As debate heats up over reports of a secret FBI counterterrorism unit that monitored and infiltrated a Pennsylvania peace group opposing the Iraq invasion, some 60s civil rights movement veterans say they are not surprised – since the same thing happened to them almost 50 years ago.
The FBI’s current spy and infiltration program "sounds like a COINTELPRO to me," said a spry 76-year-old civil rights movement veteran.
Robert Keglar of Charleston, Mississippi in Tallahatchie County was referring to an earlier FBI secret program -- COunter INTELligence PROgrams or COINTELPROs -- that not only promoted spying on and infiltration of civil rights groups but often harassed activists and pitted them against each other, beginning as early as 1956.
"Of course, we had the state of Mississippi spying on us, too. And even private citizens doing it. No one should ever forget the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission or the White Citizens Councils," Keglar said.
The former teacher and boy scout leader's mother and her friend were tortured and murdered in 1966 for registering voters in Tallahatchie County; his brother was killed when he tried to learn what happened to his mother.
COINTELPRO programs often made havoc of perfectly lawful activities led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC and other civil rights groups including the NAACP, the organization that both Birdia Keglar and Adlena Hamlett belonged to.
As the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, funded by the state’s legislature one year after the 1955 murder of fourteen year-old Emmett Till, was initiated to ensure integration would not occur, former FBI and military intelligence agents were hired to spy on Mississippians as the Commission came into power.
On the federal side of the surveillance coin, COINTELPROs were initiated by the FBI in the same year.
Private White Citizens Councils, formed one year earlier in 1955, were also a product of Mississippi’s fight to maintain segregation and represented the private voice of the state’s leading segregationists.
Councils members included prominent bankers, attorneys, physicians, elected officials, chambers of commerce members, realtors and others.
Byron de La Beckwith, convicted for the murder of civil rights icon Medgar Evers, was a Citizens Councils member.
John Satterfield of Yazoo City, a Methodist leader and president of the Mississippi State Bar Association and the American Bar Association (for two terms), was a member, too.
Sovereignty Commission reports, first publicly released in 1997, are available online through the state’s department of archives and include files on some Citizens Councils activities as well.
But COINTELPRO files – if they were ever included in Sovereignty Commission’s records – are remarkably invisible. Some Mississippians contend that thousands of Commission files were purged before they were turned over to the ACLU and made public. And that the FBI, Sovereignty Commission and White Citizens Councils worked hand in hand.
"I’ve always wondered how the information was passed on that pinpointed exactly where my mother and her friend would be at that specific time. Who was spying on them? Who told the Klan where they were going? Who knew what route they were taking?" Keglar asks.
The county's district attorney informed Birdia Keglar’s son of the "car accident." But relatives and friends, as well as several "eye-witnesses," reported that she and Hamlett were run off the road, pulled from their car, tortured and murdered by highway patrolmen who were also Klan members. The June 12, 1966 accident was never investigated; Mississippi public officials and the FBI say no reports of the accident exist.
COINTELPRO Discovered in Pennsylvania Break-In
The existence of COINTELPRO came to light back in March of 1971, when a group calling themselves the "Citizens' Committee to Investigate the FBI" broke into an FBI field office -- ironically in Pennsylvania, the same state where current FBI spying charges were lodged this past week – and then provided the press and various members of Congress with secret documents seized from that office, showing the government’s involvement in criminalizing dissent.
While FBI and police harassment were suspected by way of surveillance and infiltration during the 1960s, any talk of secret or dangerous CIA-type activity against domestic dissidents would have been dismissed as paranoid had it not been for the evidence picked up in this raid, according to Brian Glick, the author of "War at Home: Covert action against U. S. activists and what we can do about it."
Glick, a New York attorney and social justice advocate, is internationally known for his observations and writing on COINTELPRO operations.
In fact, covert operations have been employed against those who speak out against the government throughout the FBI’s history (and even in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars), including recent FBI monitoring of environmental and animal rights organizations, close watch of anti-war groups by a secret Pentagon program and eavesdropping on domestic communications by the National Security Agency.
