Recent blog posts
Bill Weinberg, "COINTELPRO and Divisive Hate"
COINTELPRO and Divisive Hate
The very point of the FBI's COINTELPRO strategy of the 1960s was paranoia, divisive hatred, and ultimately cannibalization of radical opposition movements in the United States. And it was grimly successful. Now that there are signs that US police agencies are reviving such tactics, it is imperative that activists learn from the mistakes of their counterparts two generations ago, and find rational, principled, humane and above all tactically astute ways to respond.
The FBI's own webpage on COINTELPRO (from a section entitled "FBI Records: The Vault") states that the agency launched "COINTELPRO—short for Counterintelligence Program—in 1956 to disrupt the activities of the Communist Party of the United States. In the 1960s, it was expanded to include a number of other domestic groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Socialist Workers Party, and the Black Panther Party. All COINTELPRO operations were ended in 1971. Although limited in scope (about two-tenths of one percent of the FBI's workload over a 15-year period), COINTELPRO was later rightfully criticized by Congress and the American people for abridging first amendment rights and for other reasons."
Documents released under public pressure in the program's aftermath in the 1970s revealed that COINTELPRO's stated goal was to "expose, misdirect, destroy and neutralize" the Black Panthers and other oppositional groups. The Klan was never a serious target. Apart from the Panthers, top targets were the American Indian Movement, Puerto Rican independence movement, and New Left. Bitter fruits of COINTELPRO included the police murder of scores of Black Panther leaders and adherents, most famously Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago, and the frame-ups and wrongful convictions of many others, including Geronimo Pratt and Dhoruba Bin Wahad—both of whom spent two decades in prison before their convictions were overturned. Many veteran Panthers remain in prison today.
COINTELPRO functioned first through surveillance, with the FBI supplying intelligence to local police forces. But infiltration wasn't merely aimed at information-gathering. It was aimed at creating paranoia about who was an infiltrator. This was consciously exacerbated through the use of false rumors, poison-pen letters and other such "black propaganda." There was even a term for it back then: "snitch-jacketing"—ruining someone's reputation by portraying him or her as a government snitch. The aim was to enflame factionalism—preferably to the point of violence. And, again: It worked.
Despite the supposed demise of the program in the house-cleaning that followed Watergate, the CIA-backed coup in Chile and other such sinister government shenanigans in the 1970s, there is indeed reason to believe that COINTELPRO-era tactics are being revived. In case after case in recent years, in New York City and around the country, supposed "terrorist" plots that win lurid headlines, creating the impression of an imminent threat to the public that was narrowly avoided thanks to diligent FBI work, turn out to be the creations of FBI infiltrators. All you have to do is actually read past the headlines in such accounts, and this becomes immediately apparent. There was never any real "bomb," never any real link to al-Qaeda. The device was a bogus one supplied by the infiltrator, and the guy the gullible suspects believed was their al-Qaeda handler was none other than the infiltrator himself.
This slimy tactic is rendered more ominous by recent revelations that the New York Police Department ran a CIA collaboration program, meaning the international spy agency had at least a vicarious eye on grassroots communities in New York. First priority for infiltration and surveillance was of course the city's Muslim inhabitants. But left-wing activists in Occupy Wall Street and related movements have also been targeted, both in New York and nationally.
The ominous Fusion Intelligence Centers have apparently played a role in the federal response to the Occupy movement. In the words of the Homeland Security website, the Centers exist "to empower front-line law enforcement, public safety, emergency response, and private sector security personnel to lawfully gather and share information to identify emerging threats." In other words, overt coordination between police forces and corporate power.
The most egregious example of COINTELPRO tactics being used against Occupy was in Cleveland in 2012, where media reported the May Day march was cancelled after five young men apparently involved in the movement were arrested by the FBI on charges of plotting to blow up the Route 82 Bridge. This seems to have been another infiltrator-generated pseudo-conspiracy.
This isn't the first time that progressive activists have been thusly targeted since the "official" demise of COINTELPRO in the 1970s. The early 1990s campaign to save California's old-growth redwoods saw a COINTELPRO-type campaign against Earth First!—which climaxed with the attempt to frame activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney for possession of a bomb that exploded in their own car, nearly costing them their lives. In 2002, a federal jury in Oakland awarded $4.4 million in damages to Cherney and the estate of Judi Bari (she survived the 1990 bombing despite grave injuries, but died seven years later). The jury agreed with plaintiffs' arguments that FBI agents and Oakland police violated their constitutional rights by focusing on them as suspects—when evidence actually pointed to a nexus of the FBI, timber companies and right-wing paramilitary groups. A top agent assigned to the case was Richard W. Held, an FBI veteran who had actually been involved in the "official" COINTELPRO against the Black Panthers and other radical groups in the '60s.
