COINTELPRO refers to the U.S. Counter Intelligence Program, consisting of more than 2,300 covert operations sponsored and organized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), under the directorship of J. Edgar Hoover. COINTELPRO was designed to disrupt, infiltrate, misdirect, and neutralize left-wing organizations such as the Communist Party, the “New Left,” the Puerto Rican independence movement, the Socialist Worker Party, white hate groups, the underground press popular in the 1960s, and virtually all of the important movements and social change organizations associated with the counterculture of the 1960s, especially antiwar, antiestablishment, and student groups. Specific targets of COINTELPRO included the American Indian Movement (AIM), the Black Panther Party (BPP), the Chicano Movement, Students for a Democratic Society, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Revolutionary Action Movement, and the Women’s Liberation Movement.

COINTELPRO’s tactics included extralegal and illegal activities. Of the seemingly mundane activities, these tactics included publishing derogatory cartoons, sending anonymous poison-pen letters designed to break up marriages, writing insinuating articles, and creating jealousies and suspicions among the staff and leadership of targeted groups. On a more antagonistic level, insinuations and accusations were made, labeling rival members of other groups or pointing to members within a group as police or Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) informants. These accusations and playing off of other suspicions and hostilities often created suspicions within a group, and sometimes gang wars erupted between the groups, and occasionally murders were committed. Groups advocating nonviolent tactics would be infiltrated, and the agent would attempt to steer it toward violent and illegal activities.

COINTELPRO also engaged in well-orchestrated disinformation campaigns. These were designed to portray nonviolent groups as radical or violent in the eyes of the media. The more audacious tactics included framing selected members on drug or murder charges, the bombing of selected editorial offices, and even orchestrating assassinations. There were also broad-based surveillance programs. Some of these covert operations were conducted on private citizens (e.g., Operation CHAOS, Project MERRIMAC, and Project RESISTENCE). In conducting its operations through COINTELPRO, the FBI often coordinated its efforts with and shared or collected information from the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, the military police, local law enforcement, and, at times, even right-wing radical groups.

The Underground Press

The reason for the demise of the underground press in the early 1970s remains debatable. The underground press became a force to be reckoned with, and some papers had national distribution (e.g., East Village Other, Nola Express, and Ramparts). Underground news services (Underground Press Syndicate and Liberation News Service) provided stories and bulletins to the underground papers. Readership was in the tens of millions by the late 1960s, but by the early 1970s only a handful were barely surviving. From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, Allen Ginsberg began collecting documents through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) because of stories of harassment. His research indicated that COINTELPRO contributed to the decline of the underground press.

Tactics such as sending poison-pen letters to cause jealousies and marital breakups, falsely accusing editorial staff members of being informants, and playing on the hostility between groups were employed. In addition, one tactic used often to disrupt the underground press was to continually arrest street vendors. Even though the defendants always won their cases due to the protections afforded by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the accumulated court costs could drive an underground paper into bankruptcy. COINTELPRO would apply pressure on printers to refuse printing assignments from the papers and order local police to conduct drug raids on the editorial offices, where subscription, accounting, and other information would be gathered in addition to damaging archives and other files. There were also cases in which COINTELPRO employed radical right-wing groups to bomb the editorial offices of some papers.

As a consequence of the disinformation and propaganda generated by COINTELPRO, the history of the failed underground newspapers and counterculture movements in general has been distorted. In some cases, even those directly affected were not, and even today are not, aware that some of the infighting and internal tensions were a result of COINTELPRO.

Black Nationalist Movements

The BPP became one of the most important focal groups because the FBI determined that it was most likely to succeed as a unifying force with the potential to build coalitions with other groups. In late 1967, the BPP was known among the African American community for its humanitarian service projects, citizen’s arrests, and training to guard against police brutality. The BPP initiated a free breakfast program for children and free health care for ghetto residents, and in 1968, it started an antiheroin campaign. The growth within the party went from 5 members in 1966 to close to 5,000 at the end of a 2-year period, and it spread from its home base in Oakland, California, to a dozen other cities.

False arrests and police raids, often accompanied by violent shoot-outs, were frequently used tactics in the FBI’s war against the BPP. In addition, a massive misinformation campaign was launched whereby FBI agents or infiltrators posed as violent demonstrators and arranged to be interviewed in spontaneous media coverage of demonstrations and other protest events, giving the image of the BPP as a radical, violent, antiwhite hate group. The community service work of the BPP never reached the general consciousness of the mainstream media. The BPP leadership was kept from interviews and other high-profile media coverage. The general tactics of poison-pen letters, forged articles, and other forms of misinformation were used to create hostility between various groups and to prevent coalitions. The overall strategy was successful, and by 1974, the BPP was no longer a viable political force.

American Indian Movement

In targeting the AIM, COINTELPRO began an operation on the eve of its closure and extended it years after its official close. The FBI’s tactics proved as successful in dismantling AIM as it did with the BPP, and by late 1970, like the BPP, AIM, which was once a hope for self-determination, pride, and a vehicle for regaining lost rights among the American Indian people, had, in the words of AIM cofounder Dennis Banks, “kind of disappeared.”