The formal COINTELPROs of 1956-1971 were broadly targeted against organizations that were at the time considered politically radical, as well, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Within a year of the 1971 Pennsylvania break-in, former FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover declared the centralized COINTELPRO over, and all future counterintelligence operations to be handled on a "case-by-case basis," an official FBI statement that sounds all too familiar following the more recent spy/infiltration discovery.
Back in 1971, Hoover did not promise that the FBI would stop using COINTELPRO tactics, and more secret documents were revealed through lawsuits filed against the FBI by NBC correspondent Carl Stern and then in 1976 by the "Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities of the United States Senate," commonly referred to as the "Church Committee" for its chairman, Senator Frank Church of Idaho.
Millions of pages of COINTELPRO documents remain unreleased, while many released documents were almost entirely censored; just as recently released reports on the FBI’s infiltration of the Pennsylvania Peace group, many COINTELPRO documents made available to the public include lines entirely blacked out, making them unreadable.
Also in 1971, the Church Committee concluded that "covert action programs have been used to disrupt the lawful political activities of individual Americans and groups and to discredit them, using dangerous and degrading tactics which are abhorrent in a free and decent society," writes political scientist Howard Zinn.
Further embedded in the earlier Church report’s subfindings (Appendix A to the Plaintiffs’ "Motion for Justice" filed in the Bari/Cherney civil rights suit against the FBI and Oakland Police in a letter addressed to Dennis Cunningham, lead counsel, according to Zinn) were these familiar-sounding assertions:
"(a) Although the claimed purposes of these action programs were to protect the national security and to prevent violence, many of the victims were concededly nonviolent, were not controlled by a foreign power, and posed no threat to the national security;
"(b) The acts taken interfered with the First Amendment rights of citizens. They were explicitly intended to deter citizens from joining groups, "neutralize" those who were already members, and prevent or inhibit the expression of ideas;
"(c) The tactics used against Americans often risked and sometimes caused serious emotional, economic, or physical damage. Actions were taken which were designed to break up marriages, terminate funding or employment, and encourage gang warfare between violent rival groups. Due process of law forbids the use of such covert tactics, whether the victims are innocent law-abiding citizens or members of groups suspected of involvement in violence; and
"(d) The sustained use of such tactics by the FBI in an attempt to destroy Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., violated the law and fundamental human decency."
Where Did COINTELPRO Come From?
COINTELPRO developed out of the anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War years, leading FBI agents into taking actions against groups that had nothing to do with Communism. The Bureau would take actions against individuals and organizations simply because they were critical of government policy, Zinn writes.
The political scientist found numerous examples of free speech violations in which the FBI targeted people because they opposed U. S. foreign policy or criticized police actions.
Documents assembled by the Church Committee "compel the conclusion that Federal law enforcement officers looked upon themselves as guardians of the status quo." Zinn cites the surveillance and harassment of Martin Luther King Jr. as an important example.
But SNCC, with its proactive philosophy, topped the list of targeted programs under "Negro radicals."
And when congressional investigations, political trials, and other traditional legal modes of repression failed to counter the growing movements, and even helped to fuel them, the FBI and police moved outside the law, resorting to the secret and systematic use of fraud and force to sabotage constitutionally protected political activity.
"Their methods ranged far beyond surveillance, amounting to a home front version of the covert action for which the CIA has become infamous throughout the world."
FBI Headquarters secretly instructed its field offices to propose schemes to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" specific individuals and groups.
Close coordination with local police and prosecutors was strongly encouraged. Other recommended collaborators included friendly news media, business and foundation executives, and university, church, and trade union officials, as well as such "patriotic" organizations as the American Legion.
In his research, Glick uncovered a total of 2,370 officially approved COINTELPRO actions that were admitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee, and thousands more have since been uncovered.
Glick lists four main methods used by the agents:
1) infiltration by agents and informers with the intention to discredit and disrupt; 2) psychological warfare from the outside, using "dirty tricks" to undermine progressive movements; 3) harassment through the legal system, making targets appear to be criminal; and 4) extralegal force and violence including break-ins, vandalism, assaults, and beatings to frighten dissidents and disrupt their movements.
