Privacy SOS

The FBI, COINTELPRO, and the most important robbery you’ve never heard of

There are lots of redactions in the recently released Department of Homeland Security (DHS) files on the Occupy movement, obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund. 

Partly because of those omissions, it’s hard to get a sense of just what’s going on at local, state and federal law enforcement agencies when it comes to political surveillance directed against activists. 

Due to exemptions in public records laws and a general lack of transparency in the FOIA process, public records wizards and journalists can never be sure when the government is withholding information for legitimate reasons, or whether certain parts of documents are redacted to protect officials or agencies from embarrassment.

But there are moments when — due to extraordinary circumstances — the curtain is pulled all the way back. One such highly explosive event in American history revealed political spying so extensive it spurred serious congressional investigation and action.

The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI

Most people in the United States have probably never heard of the 1971 event the Los Angeles Times describes as “one of the most lastingly consequential (although underemphasized) watersheds of political awareness in recent American history.” But you’ve most likely heard about the political scandal that erupted in its wake: COINTELPRO.

In March, 1971, activists calling themselves the Citizens’ Committee to Investigate the FBI broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania and stole more than a thousand documents. Then they released them — unredacted and in full — to the public. 

Decades later, in 2008, the LA Times published a great piece remembering the break-in and the ensuing political firestorm:

Within a few weeks, the documents began to show up — mailed anonymously in manila envelopes with no return address — in the newsrooms of major American newspapers. When the Washington Post received copies, Atty. Gen. John N. Mitchell asked Executive Editor Ben Bradlee not to publish them because disclosure, he said, could “endanger the lives” of people involved in investigations on behalf of the United States.

Nevertheless, the Post broke the first story on March 24, 1971, after receiving an envelope with 14 FBI documents detailing how the bureau had enlisted a local police chief, letter carriers and a switchboard operator at Swarthmore College to spy on campus and black activist groups in the Philadelphia area.

More documents went to other reporters — Tom Wicker received copies at his New York Times office; so did reporters at the Los Angeles Times — and to politicians including Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota and Rep. Parren J. Mitchell of Maryland.

Despite a six year, 33,000 page investigation into the robbery, the FBI never uncovered the culprits, the LA Times reports. The activists never came forward to publicly claim responsibility for the series of political changes they helped to unleash, including the passage of the landmark Privacy Act in 1974.

The revelations were astonishing to many Americans: the FBI was engaged in extensive political surveillance and disruption of activist groups. While the Bureau spied on some right-wing organizations, its political surveillance was mostly directed at left-wing organizations and anti-war deserters.

Noam Chomsky summarized what the Citizens’ Committee reported about the FBI’s investigative priorities in the early 1970s:

According to [The Citizens’ Committee’s] analysis of the documents in this FBI office, 1 percent were devoted to organized crime, mostly gambling; 30 percent were “manuals, routine forms, and similar procedural matter”; 40 percent were devoted to political surveillance and the like, including two cases involving right-wing groups, ten concerning immigrants, and over 200 on left or liberal groups. Another 14 percent of the documents concerned draft resistance and “leaving the military without government permission.” The remainder concerned bank robberies, murder, rape, and interstate theft.

In other words, the documents revealed that the vast majority of the FBI’s investigative records in the Media, PA office concerned political surveillance, including inquiries directed at Vietnam war deserters and draft refusers. 

From the LA Times:

Found among the Media documents was a new word, “COINTELPRO,” short for the FBI’s “secret counterintelligence program,” created to investigate and disrupt dissident political groups in the U.S. Under these programs, beginning in 1956, the bureau worked to “enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles,” as one COINTELPRO memo put it, “to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”

The Media documents — along with further revelations about COINTELPRO in the months and years that followed — made it clear that the bureau had gone beyond mere intelligence-gathering to discredit, destabilize and demoralize groups — many of them peaceful, legal civil rights organizations and antiwar groups — that the FBI and Director J. Edgar Hoover found offensive or threatening.

The public was shocked to learn what the FBI had been up to in secret. But perhaps it shouldn’t have been. After all, this was the same FBI director who called the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program the “greatest threat to the internal security of the United States.”

How much has changed since the 1970s within the ranks of the FBI? What kinds of government spying activities weren’t revealed in the recent document dump on DHS and Occupy Wall Street?

We can’t be sure unless we can see what’s really going on inside these institutions. In the post 9/11 era, the most serious abuses at federal agencies have been disclosed by whistleblowers. And the government is now executing a major crackdown on government leaks.

