these groups.

The Bureau authorized furnishing the source data on a confidential basis…A great deal of research was done by Miami Agents and it resulted in an excellent program.

How excellent was the program?

"Local New Left and black nationalist leaders were interviewed on the show and seemed to have been chosen for either their inability to articulate or their simpering and stupid appearance," Hoover wrote. The memo continues:

Miami furnished a film of this show for Bureau review and it was apparent that the television source used the very best judgment in editing comments by these extremists….The interview of black nationalist leaders on the show had the leaders seated, ill at ease, in hard chairs. Full-length camera shots showed each movement as they squirmed about in their chairs, resembling rats trapped under scientific observation.

Each counterintelligence officer should be alert to exploit this technique both for black nationalists and New Left types….This counterintelligence operation will be of great value in the South Florida area and the Bureau hopes these results can be duplicated in other offices. Success in this case resulted from hard work and acumen on the part of the Agents who handled the matter. Especially important was the choice of individuals interviewed as they did not have the ability to stand up to a professional newsman.

"Each office should be alert to the possibility of using this technique," Hoover commanded. But as always, protecting the bureau from embarrassment was paramount. "No counterintelligence action should be taken without Bureau authority. For your information operations of this type must be handled through reliable, established sources and must be set up so that the FBI is not revealed as the source," he concluded.

How many Americans’ views of the FBI and the activists Hoover set out to destroy were shaped in some fundamental way by Hoover’s offensive and defensive propaganda efforts? We’ll probably never know. But it’s almost certain that the cultural significance of these so-called counterintelligence efforts was enormous and long-lasting, and shapes the national zeitgeist with respect to federal law enforcement to this very day. As William Faulker famously wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.