The lengthy list of activists coming under attack included Cesar Chavez, Fathers Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, Rev. Jesse Jackson, David Dellinger, officials of the American Friends Service Committee and the National Council of Churches, and other leading pacifists were high on the list, "as were projects directly protected by the First Amendment, such as anti-war teach-ins, progressive bookstores, independent filmmakers, and alternative newspapers and news services."
It was COINTELPRO "that enabled the FBI and police to eliminate the leaders of mass movements in the 1960s without undermining the image of the United States as a democracy, complete with free speech and the rule of law.
"Charismatic orators and dynamic organizers were covertly attacked and ‘neutralized’ before their skills could be transferred to others and stable structures established to carry on their work."
FBI documents were found disclosing six major official counterintelligence programs, of which three focused on the Civil Rights Movement with top priority given to the "COINTELPRO – Communist Party-USA, with its specific operations conducted on Dr. King, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the NAACP, the National Lawyers Guild.
Also the National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee, Women's Strike for Peace, the American Friends Service Committee, and the National Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy.
Officially, the six major COINTELPRO programs (with hundreds of separate operations) were COINTELPRO – Communist Party, USA (CP); COINTELPRO – Social Workers Party (SWP); COINTELPRO – Puerto Rican Independence Movement; COINTELPRO – Black Liberation Movement; COINTELPRO – New Left; COINTELPRO – AIM; and COINTELPRO – White.
Dr. King was a target of an elaborate COINTELPRO plot to drive him to suicide and replace him "in his role of the leadership of the Negro people" with conservative Black lawyer Samuel Pierce (later named to President Ronald Reagan's cabinet) according to revisionist historians including Glick and Zinn, who have come to view King's assassination, as well as Malcolm X’s, as domestic covert operations.
Glick cites a letter (Michael Gabriel, "James Earl Ray: The Last Days of Inmate #65477," Cat Yoga Publishing, April, 2004) written by James Earl Ray, in which Ray claimed there was never a trial in the homicide case.
"The government gained control of the attorney representing me, Percy Foreman. Without going into a lot of details, Mr. Foreman maneuvered me into a plea of guilty after he had me sign numerous literary contracts, and then signing all of the proceeds over to him under the guise he would use the money to finance a trial in the MLK case.
"Foreman obtained the plea via various threats: If I didn’t enter the plea, the government would probably try my brother Jerry, for conspiring in the MLK shooting, that my father might be returned to an Iowa prison from where he had escaped in 1926, and that he (Foreman), might not put forth his best efforts in a trial."
A label of "Black Nationalist Hate Groups," was the vehicle for the Bureau's all-out assault on Dr. King, SNCC, CORE, the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, "Black Muslims," and the National Welfare Rights Organization.
The Socialist Workers Party and groups supporting or working with Malcolm X and the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam were also identified as targets.
Still others organizations were harassed:
The League of Black Revolutionary Workers, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), the Republic of New Afrika (RNA), the Congress of African People, Black student unions, "and many local Black churches and community organizations struggling for decent living conditions, justice, equality, and empowerment."
Additional COINTELPRO operations focused on the destruction of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Peace and Freedom Party, the Institute for Policy Studies, and a broad range of anti-war, anti-racist, student, GI, veteran, feminist, lesbian, gay, environmental, Marxist, and anarchist groups.
Also the network of food co-ops, health clinics, child care centers, schools, bookstores, newspapers, community centers, street theaters, rock groups, and communes that formed the infrastructure of the counter-culture, according to Glick.
One example of COINTELPRO-Communist Party-USA harassment involved 18 staffers and supporters of Kudzu, a pro-left, counter-culture newspaper produced in Jackson, Mississippi.
On October 8, 1968, they were attacked and beaten by Jackson deputy sheriffs. Newspaper staffers had already survived a conviction on obscenity charges, the arrest of salespeople, the confiscation of cameras, and even eviction from its offices.
