Workers Vanguard No. 1040
21 February 2014
COINTELPRO and the New York Times
1971 Break-In Turned Over FBIs Rocks
If a Pulitzer Prize were awarded for euphemizing government terror and repression, the smart money would surely be on the New York Times. A recent case in point is its article “Burglars Who Took On F.B.I. Abandon Shadows” (7 January), written in anticipation of the release of The Burglary by Betty Medsger, a book that reveals the identities and motivations of those who carried out a 1971 break-in of a small Pennsylvania FBI office. The subsequent exposure of the secret documents they seized ultimately led to the disclosure of the agency’s COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program).
The Times renders anodyne the FBI’s deadly program of surveillance, disruption, burglary, provocation, frame-up and outright murder, including the killing of 38 members of the Black Panther Party. The Times writes that “since 1956, the F.B.I. had carried out an expansive campaign to spy on civil rights leaders, political organizers and suspected Communists, and had tried to sow distrust among protest groups.” For the bourgeoisie’s newspaper of record, the crime of crimes was “a blackmail letter F.B.I. agents had sent anonymously to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., threatening to expose his extramarital affairs if he did not commit suicide.” While such government intrusion into people’s private lives is both repellent and a measure of the capitalist state’s contempt for anyone advocating black rights, the full story of COINTELPRO is immensely more deadly.
Just as with the belated liberal opposition to the McCarthyite anti-Communist witchhunt of the 1950s, the Times’ problem is that the “wrong” people were put on the rack along with “legitimate” targets. COINTELPRO was launched in 1956 against the Communist Party; it was later extended to the Socialist Workers Party, Puerto Rican nationalists, anyone fighting for black rights, the American Indian Movement and protesters against the U.S. counterrevolutionary war in Vietnam. In a feat of journalistic gymnastics, the Times manages to write about COINTELPRO without a mention of the Feds’ foremost victim—the Black Panther Party (BPP). FBI director J. Edgar Hoover declared the Panthers to be the “greatest threat to the internal security of the U.S.” and vowed in 1968 that “the Negro youth and moderate[s] must be made to understand that if they succumb to revolutionary teachings, they will be dead revolutionaries.”
This was no idle threat. The BPP, which represented the best of a generation of black radicals, was destroyed through a combination of FBI/cop terror and its own vicious factionalism exacerbated by COINTELPRO dirty tricks. For the New York Times, those Panthers killed as a direct result of COINTELPRO do not exist. Not “Little” Bobby Hutton, the Panthers’ first recruit, who was gunned down by Oakland cops in 1968. Not L.A. Panther leaders “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins, who were shot dead by members of the cultural nationalist United Slaves organization of Ron Karenga, inflamed by letters forged by the FBI threatening Karenga in the name of the BPP. Not Chicago Panther leaders Mark Clark and Fred Hampton, assassinated in a December 1969 police raid based on floor plans of Hampton’s apartment supplied by an FBI informant. Not Geronimo ji Jaga (Pratt), who survived a nearly identical assassination attempt four days later only to spend 27 years in prison on bogus murder charges—the FBI concealed wiretap logs showing he was 400 miles away at the time of the killing—before his release in 1997.
For the Times, all this is just a little blood under the bridge. But we remember COINTELPRO’s victims, some of whom are still behind prison walls today, among them American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier and Panther supporters Mondo we Langa and Ed Poindexter. We remember Herman Wallace, who died in 2013 after spending 41 years in solitary confinement on bogus charges in Angola Penitentiary; his Panther comrade Albert Woodfox remains incarcerated.
Betty Medsger, a reporter for the Washington Post at the time of the FBI burglary, was among a handful sent the documents and was the first to publish them. These included a 1970 memorandum calling on agents to step up interviews of antiwar activists and other dissidents in order to “enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and...further serve to get the point across there is an F.B.I. agent behind every mailbox.” Another was an order by Hoover that all black campus organizations be monitored. Hoover declared that “increased campus disorders involving black students pose a definite threat to the Nation’s stability and security,” necessitating more and better intelligence “on Black student Unions and similar groups which are targeted for influence and control by violence-prone Black Panther Party and other extremists.”
Hoover’s directive reflected the bourgeoisie’s fear that the failure of the liberal-led civil rights movement to satisfy black aspirations for equality was driving activists into what in FBI parlance were “black extremist groups.” Malcolm X, the left-moving Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and even black comedian Dick Gregory were all caught in the COINTELPRO web.
What would prove to be the most significant disclosure emerging from the burglary of the unguarded FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, was a memorandum bearing a routing slip with the esoteric designation “COINTELPRO.” Although it mustered some attention, nobody knew what it meant at the time, nor would they until December 1973, when NBC reporter Carl Stern obtained a few heavily edited FBI documents through a Freedom Of Information Act order. In early 1975, Senate hearings convened by Idaho Democratic Senator Frank Church provided a broader, but still expurgated, picture of FBI, CIA and U.S. military spying, terror and provocations.
The courageous act of the eight men and women who risked jail to unearth documentation of FBI crimes was a real service to the working class, the oppressed and all who would protest the barbarity of capitalist imperialism. Two of the activists had previously put their lives on the line in the service of their liberal convictions as volunteers registering black people to vote during Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964. Nonetheless, while the Vietnam War was radicalizing a generation of youth, the burglary’s mastermind, William Davidon, and his colleagues were squarely in the pacifist, “peace is patriotic” right wing of the antiwar movement.