Banks and George Mitchell founded AIM in 1968, and it was modeled after the BPP in its focus on urban issues. After Russell Means and John Trudell, among others, joined AIM, the focus changed to emphasizing treaty rights and preserving traditional culture. A series of activism followed during the next 2 years that culminated in massive protests in 1972 over the murder and torture of Raymond Yellow Thunder. The success of AIM and its leadership, namely Means and Banks, in bringing about justice regarding Yellow Thunder’s murder, garnered support for the group among tribal leaders, the public, and reservation residents. It also brought the FBI’s attention and COINTELPRO operations. Local police began arresting AIM leaders under fabricated causes and utilizing other tried-and-true techniques. In addition, there were violent repressions, including those occurring at Rapid City, Pine Ridge, and Wounded Knee during the 1970s. One prime target, Leonard Peltier was eventually convicted for the murder of an FBI agent and as of early 2017 was still imprisoned. After the Wounded Knee incident, for a 36-month period until May 1976, more than 60 AIM members and supporters were killed and at least 342 suffered violent assaults.

Post–Church Committee Report

CISPES and 215 other groups became part of the first of these “terrorist investigations” conducted by the FBI. The tactics used were the same as those used by COINTELPRO, including conspicuous surveillance to instill paranoia, disinformation, framed charges (whereby guns or other incriminating evidence might be planted), home burglaries (whereby computer disks, papers, and files were stolen but valuables were left untouched), mail tampering, the use of infiltrators/provocateurs, random arrests, and warrantless wiretapping and other forms of surveillance. During the period from 1984 to 1988, CISPES and other groups opposed to U.S. Central American policy experienced more than 100 break-ins and 300 incidents of government harassment. In addition to CISPES, some of the other organizations and groups targeted included Amnesty International, the Chicago Interreligious Task Force, Clergy and Laity Concerned, grassroots groups associated with Jesse Jackson’s presidential bid, the Maryknoll Sisters, the New Jewish Agenda, the Silo Plowshares organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the United Auto Workers, and the U.S. Catholic Conference.

Surveillance, infiltration, and other COINTELPRO-style tactics were used throughout the 1990s against antinuclear groups, environmentalists, and groups protesting globalization, but the next major period of COINTELPRO-type activities occurred after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Within hours of the attacks, several known political prisoners were rounded up and placed in isolation and denied access to their lawyers. These prisoners included Sundiata Acoli, Carlos Alberto Torres, Phil Berrigan, Marilyn Buck, Antonio Camacho Negron, Yu Kikumura, Ray Levasseur, Tommy Manning, and Richard Williams. Some were denied any communication with their lawyers until October. In addition to political prisoners, lawyers of unpopular defendants also came under government harassment. Within 8 months of the attack, Attorney General John Ashcroft had revised the guidelines put in place by the Church Committee.

Ashcroft’s new guidelines allowed the FBI, through Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs), to freely infiltrate houses of worship, including churches, mosques, and synagogues; listen in on online chat rooms; and read message boards without warrants or suspicions of criminal wrongdoing. JTTFs monitored online correspondence (a type of correspondence that did not exist in the early days of COINTELPRO), and utilized the newly implemented no-fly list, which prevented certain people from flying on airlines and thereby leaving or entering the country. The monitoring of online exchanges has given rise to data mining and massive surveillance of the broader population in the United States and across the globe. The National Security Agency has sent requests for patron’s personal data to libraries and, related to new technologies, used cell phones as tracking devices and monitored Internet traffic.

Another tactic used since the 2000s is the increased number of classified government documents and the delayed release of documents through the FOIA. In several cases, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has sued the FBI and or the Central Intelligence Agency for release of documents through the FOIA. In some cases, a portion of the documents requested was released, but not having all of the documents and the time delay were sufficient to hinder the ACLU’s work in defending the public’s constitutional rights of privacy and freedom of speech.

The latest tool in the surveillance arsenal is the Department of Homeland Security fusion centers. These centers engage in analysis of datamined information and intelligence sharing. The type of surveillance is referred to as dataveillance. Many of these centers are located in local police departments and/or connected with JTTFs. Fusion centers are often used in profiling efforts and thereby become a useful tool for COINTELPRO-type operations.

The cultural impact of COINTELPRO was and continues to be significant. Government agencies that conduct broad-based, unfounded surveillance on its citizenry potentially pose a threat to the very democracy they purport to protect. The full story of COINTELPRO is still not known, as many files are still withheld despite the FOIA, and its operations appear to have continued through the years of the war on terrorism, if not in name, at least in practice.

Jeff Williams

See also Counterintelligence ; Federal Bureau of Investigation

Further Readings

Bazian, Hatem. “Muslims—Enemies of the State: The New Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO).” Islamophobia Studies Journal, v.1/1 (2012). (Accessed July 2014).

Bovard, James. “Federal Surveillance: The Threat to America’s Security.” The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty (January–February 2004). (Accessed July 2014).

Churchill, Ward and Jim Vander Wall. The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents From the FBI’s Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2002.

Elijah, J. Soffiyah. “The Reality of Political Prisoners in the United States: What September 11 Taught Us About Defending Them.” Harvard BlackLetter Law Journal, v.18 (2002).§ion=6 (Accessed July 2014).

Glick, Brian. War at Home: Covert Action Against U.S. Activists and What We Can Do About It. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1999.

Guzik, Keith. “Discrimination by Design: Predictive Data Mining as Security Practice in the United States’ ‘War on Terrorism.’” Surveillance & Society, v.7/1 (2009). (Accessed July 2014).

Monahan, Torin. “The Future of Security? Surveillance Operations at Homeland Security Fusion Centers.” Social Justice, v.37/2–3 (2010–2011). (Accessed July 2014).

Naqvi, Zehra. “The Return of J. Edgar Hoover: The FBI’s Reversion to Political Intelligence Gathering.” Modern American, v.1/2 (2005).§ion=17 (Accessed July 2014).

Rips, Geoffrey. UnAmerican Activities: The Campaign Against the Underground Press. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 1981.