Covert FBI war against Americans leaves dark memories
It is a program buried in the shadows of America’s history books; an era known to its victims as America’s dirty war against its own citizens.
The targets of such a program included the following: The Black Panther Party, The Communist Party of America, the Ku Klux Klan, the Socialist Workers Party, the New Left, the Students for a Democratic Society, the American Indian Movement, the Chicano Movement, the Puerto Rican Liberation Movement, Communist groups, anti-war organizations, Hollywood stars sympathetic to these groups, and civil rights leaders.
Fueled by the frenzied paranoia of McCarthyism and the growth of radicalism, the objective of COINTEL-PRO was simple; undermine and destroy popular movements by any means.
Imam Abdul Alim Musa was a member of the Black Panther’s Oakland chapter. He recalled “infiltration, destabilization.”
The FBI also went after the Chicano Movement, which became known as the Brown Berets and the Puerto Rican Liberation Movement.
Carlos Montes was one of the original Brown Berets. Montes told RT “The FBI worked with the LAPD and the sheriffs to keep the Brown Berets and local Chicano movements under surveillance. We were victims of agent provocateurs, police infiltration. They tried to incite our members to commit violence, so they would get arrested, and they did and we found out after we got arrested.”
Naji Mujihad, the director of Black August, an organization which works closely with Political Prisoners said, “Within their [FBI]’s internal memos, there were several black leaders whom they identified as particular such as Rev. Martin Luther King.”
The FBI’s COINTEL-PRO also engaged in writing false letters, articles and newsletters to create hostilities towards radical groups that had joined forces.
The FBI fabricated a letter to civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. that suggested he commit suicide and threatened to expose information gathered by the FBI from wiretaps on King.
Hollywood actress Jean Seberg was also a subject of COINTEL-PRO. After Seberg supported a number of Black Nationalists groups and Native American groups, the FBI fabricated fake stories in the tabloids that Seberg was impregnated by a Black Panther member. The allegations were false, but led to a tense relationship with Seberg and her husband. Her child died days after it was born. She later committed suicide.
However, King and Seberg were not the main targets.
“They labeled the black panther party as public enemy number one,” said Mujahid.
Fred Hampton was one of COINTEL-PRO’s targets; he was one of the founders of the Black Panther’s Chicago chapter. Hampton was shot to death in his apartment, next to his pregnant girlfriend after an FBI informant drugged him as he slept. He was 21 years old.
“If you take Fred Hampton, it was outright murder, it was murder,” said Imam Musa. "If they can't misdirect them, they just kill them. That's the rule, that's the history of the United States government."
At the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre the American Indian Movement held the US government at gunpoint. The FBI moved in immediately to take out AIM’s leadership. Dennis Banks was one of the leaders of the American Indian Movement.
“The suspicion started to rise after we saw what they were doing to the Black Panther party. We had a series of meetings with the AIM leadership to bring that to our attention, that they might be targeting us for infiltration,” Banks said.
After Wounded Knee ended in a stalemate, a reign of terror soon gripped the pine ridge reservation in South Dakota. Over 60 AIM members were murdered and others were drug through the courts.
One of them was Leonard Peltier. He was convicted of two life terms in prison for the murders of two FBI agents. However, many argue the evidence and the witnesses were flawed and corrupted.
Today, in the US and throughout the world, Peltier is considered America’s foremost political prisoner.
Naji Mujahid insists COINTEL-PRO created political Prisoners. “What we recognize now as political prisoners are people who came out of this era, out of these tactics that are still in prison.”
However, Mujahid said “the United States Government doesn’t recognize having any political prisoners.”
In 1978, the US ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young told a news reporter "there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people whom I would call political prisoners."
Immense political pressure from Congress resulted in Young’s resignation the following year.
Before there were the WikiLeak papers or the Pentagon papers, there were the COINTEL-PRO papers. In the early 1970’s, activists broke into the FBI’s field office in Pennsylvania and stole thousands of documents pertaining to the FBI’s program. Almost immediately, a scandal exploded. Top officials from the FBI’s national bureau in Washington DC were summoned to Capitol Hill for a congressional investigation that exposed the FBI’s covert war against political dissidents in the United States.
That investigation was known as the Church Committee, it found that “Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTEL-PRO went far beyond that…the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association."
Imam Musa, a victim of COINTEL-PRO, believes the FBI's program proved devastating for the country’s radical movements. "The modern COINTEL-PRO has quieted the people down."
“I think COINTEL-PRO was very dangerous for American society and even the American judicial system to support that kind of raw terrorism,” said Dennis Banks of AIM.
It was a time known for a culture of surveillance, paranoia and suspicion. A moment of the past that some argue today has left Americans and radical movements in the country in disarray.
The FBI program targeted groups like the Black Panthers on the guise that they were trying to over throw the US government. They specifically targeted individual like Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and other civil rights activists in an effort to crush the rise of black people, said Dr. Malik Zulu Shabazz, the chairman of the New Black Panther Party.
“COINTEL-PRO is an official action of the US government through the FBI and is designed to crush the rise of black people and stop the rise of a black messiah,” Shabazz said.
The program official operated with the mission of preventing a coalition of militant black national groups, and preventing groups from gaining influence and credibility.
“They said that Martin Luther King would embrace nationalism or embrace national goals of black people of achieving a nation and territory of our own, or in other terms, self determination," explained Shabazz. “Then the goal of the US government, which was wicked, which was to kill and to assassinate, use sabotage, dirty tricks, false evidence and other methods of infiltration to stop our movement and to stop our rise towards our human rights and divine destiny.”
He added, “The US government owes our people, it owes the Indians, it owes the brown people that it has insulted with this counterintelligence program; it owes us all reparations.”
Today Dr. Martin Luther King is a symbol of peace and civil rights. He is highly respected and an American holiday honors his life.
“We have reduced Dr. King to a dream. But the Dr. Martin Luther King that spoke out against US foreign policy in Vietnam, US imperialism around the world, that’s the Martin Luther King that was wire tapped by Robert Kennedy,” he explained.
Shabazz argued that the counterintelligence program continues today, but now it is known as the USA PATRIOT Act.
Filmmaker Claude Marks, the director of “Freedom Archives” and “COINTEL-PRO 101” said he hopes to open the doors to history on the topic of government repression that is being seen again today through the USA PATRIOT Act and post 9/11 politics.
When the COINTEL-PRO program became public, there was a great deal of outrage. There were a number of congressional hearings on the matter. The Congresses accused the FBI of conducting illegal surveillance of US citizens and began the process of legal change regarding what the government can and cannot do.
Many argue today than the government should utilize spying on citizens to prevent terrorist attacks. Marks explained that we must be mindful of the protection of political dissent separate from terror, and remember that the government rarely conducts just spying activities.
“The agencies of the government, first of all historically, did a lot more than simply spy. They actually conducted a level of disruption of organizations,” said Marks. “The scope of this was extremely broad and was very chilling on any kind of legal dissent.”
COINTEL-PRO was official disbanded in the 1970s, however no one was every official charged. No one was ever held accountable, said Marks. Since then the militarization of opposition to political dissident by the government has escalated.
“This isn’t about terrorism, this is about discouraging political opposition or what is deemed by the government to be unpopular political views,” he added. People have a right to dissent.