So the threat is real, and the need for vigilance imperative. But a response requires an examination of the how the original COINTELPRO actually worked—how it succeeded in destroying its target organizations through sowing paranoia and factionalism.
In 1970, seven Panthers were convicted in the New Haven Black Panther trials of killing their own 19-year-old follower Alex Rackley—who, suspected of being an infiltrator, was apparently tortured and interrogated for days before being shot and dumped in a river. Prosecutors cast the net wide—even indicting national Panther leader Bobby Seale. The charges against Seale were eventually dropped, but the seven were convicted on the basis of confessions and testimony against each other. The trial marked the beginning of the end of the Black Panthers. Already, the Black Liberation Army (BLA) had emerged as a radicalized faction of the Panthers in response to the assassinations and "dirty tricks" campaign of COINTELPRO. While the Panthers had been an open and grassroots community organization—bearing arms publicly as allowed by law—the BLA was an underground cell, with diminishing community support. By 1981 it had been crushed.
There were similar cases in the American Indian Movement—most famously that of Anna Mae Aquash, a Mikmaq activist from Nova Scotia who moved to South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation to join AIM. In 1975, her body was found on a local highway, shot in the head. Two AIM followers were convicted in her death—which was apparently motivated by the almost certainly false rumor that she was an FBI informant.
Also in 1975, El Salvador's revolutionary poet Roque Dalton was assassinated—not by CIA agents, which might have been a worthwhile death, but by his own fellow revolutionaries who believed baseless rumors that he was a CIA agent himself.
I think about such cases, and am filled with foreboding when I see the easy way that baseless charges of being an agent are used today to discredit critics within the left. You can see such irresponsible accusations every day on the Internet. When Native American leaders criticized Ward Churchill for his inflammatory remarks about 9-11, they were baited as agents. When Palestinians issued a public letter calling out Cynthia McKinney on her support for the Qaddafi dictatorship, they were baited as agents. No evidence, it seems, is necessary. Merely taking a position contrary to the accuser's is deemed sufficient cause for the accusation.
And the same mentality is starting to infect some activist organizations in New York. There is actually an established legitimate protocol for "outing" suspected agents and infiltrators. To be done responsibly, it should be done publicly, at a meeting, with actual evidence presented. It should not be done through rumor and innuendo. It should not be done "informally." And it should certainly not be done in the absence of hard evidence. The use of physical threats and violence against perceived infiltrators (something I have, alarmingly, heard accusations of in the New York activist scene) is amazingly unethical, stupid and counter-productive.
In the '60s and '70s, such behavior escalated to murder. It resulted in the splintering and disintegration of radical movements. It is, in short, doing the enemy's work. Engaging in such behavior paradoxically makes you an enabler of the COINTELPRO strategy—if an unwitting one.
One flyer currently ciruclating in New York activist circles fails to get this point. Under the title "STOP SPREADING DIVISIONARY [sic] HATE," it starts by invoking COINTELPRO—and then complains that "rumors commonly insinuate that groups or individuals are racist or sexist. These negative divisionsary [sic] rumors are commonly used to break up antiwar groups, animal rights groups and environmental organizations. The use of base-less [sic] rumors to distract a group from their purpose [sic] is a red herring technique... That such negative, divisionary [sic] rumors should center on issues to which activist communities and groups are especially sensitive shows how COINTELPRO can especially manipulate caring people who work for positive change." It ends with an exhortation: "Keep it positive! Support your peeps and community!"
This is a masterpiece of cynical illogic. By this bizarre reasoning, any protest about racism or sexism in activist groups (which may not be baseless at all, but entirely warranted) is shot down as a COINTELPRO stratagem, and those registering the protest implicitly snitch-jacketed. It is a transparent attempt to exploit paranoia to suppress dissent, and it paradoxically itself abets COINTELPRO stratagems by further fueling paranoia. This is a small example, but it is one step on the well-worn path towards movement cannibalization. (Furthermore, there is no such word as "divisionary." The correct rendering is "divisive.")
So, I hope that whatever party wrote the "DIVISIONARY [sic] HATE" leaflet will read my response with an open mind and do some honest soul-searching. And the next time you are tempted to make accusations or spread rumors about a critic of yours being a "COINTELPRO agent"... Relax. Don't do it.