Former protest leader Tom Hayden framed the surveillance as part of a conflict between Machiavellians, technicians doing the power elite’s work, and Movements, the organized mass gatherings that assemble outside institutional structures to right a moral injury that those institutions fail to address. The antiwar movement contended that the Vietnamese had a moral right to determine their own government, while the American elite saw winning the war as a measure of U.S. dominance in the world and a necessary tactic to prevent another “domino” from falling to Soviet influence.
The government’s surveillance of the 1960s-era Vietnam War Protest Movement was driven by an overarching Machiavellian cold war competition between U.S. and Soviet establishments. Given the tensions of the era, U.S. leaders were vitally interested in the question of whether the movement was being influenced or funded by international communists or terrorists. Reports out of the Soviet Union suggested that black militants aligned with U.S. protesters were trained by North Koreans and that the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Soviet police force KGB had been involved in varying degrees in aiding the antiwar movement. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover strongly believed such reports, being completely assured that a strong link existed between the antiwar movement and foreign extremists. President Lyndon B. Johnson was far less convinced, and he sought a second opinion by instructing CIA Director John McCone in 1965 to provide an independent, objective analysis of the student antiwar protests.
Almost from the beginning, the legality of CIA spy operations within the United States was vigorously debated. The staunchest defenders of such actions believed that when internal security was compromised, domestic spying was completely legal; the offending antiwar insurgents forfeited what would have been, in more peaceful times, a constitutional right to privacy. According to this admittedly extreme view, a president’s decision to initiate such domestic intelligence gathering is not prosecutable. Critics countered that spying on U.S. soil violated the CIA’s charter as well as a 1947 U.S. statute forbidding such operations. Meanwhile, government officials tasked with carrying out these missions perceived the situation as a gray area not specifically prohibited by law, as in the case of a U.S. citizen who has been approached by foreign intelligence agents. In such instances, given heightened fears of foreign involvement in the protests, CIA spying was justified as a crucial tool to gather the information to assess the level of foreign complicity.
By 1967, the CIA’s questionable or illegal collection of domestic intelligence had become so widespread that one of McCone’s successors as director of Central Intelligence, Richard Helms, was forced to create a Special Operations Group to handle the volume of incoming information. Embedded in the Deputy Director of Plan’s counterintelligence division, Special Operations Group provided data on the U.S. peace movement to the Office of Current Intelligence on a regular basis. Based on intelligence received, the CIA implemented two new domestic operations. The first, Project RESISTANCE, was designed to provide security to CIA installations and contractors as well as agency recruiters on college campuses. The CIA reached out to campus security, college administrators, and local police in an effort to identify antiwar activists and dissenters. Information on thousands of students and dozens of groups was eventually passed on to campus recruiters as a warning of potential dangers. The CIA’s Office of Security created a second project, MERRIMAC, to provide warnings about demonstrations being carried out against agency facilities or personnel in the nation’s capital. In this project, agents infiltrated Washington-based peace groups and black activist groups.
In July 1968, Helms decided to consolidate all CIA domestic intelligence operations under one program, Operation CHAOS. Domestic spying capabilities were expanded, with President Johnson’s support, to include all intelligence about foreign ties to racial, antiwar, and student protest activity. Key presidential advisors Dean Rusk and Walt Rostow concurred with Hoover that foreign intelligence assets were aiding and abetting American antiwar protests.
Hayden observed that Machiavellians tend to be divided on how to respond to social movements, splitting into one faction that favors an extreme overreaching response and another that is more accommodating to movement demands. This observation applied to the internal social dynamics of President Richard Nixon’s administration as he took office in 1969. At the time, there were two opposing pressures on the CIA regarding its domestic intelligence capabilities. One was the allegation that the agency was not doing all it could do, that it was overpaid for domestic intelligence but was not producing acceptable results. A young, enthusiastic White House aide, Tom Charles Huston, agreed with President Nixon that current domestic intelligence was inadequate and pressed for ever-increasing domestic operations. Fearing an organized armed insurrection and stunned by the speed at which student strikes mobilized after the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in April 1970, Huston was eager to expand Operation CHAOS to include overseas agents and to share information with the FBI’s intelligence division. This is the overreaching response that Hayden wrote about.
