█ LARRY GILMAN
COINTELPRO (for Counter Intelligence Program) was a set of programs commenced by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1956 and officially terminated in 1971. COINTELPRO included programs variously named Espionage COINTELPRO; New Left COINTELPRO; Disruption of White Hate Groups (targeting the Ku Klux Klan); Communist Party, USA COINTELPRO; Black Extremists COINTELPRO; and the Socialist Workers' Party Disruption Program. Although these were "counterintelligence" programs by name, the FBI did not consider most of these groups to be engaged in intelligence activities (e.g., spying for the Soviet Union). Rather, it deemed their political activities dangerous, and assumed that various court decisions had made it impossible to control them by nonsecret, legal means (e.g., arrests for illegal acts). COINTELPRO began by targeting the Communist Party, but quickly expanded to include other groups. The FBI's "black extremist" category included not only the Black Panthers but the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its president, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and other civil rights groups of the 1950s and 1960s. COINTELPRO also targeted groups opposed to the Vietnam War.
COINTELPRO remained secret until a large number of documents were stolen from the FBI office in the town of Media, Pennsylvania, in 1971. Lawsuits brought by political groups who believed that they were being observed and disrupted by the FBI soon produced other COINTELPRO-related documents. In 1975, a Senate committee—the Select Committee to Study Governmental Relations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, better known as the Church Committee after its chair, Senator Frank Church (D, Idaho)—was appointed to investigate COINTELPRO and other domestic espionage and disruption programs conducted by the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, Army intelligence, and the Internal Revenue Service. The Church Committee concluded in 1976 that "the domestic activities of the intelligence community at times violated specific statutory prohibitions and infringed the constitutional rights of American citizens," and stated that the FBI had gathered information by illegal means, disseminated that information illegally, and otherwise violated the law in its efforts to disrupt political activities that it considered subversive. The committee's report stated that "the abusive techniques used by the FBI in COINTELPRO from 1956 to 1971 included violations of both federal and state statutes prohibiting mail fraud, wire fraud, incitement to violence, sending obscene material through the mail, and extortion. More fundamentally, the harassment of innocent citizens engaged in lawful forms of political expression did serious injury to the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech and the right of the people to assemble peaceably and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
Disruption techniques used by the FBI during COINTELPRO, according to the findings of the Church Committee, included burglaries; illegal opening and photographing of first-class mail; planting of forged documents to make it appear that individuals were government informants; anonymous letters to spouses, designed to break up marriages; secretly communicating with employers in order to get individuals fired; planting of news articles and editorials (covertly authored by FBI agents) in U.S. magazines and newspapers; anonymous letters containing false statements designed to encourage violence between street gangs and the Black Panthers; anonymous letters denouncing Catholic priests who allowed their churches to be used for Black Panther breakfasts sent to their bishops; requests for selective tax audits; encouragement of violent tactics by paid FBI informants posing as members of antiwar groups in order to discredit those groups; and others.
█ FURTHER READING:
"Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities." United States Senate. April 26, 1976. < http://www.derechos.net/paulwolf/cointelpro > (March 18, 2003).