An Analysis of the History and Current Ramifications of COINTELPRO

Between 1956 and 1971 the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation undertook a sequence of clandestine and occasionally illegal projects aimed at disrupting and discrediting a variety of political organizations operating legally within the United States. Though the project was discovered in 1971 and quickly mothballed by the director of the FBI in response, it was replaced by a case by case utilization of similar techniques. Though COINTELPRO is no longer extant policy and hasn’t been for over four decades, current police procedure as well as government wiretapping policies have been heavily influenced by the program and may be viewed as loose successors.

Under COINTELPRO operations against a particular group began with surveillance, intended not only to gather information about the targets, but also to intimidate and induce paranoia in movements for social change. Simultaneously, the Bureau would begin disseminating false information with two purposes; ‘gray propaganda’ was intended to discredit the targeted group in the eyes of the public and generate tensions between groups with similar goals while the other ‘black propaganda’ was the fabrication of leaflets and flyers purporting to materials spread by the targeted group. In reality, these publications were doctored by the FBI to severely damage the reputation of the group they claimed to be authored by. Simultaneously the Bureau attempted to foster intra-group conflict, primarily through the use of faked mail between members as well as the spreading rumours and manufactured evidence suggesting that key personnel within movement organizations were actually infiltrators, employed by the FBI. This tactic, dubbed ‘bad-jacketing’ served not only to discredit many activists that the Bureau wanted rid of, but also resulted in the murders of some activists accused of betraying others within the organization.

If that wasn’t enough, COINTELPRO also called for the abuse of criminal justice system in delaying and disrupting legitimate protest actions by monitored organizations. Working with local law enforcement, the FBI repeatedly had activists arrested to harass them, increase paranoia, waste their time in preliminary incarceration, and deplete their resources through the posting of bail bonds and the necessity of having attorneys on retainer. When the vast majority of the Bureau’s surveillance revealed that its targeted groups were engaging only in lawful activities agents provocateur were used to advocate that the groups engage in illegal activities and violence, giving the FBI a convenient excuse to stamp them out.The final and most drastic measure was the government participation in direct assaults and assassinations. Though this area of the policy is the least well documented as the FBI has almost always used surrogates, the Bureau was repeatedly documented as having provided the necessary intelligence, logistics, and other necessary resources for successful operations in this area to external actors. 

Placed into this historical context, actions of police departments in the past few decades make a great amount of sense. When confronted with a large amount of protestors that they don’t want to deal with, officers consistently arrest many of them on charges that are at best dubiously backed up by evidence, and at worst blatantly not prosecutable. They also appear to have adopted the tactic of escalating force dramatically at the first sight of opposition, even if that opposition is very hard to tie back to protestors. This use of agents provocateur has been alleged at at least two national political party conventions. Just as the police have adopted tactics pioneered by COINTELPRO, so too have other sectors of the United States government.

Most obviously, the National Security Agency appears to have wholeheartedly followed in COINTELPRO’s footsteps. Instead of merely surveilling politically important individuals however, the NSA now collects metadata on nearly every U.S. citizen who uses the internet or places phone calls with a cell phone. Their response to the exposure of this information, and other leaks of similar severity have been consistent attempts at the character assassination of the leakers, just like the FBI’s attempts to keep political figures during the 50’s and 60’s from having too much influence.

Noting these similarities allows clear parallels to be drawn between current government activity and the policies laid out by the FBI 40 years ago. COINTELPRO never really vanished, it was merely absorbed into the greater context of government as a whole.



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