But we can imagine how little the institutional culture at the FBI in particular has changed by reading the agency’s description of J. Edgar Hoover’s oversight during COINTELPRO, found on its website:

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the Bureau took on investigations in the field of civil rights and organized crime. The threat of political violence occupied many of the Bureau’s resources as did the threat of foreign espionage.

That’s certainly one way of looking at it.

Will we ever again have access to raw documents on domestic political spying like those uncovered by the Citizens’ Committee? Only time will tell.

Primary Documents

The Citizens’ Committee to Investigate the FBI sent the following communique to media organizations, urging them to publish the documents:

June, 1971 

We are sending you copies of more than 200 pages of FBI documents which were among those taken from the Media, Pennsylvania, office of the FBI on the night of March 8, 1971 — International Women’s Day —  when all the FBI documents in every file cabinet and desk of that office were brought out. Previously unpublished material is included here, along with copies of everything previously sent to the press by our Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. 

If you publish this material, we want this cover letter to be printed with it uncut, and we want all royalties to be used to set up a fund for the defense of those who may be accused by the government of gathering or publicizing information which it tries to keep secret from the very public from whom it should derive Its powers. 

We wish to make these documents more widely available so that they can be used effectively by all who are working for a more peaceful, just, and open society. Our purpose is not just to correct the more gross violations of constitutional rights by the FBI within the framework of its present goals and organization. Nor is it to attack personally individual informers, agents, or administrators. It is instead to contribute to the movement for fundamental constructive change in our society, for as we said in our initial statement, “as long as great economic and political power remains concentrated in the hands of small cliques not subject to democratic control and scrutiny, then repression, Intimidation, and entrapment are to be expected.” 

The government has been making frantic efforts to deny the public such glimpses into its clandestine activities. It has resorted to a massive campaign of spying and harassment not only against those who work for more just and peaceful policies, but also against their families, friends, and neighbors. 

We are encouraged by the constructive actions which many have been taking to resist this repression. 

Here are some examples which may provide models for others: 

In the Powelton section of Philadelphia, residents and community organizations held a street fair, which turned the intensive FBI spying and harassment against that community into a focus for uniting and educating the residents (New. York Times, June 6, 1971). A public alarm system was set up for bringing people together on short notice in the event of an FBI attack. Posters with photos of FBI agents prowling in the area were widely distributed. A law suit against the FBI is being initiated. 

In New York City, a bill has been introduced that would grant each person access to any files a city agency keeps on them, and which would require prior notification before a dossier could be shown to any federal or state agency. 

The American Civil Liberties Union and RESIST (the national organization which issued the Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority) are setting up local committees against spying. They are preparing leaflets and other material for general distribution to inform people of their rights and their responsibility to others not to cooperate with political investigations. They are challenging cooperation with government spying by the mass media, the phone company, universities, and other institutions in their area. 

Others have taken direct action to make public Information which the government had concealed. The publication of the government’s top secret history of the Vietnam. War by the New York Times, and the raids on FBI offices in Rochester and Garden City, New York, are examples. 

Only a sustained, informed, courageous, and humane struggle can build a living community within the shell of the dying one. 

The Los Angeles Free Press published the communique, along with some of the FBI files. Here’s one, dated 9/16/70, entitled “SECURITY INVESTIGATIONS OF INDIVIDUALS & ORGANIZATIONS”:

During the recent inspection this office was instructed to separate security matter supervision to create a “New Left” and an “Old Left” desk. 

Squad 3 was designated to be the “Old Left” desk. While retaining espionage and foreign intelligence matters, it will handle the investigations of all organizations and individuals who fall in the “Old Left” category. Generally, “Old Left” means the Communist Party and the various splinter and Trotskyite groups which have been in existence for many years. The youth groups and satellites of the Communist Party and these splinter groups are also to be handled in the “Old Left” category and on Squad #3. 

Squad #4 was designated to handle “New Left” matters which includes both organizations and individuals. This is a relatively broad term insofar as newly formed organizations with leftist or anarchistic connotations. Among other things, desk #4 will be responsible for such matters as SDS, STAG, underground newspapers, communes, commune investigations, the Resistance. 

It is not contemplated that such organizations as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, SANE, AFSC, etc., which have long been in existence and are now attempting to polarize themselves toward revolting youth will be considered within the investigative purview of “New Left.” To include such organizations would defeat the purpose of setting up a flexible activist group designed to deal with violent and terroristic minded young anarchists.

UPDATE January 7, 2013: Four members of the heroic Citizens’ Commission have come forward.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.