In June 1970, President Nixon met with Hoover, Helms, and the directors of the National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency, informing the group that he wanted a coordinated, concentrated effort against domestic dissenters. To do this, he was creating the Interagency Committee on Intelligence (ICI) to be chaired by Hoover. The first ICI report, in late June, recommended new proposals for “black bag” operations, wiretapping, and a mail opening program. In mid-July 1970, Huston told ICI that its recommendations had been accepted by the White House. A few days later, the president rescinded his approval, citing resistance from Attorney General John Mitchell as well as from Hoover.
The refusal of the attorney general to accept the ICI directives illustrated the second pressure point on the CIA during the Nixon administration—the pressure to disband the domestic spying on the antiwar movement that had been assembled in President Johnson’s second term. For instance, the Management Advisory Group, consisting of young CIA executives, formally opposed Operation CHAOS in a March 1971 report. Furthermore, internal agency studies suggested that the program had overstepped its bounds by performing intelligence activities within the United States, raising questions about the legality and the legitimacy of the operation and its predecessor programs. Bowing to this pressure, and reflecting a more moderate response, the CIA ended the operation in 1973.
During the life of Operation CHAOS, the CIA compiled personality profiles on more than 13,000 individuals, prepared dossiers during the years 1967–1973 on the political activities of 7,200 individuals and 100 radical groups, and stored data on 300,000 citizens in a computer database shared with law enforcement agencies including the Defense Intelligence Agency and the FBI. The agency also opened and photographed the contents of about 216,000 letters sent to and from the Soviet Union. A computerized index of 1.5 million names was created from these mail openings.
Portions of the materials collected on groups and individuals were obtained from private institutions through covert operations. For instance, Army undercover agents posed as press photographers, newspaper reporters, and television newsmen during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois, to better spy on protesters assembled in Civic Center Plaza and Lincoln Park. Universities were another target of Army intelligence. Agents enrolled as students in the Black Studies program at New York University and kept dossiers on students and faculty at the University of Minnesota.
By 1970, Army intelligence had files on the political activities of 100,000 individuals unaffiliated with the armed services. The Army maintained more than 350 separate records storage centers containing files on civilian political activities; one such center at Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas, reported the equivalent of more than 120,000 file cards on personalities of interest.
From 1956 to 1971, the FBI implemented a covert counterintelligence program called COINTELPRO, whose purpose was to spy on, infiltrate, discredit, and disrupt domestic groups that it believed to be subversive and to be carrying out programs that would overthrow the existing social and political order. A wide range of domestic groups were investigated during the life of this program, including multiple New Left organizations, and almost all anti-Vietnam War protest organizations. In an effort to prevent and disrupt protests, the bureau created divisions within antiwar groups by spreading misinformation, pushing violent confrontations as an alternative to peaceful demonstrations, and encouraging protesters to commit crimes. Targeted groups were subjected to “black bag” jobs or warrantless surreptitious entries and had 130,000 of their first-class letters opened and photographed. The FBI also maintained an army of 1,300 “free-floating” informers who traveled widely throughout the United States with little supervision, spying on radical groups. Ultimately, from multiple intelligence streams, the bureau compiled a list of 26,000 subversives to be detained in the event of a national emergency.
The IRS sent confidential tax data on 8,000 suspected dissidents and 3,000 antiwar groups to the FBI. The IRS had a Special Services Staff whose job was to target such individuals and groups for investigation. Organizations on the list included peaceful and law-abiding groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the National Urban League.
See also Antiwar Movement, History in United States ; Central Intelligence Agency ; COINTELPRO
Hayden, Tom. The Long Sixties. Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2009.
Lyon, Verne. “Domestic Surveillance: The History of Operation CHAOS.” Covert Action Information Bulletin, Summer, 1990.
Roebuck, Julian and Stanley C. Weeber. Political Crime in the United States. New York, NY: Praeger, 1978.
U.S. Senate. Intelligence Activities and Rights of Americans, Book II. Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities, Report 94-755, 1976.