Thursday, July 18, 2013

Domestic Surveillance. New? Not so much. A look back at COINTELPRO.

     My Liberal friends have their panties in a twist. The Right Wing is salivating over another supposed Obama scandal. Shhh. The NSA is listening. This is a surprise, why? The United States has a long storied tradition of keeping an eye on it's citizenry that stretches back over a century.
 The Patriot Act was passed and renewed. Why is anyone shocked it's being used??
Since I am simply a history major with out a degree(Though that gives me a leg up on David Barton) I still recognize that context and historical perspective shapes, even colors current perceptions.
Since I'm not a history Professor (Just a wannabe) and I'm not teaching a survey course on Government Misbehavior, this will be simply a look back at COINTELPRO. Also maybe a peek at the other agencies tagging along.
COINTELPRO (COunter INTELligence PROgram) was started in 1956 by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to counter what he saw as a Cold War threat. Communists, socialists, civil rights and any other dissent that offended him. With Hoover that was basically dissent, period.
During the Thirties and Forties the Bureau perfected the skills needed to operate outside the legal framework. Illegal wiretaps, open surveillance to intimidate and harass,smear tactics and disinformation. This was primarily directed at Gangsters, the American Communist Party, other left leaning organizations and Nazi sympathizers. Using these tactics Hoover also collected his famous files on Hollywood, Washington and Industrialists, The FBI developed and nurtured a network of informants across American Society. Friends spying on friends. Having grown up during the Cold War I remember this was constantly cited as an evil Soviet practice.
In the Fifties we saw a resurgence of political dissent in response to and fueled by the political climate that produced Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon. Civil Rights , anti-nuke, and a revived American Left were more vocal and visible. Hoover decided to act by creating COINTELPRO.
Though technology has changed the basic tenants of domestic spying remain essentially the same.
1)  Infiltration. this was a favorite in the Fifties and Sixties that is still chugging along. Then the FBi joined The Communist Party, Socialist Party, NAACP, CORE, Ban the Bomb groups, the KKK, The American Nazi Party and John Birch Society. However the bulk of resources were devoted to the Left, a trend that would continue into the Sixties and beyond
The targets then were still the Civil Rights groups, The Woman's Movement, the anti-war movement and the New Left. That was the SDS and Weathermen. Basically it was any individual or group that vocally opposed then current American Foreign and Domestic policy that Hoover perceived as a threat.
Agents and informants infiltrated these groups often developing the plans that were used as probable cause for arrest. Still popular today. Think all these "Sting" operations used to corral suspected terrorists.
2)  PsyOps. The FBI and local police would use friendly newspapers and reporters to plant false damaging news stories about the targeted group or individual. They would print and distribute phony leaflets using the group's Masthead. Misinformation about meetings and events was spread. Supporters, donors, families, schools and others were strong armed to bring pressure on dissidents.Anonymous call and letters were very popular. If you nose around around the internet today you still see misinformation campaigns being waged. Same on social media. I do like to believe the blatant lies and misrepresentations are politically motivated rather than covert government activity. I'm a hopeful guy.
3)  Legal harassment This was simple. Targeted selective enforcement of laws. Planting of manufactured evidence and perjury. Frivolous lawsuits designed to discourage donors and intimidate supporters. Any law or regulation to make life difficult could and would be used.
4)  Extralegal means. Ok. Black bag jobs. (The most famous were Nixon's Plumbers Watergate and Ellsberg's Psychiatrist's office break-ins)  Illegal wiretaps which has grown beyond the hardlines of yesterday. planting evidence, false arrest and wrongful conviction. You can read deaths in unintended explosions or killed while resisting as you wish.
During this time nearly every agency and large police force joined in not wanting to be left in the dark by the FBI. Army intelligence. the CIA( in violation of their charter forbidding them to operate within the US) and massive spying and entrapment programs by NYPD and  LAPD.
Hoover used his unbridled power to create a win by any means culture. Intelligence was shaped to fit the need. Manufactured and disseminated to disrupt the exercise of Constitutionally guaranteed liberties. This was done to protect the status quo and dominant political agendas.
A lot of this should sound familiar. The FBI was founded to round up anarchists for deportation. They were used as a tool of political control until the early Seventies.
The Church Committee in the Senate catalogued the offenses and abuses of the American Intelligence community dating back to the 19th Century. Since then the resultant laws and regulations have been watered down and undermined by legislation and executive order. This is a grand American tradition. One that as long as intel is needed there will be tension between our liberty and the Nation's security. We haven't got it right yet. Why would we start now?

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