Kudzu was put under direct surveillance by the FBI in 1970. For more than two months FBI agents made daily searches without warrants, according to the coordinator of PEN American Center’s Freedom to Write Committee:
On October 24 and 25, Kudzu sponsored a Southern regional conference of the Underground Press Syndicate. The night before the conference the FBI and Jackson detectives searched the Kudzu offices twice. During the search, an FBI agent threatened to kill Kudzu staffers.
On the morning of October 26, FBI agents again searched the office. That evening local police entered the building, held its eight occupants at gunpoint, produced a bag of marijuana, and then arrested them.... A Kudzu staff member commented,
"The FBI used to be fairly sophisticated, but lately they have broken one of our doors, pointed guns in our faces, told us that ‘punks like you don’t have any rights,’ and threatened to shoot us on the street if they see us with our hands in our pockets."
Discovered among these special units was a unique COINTELPRO program focusing on "White Hate Groups," at least on paper.
But Glick and several other researchers argue that COINTELPRO-white appeared only to go after violent right-wing groups, and that the FBI actually gave covert aid to the Ku Klux Klan, Minutemen, Nazis, and other racist vigilantes, under the cover of being even-handed.
"These groups received substantial funds, information, and protection – and suffered only token FBI harassment – so long as they directed their violence against COINTELPRO targets," Glick wrote.
"They were not subjected to serious disruption unless they breached this tacit understanding and attacked established business and political leaders."
Specifically, COINTELPRO documents indicate that some infiltrators discreetly spied for years without calling attention to themselves (like the Soviet moles or sleepers) while others acted as instigators to disrupt meetings and conventions or social and other contacts.
University of Delaware historian Gary May tells the story of slain activist Viola Liuzzo in "The Informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo," (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, May 11, 2005) who was murdered in 1965 at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan immediately after the Selma, Ala., voting rights march took place.
President Johnson kept close tabs on the investigation and when suspects were taken into custody almost immediately, it seemed the FBI was doing its job with extra diligence; federal informant Gary Thomas Rowe had infiltrated the Alabama Klan five years earlier and quickly pointed out the suspects.
But Rowe's own role in the murder was suspicious, and it turned out that his experiences with the KKK often linked him with other notorious race crimes of the era, including the Birmingham church bombing. As with some other FBI informants, this one played both sides.
Agents spread rumors, made accusations, inflamed disagreements, and caused splits. "They urged divisive proposals, sabotaged activities, overspent scarce resources, stole funds, seduced leaders, exacerbated rivalries, caused jealousy and public embarrassment to groups. They often led activists into unnecessary danger and set them up for prosecution."
One common maneuver, known as placing a "snitch jacket" or "bad jacket" on an activist, damaged the victim’s effectiveness and generated "confusion, distrust, and paranoia." The maneuver was used to divert time and energy and turn co-workers against one another, even provoking violence.
"Jacketing" was often done by "carefully orchestrated series of news releases and newspaper articles prepared by the FBI and ‘cooperative’ reporters."
An activist could be falsely labeled an informer in "FBI-composed anonymous letters" or in other operations, where the FBI arranged for police to release one member of a group that had been arrested together or to single one out for special treatment, "and then spread the rumor that the beneficiary had cooperated."
A snitch jacket was used in 1968 against SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure) along with a "whispering campaign," to "tag Carmichael with a CIA label," Glick wrote, citing a letter from the FBI Director to Washington Field Office, July 1, 1968 and memorandums from Washington Field Office to FBI Director, July 9, and July 10, 1968.
Comedian Dick Gregory, who spent time within Mississippi marching for voting rights and outside of the state raising money to help feed and clothe starving children in the Delta, was also the target of "covert maneuvers" to get the Mafia to move against Black activists … and the entire leadership of the Communist Party – USA.
Meanwhile, the FBI’s "main right-wing beneficiary" was the Ku Klux Klan, Glick and others say. In 1961, the Klan brutalized freedom riders as they arrived in various Southern cities, including Jackson, with "advance information supplied by the FBI."
The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission diligently collected and kept this advance information. The names of civil rights advocates, their complete address, age, and name of employer or school attended were often collected and held in Sovereignty Files, some under the category name, "Freedom Riders Groups and Addresses, Group Numbers and Date Arrived."
