The FBI’s Campaign Against Some Rightwing Groups Looks Exactly Like J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO Scandal

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The FBI's Campaign Against Some Rightwing Groups Looks Exactly Like J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO Scandal


The use of government agents and informants to instigate criminal acts to create the pretense for a crackdown is hardly new, and it is not exclusively the province of overtly totalitarian regimes.

On the night of March 21, 1965, 40-year-old Freedom Rider Viola Liuzzo and a 19-year-old Black volunteer with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were driving back to Selma, AL, from assisting some 3,000 civil rights marchers under the leadership of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., on their trek from Selma to Montgomery, AL, for a scheduled rally at the state capitol building. A car carrying four men pulled alongside and fired several shots into the car. Two of the rounds struck Liuzzo in the head, killing her. The car crashed. Moton lost consciousness but was covered in blood, so the shooters mistook him for dead. Eventually, four Klansmen were arrested. But there was an interesting twist. One of the Klansmen was an FBI informant. While the other three men stood trial on state and federal charges, the informant was whisked away and hidden In the Witness Protection Program. Rumors have persisted that it was the FBI informant who fired the shots.

Fast forward to March 8, 1971. Seven members of a group styling itself the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI used the cover of the “Fight of the Century” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier to break into a 2-man FBI office in Midway, PA, and make off with over 1,000 classified documents that we subsequently leaked to the press.

This is how the burglars described what they’d purloined.

On the night of March 8, 1971, the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI removed files from the Media, Pennsylvania, office of the FBI. These files will now be studied to determine: one, the nature and extent of surveillance and intimidation carried on by this office of the FBI, particularly against groups and individuals working for a more just, humane and peaceful society. Two, to determine how much of the FBI’s efforts are spent on relatively minor crimes by the poor and the powerless against whom they can get a more glamorous conviction rate. Instead of investigating truly serious crimes by those with money and influence which cause great damage to the lives of many people—crimes such as war profiteering, monopolistic practices, institutional racismorganized crime, and the mass distribution of lethal drugs. Finally, three, the extent of illegal practices by the FBI, such as eavesdropping, entrapment, and the use of provocateurs and informers.

As this study proceeds, the results obtained along with the FBI documents pertaining to them will be sent to people in public life who have demonstrated the integrity, courage and commitment to democratic values that are necessary to effectively challenge the repressive policies of the FBI.

As long as the United States government wages war against Indochina in defiance of the vast majority who want all troops and weapons withdrawn this year, and extends that war and suffering under the guise of reducing it. As long as great economic and political power remains concentrated in the hands of a small clique not subject to democratic scrutiny and control. Then repression, intimidation, and entrapment are to be expected. We do not believe that this destruction of democracy and democratic society results simply from the evilness, egoism or senility of some leaders. Rather, this destruction is the result of certain undemocratic social, economic and political institutions.

Those documents revealed a nearly 20-year history of the FBI targeting groups for surveillance and direct action based solely upon their political beliefs (and, sometimes, because of their racial composition). The actions covered the spectrum from merely penetrating groups and reporting on their activities to provoke violent clashes between opposing groups riddled with FBI informants.

COINTELPRO targeted numerous non-violent protest groups and political dissidents with illegal wiretaps, warrantless physical searches and an array of other dirty tricks. The FBI used the information it gleaned from these improper investigations not for law enforcement purposes, but to “break up marriages, disrupt meetings, ostracize persons from their professions and provoke target groups into rivalries that might result in deaths.

It is no exaggeration to say that by the time COINTELPRO was exposed, the KKK was essentially an FBI front group.

In the letters, Mr. Hoover disclosed that the head of the Klan in one Southern state was “our informant, and we have had him warn every member of his organization that he will not tolerate violence in any form.

“As a result we have been successful to date in holding klan violence in the entire state to an absolute minimum,” he said.

Of the 14 different klan groups then in existence, Mr. Hoover said, “we have penetrated every one of them through informants and currently are operating informations in top‐level positions of leadership in seven of them.”

Tactics in Program

Some of the tactics used by the program included the following:

¶Making anonymous mailings to Jewish members of the American Communist party detailing alleged anti‐semitic Soviet policies.

¶Creating a fictitious supersecret national intelligence committee of the Klan that issued false news articles to the media reporting that the Klan’s national leaders had been “ousted.”

¶Getting the local authorities to condemn a building in Chicago that had been refurbished by the American Nazi party for its headquarters.

¶Making anonymous mailings to Klan members at their home or place of business of postcards with a cartoon showing a white‐sheeted member over the caption “we know who you are.”

Anonymous letters were also sent to major motel chain home offices revealing that the klan planned a convention in one of their motels and urging that it be canceled.

The revelations in the stolen FBI documents spawned the so-called Church Committee to investigate abuses by federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies in their surveillance of American citizens in America. The Committee described its findings in this way:

We have seen segments of our Government, in their attitudes and action, adopt tactics unworthy of a democracy, and occasionally reminiscent of totalitarian regimes. We have seen a consistent pattern in which programs initiated with limited goals, such as preventing criminal violence or identifying foreign spies, were expanded to what witnesses characterized as “vacuum cleaners”, sweeping in information about lawful activities of American citizens. The tendency of intelligence activities to expand beyond their initial scope is a theme that runs through every aspect of our investigative findings. Intelligence collection programs naturally generate ever-increasing demands for new data. And once intelligence has been collected, there are strong pressures to use it against the target.