Medsger notes that Davidon’s motivation was “to prove or disprove the persistent rumor that the government was spying on Americans for reasons unrelated to suspicion of crime.” Prove to whom? FBI planting of informants and provocateurs in left, civil rights and antiwar groups was no secret to the activists in those movements. As expressed in the name they adopted, “Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the F.B.I.,” the burglars’ political outlook was the belief that protest and exposure could influence those in power to rein in the supposed excesses of the government’s political police.
Medsger’s well-researched and enjoyable book purveys the view that Hoover’s FBI was a rogue agency. As Marxist revolutionists, we understand that the capitalist state exists to defend through organized violence the class rule and profits of the ruling class. This requires an apparatus of repression, of which the FBI is part. A commonplace among liberals is that Hoover’s superiors in the White House and Justice Department were kept in the dark. But as Attorneys General, Robert F. Kennedy authorized wiretaps on Martin Luther King, while in 1967 Ramsey Clark issued directions to expand COINTELPRO operations against “Black Nationalist Organizations,” specifically targeting the Congress of Racial Equality, SNCC and other groups.
The NSA, CIA and military intelligence were also spying on leftists and black activists, and many big-city police departments had their own Red Squads, working with the FBI and carrying out their own COINTELPRO-like operations. The hundreds of pages of FBI files on class-war prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal record information provided by the Philadelphia police Intelligence Division. Mumia, a Black Panther spokesman in his youth and later a supporter of the MOVE commune, has been in prison for 32 years, an innocent man framed up on murder charges. For 30 of those years, he was on death row.
The Fox and the Chicken Coop
Medsger’s prescription is oversight by Congress, with the 1975-76 Church Committee hearings as a model. Those hearings were called in response to the growing uproar following the 1972 burglary of Democratic Party national headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C., by operatives of the Nixon administration. The Watergate conspirators incurred the wrath of powerful forces by spying on the respectable bourgeois politicians of the Democratic Party. This was a violation of the accepted rules of the game—rules that have always permitted vicious persecution of leftists, labor leaders and black militants.
The Church Committee’s “reforms” were part of restoring public confidence in the government and its democratic facade after the damage inflicted by the U.S. imperialists’ stunning military defeat in Vietnam and by the Watergate revelations. But they were also intended to rationalize an apparatus of repression that had become unwieldy and evidently unable to tell the difference between Ho Chi Minh and what one might call the real antiwar housewives of Beverly Hills. In 1976, Attorney General Edward Levi implemented FBI guidelines that honed the agency’s targets to a more manageable number of victims.
Also emerging from the hearings was the establishment of the Senate and House Committees on Intelligence, whose “oversight” has consisted of rubber-stamping virtually every intelligence program. Ostensibly to curb NSA/CIA spying, Congress passed the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), setting up a special secret court to vet requests for wiretaps in the name of “national security.” Not only has the court authorized all but 11 out of 34,000 surveillance requests, it has given blanket endorsement of the Bush/Obama NSA program monitoring all phone and Internet communications.
Medsger and the burglars share the view that the FBI should be investigating organized crime and corruption rather than suppressing dissent. As Medsger puts it, “Hoover had distorted the mission of one of the most powerful and most venerated institutions in the country.” As we wrote shortly after the Church hearings, “It is their class allegiance which blinds the liberals to the simple fact that these agencies’ central purpose is to do the dirty work considered inappropriate to the ‘normal’ administrative mechanisms of bourgeois democracy” (“What Is the ADEX File?” WV No. 151, 1 April 1977). Hoover’s FBI was doing precisely what it was formed to do.
The U.S. entry into World War I, the first interimperialist world war, gave impetus to the creation of a far-flung domestic espionage apparatus. But the deadly apparatus employed by this country’s political police—with its vast army of spies and informers, wiretaps and mail interceptions—really took shape in the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. At its center was the newly formed Bureau of Investigation and its General Intelligence Division (GID) headed by Hoover. Within months, the GID had compiled a list of 55,000 names. Initially aimed at antiwar dissidents, left-wing Socialists and members of the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, the political police went on to pursue the fledgling Communist movement, targeting black militants as well.
In 1935, amid a new wave of working-class radicalization, the investigative bureau was recast by liberal icon Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the FBI. Beginning in the mid ’30s, Roosevelt quietly encouraged Hoover to conduct surveillance of domestic fascists and communists. In 1939, with the outbreak of World War II in Europe, the president expanded the FBI’s jurisdiction to include all cases of suspected domestic sabotage, espionage and subversion. When the Supreme Court outlawed wiretapping, Roosevelt ordered Hoover to keep at it.
The courageous act by the 1971 FBI burglars naturally invites comparison to the actions by Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden that, at great personal sacrifice, exposed to public scrutiny some of the international and domestic crimes of the U.S. imperialists and their government. What is obvious, however, is that none of the exposures or reforms stemming from the era of the break-in have impeded the U.S. government from wielding a police and spy apparatus that today dwarfs anything J. Edgar Hoover could have imagined. Our aim as Marxists is to build a revolutionary workers party—a tribune of the people—dedicated to leading the working class in sweeping away capitalist class rule and replacing it with a workers government. Then and only then will the enormous cache of the government’s secrets and the extent of the capitalist rulers’ terror at home and abroad be made plain for all the world to see.