The FBI kept talking with Klan members. By 1965, some 20 percent of Klan members were on the FBI payroll, many occupying leadership positions in seven of the fourteen Klan groups across the country, states political scientist Robert Goldstein in "Political Repression in Modern America: 1870 to the Present," (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing Co., 1978).
Finally, Sovereignty Commission staffers often shared files with FBI special agents running the COINTELPROs, as evidenced by Commission files kept on targets including the Freedom Democratic Party and the Republic of New Afrika (RNA).
One Mississippi Delta SNCC volunteer says she was "exposed" no sooner than she arrived on the job in Holly Springs. An August 18, 1966 story in the Jackson Daily News held that SNCC volunteer Jo Freeman was a "professional agitator" citing "the Burns report" as its major source of information.
Five photographs accompanied the story, including one taken on December 3, 1964 of Freeman speaking from the second floor balcony of the administration building on the University of California, Berkeley campus.
When Freeman’s Mississippi SNCC boss saw the editorial, he put Freeman on a bus back to Atlanta. "That thing makes you Klan bait," he told her.
Freeman assumed the FBI was behind her experience in the Delta, even though she did not know about COINTELPRO at the time.
"It had all the earmarks of an FBI plant, requiring connections between California and Mississippi. My belief was reinforced when the FBI's COINTELPRO actions against the Civil Rights Movement in general and its persecution of Dr. Martin Luther King in particular were revealed.
"Not until 1997 did I discover that the actual source of the editorial and photos was the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission (MSC), an official state agency of which I was completely unaware in 1966.
"And only after reading many pages in the MSC files at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History did I realize that I and others like me were not just foot soldiers in the Civil Rights Movement, but cannon fodder in the Cold War," wrote Freeman in her autobiography, "At Berkeley in the Sixties: Education of an Activist, 1961-1965," (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004).
Glick and others maintain that literally thousands of important files continue to be withheld, while others have been destroyed. Further, former COINTELPRO operatives report "the most heinous and embarrassing actions" were never committed to writing; the statement of retired FBI Special Agent Arthur Murtagh who appeared before the Select Committee on Intelligence, and who was interviewed by retired FBI Special Agent Wes Swearingen in June 1979, serves as just one example.
Officials with broad personal knowledge of COINTELPRO have been silenced, "most notably William C. Sullivan, who created the [COINTELPRO] program and ran it throughout the 1960s. Sullivan was killed in uninvestigated 1977 ‘hunting accident’ shortly after giving extensive information to a grand jury investigating the FBI, but before he could testify publicly," Glick states.
* * *
And so …
As internal agency documents released Tuesday, March 14, raised new questions over federal spying without court authorization – in this case on anti-war Americans – since Sept. 11, 2001, William Crowley, a spokesman for the FBI's Pittsburgh office, "insisted the monitoring was legal and related to an ongoing investigation but gave no details of the probe."
Crowley further stated that when the FBI found no link between its investigation and the center, it ended the surveillance, Jonathan S. Landay of Knight Ridder News Service reported.
The ACLU, meanwhile, contends the documents are the first to "show conclusively" that an anti-war group was targeted for anti-war views. ACLU staff attorney, Marty Catherine Roper, told Landay.
"The documents demonstrate that "Americans are not safe from secret government surveillance, even when they are handing out fliers in the town square, an activity clearly protected by the Constitution."
The Thomas Merton Center, named for an American Roman Catholic monk, poet and author who died in 1968, meanwhile describes itself as a group of people from diverse faiths who believe in "nonviolent struggle" for peace and justice.
Yet an FBI report dated Nov. 29, 2002, defined the center as "a left-wing organization advocating, among many political causes, pacifism."'
The report also noted that the center had cooperated with an Islamic organization in staging an event to promote understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims in Pittsburgh.
"The documents say they were conducting some kind of investigation," Thomas Merton Center director Jim Kleissler told Landay.
"That implies we were under surveillance simply because we were against the war. Our freedoms are being undermined."
No surprise there.