That’s the key point in that last sentence. This kind of domestic intelligence gathering becomes a self-licking ice cream cone where intelligence collection leads to demands for justification for that collection, which leads to the creation of violent acts for the intelligence operatives to monitor.

The fight against law enforcement overreach seems to have had some success at the state level, at least as applied to protected racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. Not all that long ago, the ACLU forced NYPD to wind down its monitoring of radical mosques. This was the reasoning.

  • Stigma: Through its religious profiling and surveillance, the NYPD has imposed an unwarranted badge of suspicion and stigma on law-abiding Muslim New Yorkers.
  • Interference with Religious Practice: The NYPD’s suspicionless surveillance has forced religious leaders to censor what they say to their congregants, for fear anything they say could be taken out of context by police officers or informants. Some religious leaders feel they must regularly record their sermons to defend themselves against potential NYPD mischaracterizations. Disruptions resulting from unlawful NYPD surveillance have also diverted time and resources away from religious education and counseling. Muslims have reported feeling pressure to avoid appearing overtly religious, for example, by changing their dress or the length of their beards.
  • Community Fear: The NYPD’s discriminatory surveillance has produced an atmosphere of fear and mistrust within mosques and the Muslim community at large. At mosques, congregants often regard newcomers with anxiety, unsure if they are sent to spy by the NYPD. As a result, these houses of worship cannot serve as the places of spiritual refuge and comfort that they are intended to be.
  • Chilling Free Speech: The NYPD’s discriminatory surveillance has chilled religious speech and political activism—from engagement in public debates and protests, to friendly coffee-house banter.
  • Damaging Law Enforcement Relationships: The NYPD’s unlawful profiling of Muslims has damaged its relationship with American Muslims, breaching communities’ trust in a police department that is tasked with protecting them.

The record at the federal level doesn’t seem quite as impressive. Even after the Church Committee attempted to gut the CIA, turn the United States over to the USSR, and limit FBI abuses, there is significant circumstantial evidence that COINTELPRO-like operations continued. Under the Obama regime, we literally saw the US government set up an operation that sold weapons to illegal purchasers with the purpose of getting those weapons into the hands of Mexican drug cartels. It was anticipated, and correctly so, that those weapons would be used to run up the body count in Mexico, and that fact would be used as justification for restricting the sale of “long guns” in the United States. If you look at the lead-up to Vicki and Samuel Weaver’s state-sanctioned executions at Ruby Ridge, the inciting incident was a federal informant getting a down-on-his-luck Randy Weaver to shorten two shotguns to flip him into an informant.

For the past four years, we’ve been appalled by the FBI and the Intelligence Community working hand-in-glove to insert informers into a presidential campaign and transition team. We saw an obviously faked dossier laundered by the CIA and FBI through press leaks to create the pretext for a special counsel. Over the past month, I’ve posted about the alarming pattern of “militia” and “extremist” arrests with a common thread. A group meets. Someone in the group brings up the bright idea to commit a federal felony. Discussion ensues. An outsider with the means to carry out the felony is introduced to the group. Some inciting act is taken, like purchasing an illegal device, and the FBI descends on the group. There is a press conference and indictments and much blathering about the enemy within and the danger of extremists. Eventually, it is revealed that one or more group members were paid FBI informants and that the luckless schlubs who were indicted appear to have been led to the slaughter.

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The pattern here is largely what the Church Commission tried to stamp out. You have groups opposed in some fundamental way opposed to the direction the elites want the nation to go. They are targeted for no other reason than their dissent. From there, it is a short jump to creating facts that enable law enforcement to suppress that dissent. As the Church Committee said, “the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.”

If federal law enforcement continues to push informants and provocateurs into otherwise peaceful organizations and engage in what a layperson would characterize as entrapment, then they build a case for having entire groups labeled as violent extremists. As we saw in the aftermath of the Capitol riot, that kind of labeling can be used to prevent people from traveling (the ‘no-fly” list). It can keep them from renting housing (AirBNB canceling reservations). It can get financial institutions to make it impossible to use a credit card or other payment system. And on and on. Oddly enough, the stated purposes of COINTELPRO were:

  1. Create a negative public image for target groups (for example through surveilling activists and then releasing negative personal information to the public)
  2. Break down internal organization by creating conflicts (for example, by having agents exacerbate racial tensions, or send anonymous letters to try to create conflicts)
  3. Create dissension between groups (for example, by spreading rumors that other groups were stealing money)
  4. Restrict access to public resources (for example, by pressuring non-profit organizations to cut off funding or material support)
  5. Restrict the ability to organize protest (for example, through agents promoting violence against police during planning and at protests)
  6. Restrict the ability of individuals to participate in group activities (for example, by character assassinations, false arrests, surveillance)

Looking at the boast made by J. Edgar Hoover about the FBI’s success against the Klan, it is not a stretch to see the outlines of a very old pattern emerging in the way an FBI emboldened by its successful fight against a president is trying to marginalize conservative dissent.



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