COINTELPRO

Lately, there has been increasing skepticism among conservatives about the Federal Bureau of Investigation among many on the right. The raid on Mar-a-Lago, the involvement of the FBI in the plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Whitmer, and perhaps the ‘insurrection’ of January 6, harassment of prominent Trump supporters such as Mike Lindell, and arrest of pro-life activists have all contributed to the impression that the FBI has become a corrupt and repressive tool of the Democratic Party and the deep state elites.

This new skeptical attitude represents a sea change in the positions of the Right and the Left. It used to be liberals who expressed doubts about the power and possible civil rights violations of federal law enforcement agencies while law and order conservatives have tended to blindly support the police at every level and ignore all but the most obvious cases of corruption and violations of civil rights. Now that the force of the federal government has become increasingly weaponized against conservative dissent, the Right is awakening to the very real dangers of an over-powerful FBI. The Left, which now benefits from the increased repressive power of the federal government now supports federal, though not local, law enforcement, and we see the strange spectacle of the same people who urged defunding the local police suggesting that questioning the FBI is somehow unpatriotic and taking the side of the domestic terrorists.

The fact is that contrary to what many conservatives believe the corruption of the FBI is no new thing. The FBI has, in fact, been problematic since its beginning, with a long history of civil rights violations and prioritizing suppressing dissent over fighting crime. Most people have been unaware of the dangers posed by the FBI because they have generally targeted unpopular fringe groups. It is only recently that the FBI has used its power against mainstream organizations. The danger has been there all along, however.

To see the threat the FBI has posed to our liberties, one needs to look no further than COINTELPRO. According to Wikipedia, COINTELPRO was:

a series of covert and illegal projects actively conducted by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) aimed at surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting domestic American political organizations

COINTELPRO began in 1956 and only ended when the program was revealed to the public by the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI in 1971. The Citizen’s Commission managed to steal documents from an FBI office and get them published by the Washington Post. Congress subsequently investigated COINTELPRO as part of the Church Committee’s general investigation of illegal surveillance and covert actions by intelligence and law enforcement agencies of the U. S. government.

The targets of COINTELPRO included:

 feminist organizations,the Communist Party USAanti–Vietnam War organizers, activists of the civil rights movement and Black Power movement (e.g. Martin Luther King Jr., the Nation of Islam, and the Black Panther Party), environmentalist and animal rights organizations, the American Indian Movement (AIM), Chicano and Mexican-American groups like the Brown Berets and the United Farm Workers, independence movements (including Puerto Rican independence groups such as the Young Lords and the Puerto Rican Socialist Party), a variety of organizations that were part of the broader New Left, and far-right groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the National States’ Rights Party.

Now, to be clear, most, if not all, of these organizations deserved at least some scrutiny from law enforcement. The Communist Party and associated Socialist organizations were, at least in theory, committed to the violent overthrow of the US government, and the Communists were funded by a hostile foreign power. The Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers were both racist organizations with a history of violence. Not all of the anti-Viet Nam war protestors were peaceful flower children. It would have been entirely appropriate for the FBI to conduct surveillance on many of these groups. Indeed it might have been negligent for them not to keep an eye on them. The problem is the FBI did much more than simply watch these groups. The FBI actively sought to harass, break up, and discredit organizations that held unpopular fringe political opinions. The FBI’s methods included:

  • Infiltration: Agents and informers did not merely spy on political activists. Their main purpose was to discredit, disrupt and negatively redirect action. Their very presence served to undermine trust and scare off potential supporters. The FBI and police exploited this fear to smear genuine activists as agents.
  • Psychological warfare: The FBI and police used myriad “dirty tricks” to undermine movements. They planted false media stories and published bogus leaflets and other publications in the name of targeted groups. They forged correspondence, sent anonymous letters, and made anonymous telephone calls. They spread misinformation about meetings and events, set up pseudo movement groups run by government agents, and manipulated or strong-armed parents, employers, landlords, school officials, and others to cause trouble for activists. They used bad-jacketing to create suspicion about targeted activists, sometimes with lethal consequences.
  • Harassment via the legal system: The FBI and police abused the legal system to harass dissidents and make them appear to be criminals. Officers of the law gave perjured testimony and presented fabricated evidence as a pretext for false arrests and wrongful imprisonment. They discriminatorily enforced tax laws and other government regulations and used conspicuous surveillance, “investigative” interviews, and grand jury subpoenas in an effort to intimidate activists and silence their supporters.
  • Illegal force: The FBI conspired with local police departments to threaten dissidents; to conduct illegal break-ins in order to search dissident homes; and to commit vandalism, assaults, beatings and assassinations.The objective was to frighten or eliminate dissidents and disrupt their movements.
  • Undermine public opinion: One of the primary ways the FBI targeted organizations was by challenging their reputations in the community and denying them a platform to gain legitimacy. Hoover specifically designed programs to block leaders from “spreading their philosophy publicly or through the communications media”. Furthermore, the organization created and controlled negative media meant to undermine black power organizations. For instance, they oversaw the creation of “documentaries” skillfully edited to paint the Black Panther Party as aggressive, and false newspapers that spread misinformation about party members. The ability of the FBI to create distrust within and between revolutionary organizations tainted their public image and weakened chances at unity and public support.

These methods go far beyond what ought to be acceptable for a law enforcement agency in a free, constitutional republic. These are police state methods, the sort of procedure you might expect from the KGB or the Gestapo. All of the members of the political organizations targeted by the FBI had a perfect right to belong to and promote the ideology of those organizations so long as they obeyed the law and abstained from violence. There is no law, and ought not to be a law that prohibits anyone from being a Communist, a Black Panther, a Klansman, or anything else they want to be.

COINTELPRO officially ended in April 1971. The FBI was supposed to have ended the illegal surveillance and harassment of law-abiding citizens, but there is good reason to suspect their illegal shenanigans have continued. Over the years, members of fringe movements on both the right and left have complained about the FBI’s actions. Lately, the FBI has been more blatant in its actions against groups deemed to be threatening to the political order, and as the FBI, along with many other federal agencies, has become less professional and more politicized under the Obama and Biden administrations, it has increasingly targeted mainstream conservatives.

The history of the FBI has generally been that of a rouge agency that threatens rather than defends the life and liberty of American citizens. A law enforcement agency with wide-ranging powers and contempt for the rights of the American people has no place in a constitutional republic. If there is, indeed, a need for a federal law enforcement agency like the FBI as part of our government, it should be an agency of strictly limited jurisdiction and under the oversight of Congress. I do not believe the FBI can be redeemed or reformed. It must be defunded and abolished.

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