Bob Avakian has written that one of three things that has “to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better: People have to fully confront the actual history of this country and its role in the world up to today, and the terrible consequences of this.” (See “3 Things that have to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better.”)
In that light, and in that spirit, “American Crime” is a regular feature of revcom.us. Each installment focuses on one of the 100 worst crimes committed by the U.S. rulers—out of countless bloody crimes they have carried out against people around the world, from the founding of the U.S. to the present day.
See all the articles in this series.
From 1956-1971, the FBI operated a covert, illegal program that targeted the system’s political opponents in the U.S. The program, COINTELPRO (for COunter INTELligence PROgram), was used to infiltrate, harass, disrupt, smear, and murder or destroy individuals and organizations. COINTELPRO initially targeted the Black civil rights and liberation movements.1 (See, American Crime “Case #42: COINTELPRO—The FBI Targets the Black Freedom Struggle, 1956-1971.”)
From 1964-1971, COINTELPRO targeted student activists and the anti-Vietnam War movement, known as the New Left.2 COINTELPRO operatives worked with the local police and “red squads” to target individuals to be arrested. Dirty tricks were used to try to foment disputes between and split up political organizations. The FBI coordinated raids with the local police, and worked in conjunction with local police to attack demonstrations where nonviolent protesters were brutally beaten and murdered.3
Three major events led to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s decision to institute COINTELPRO against the New Left:
- In the fall of 1964, the Free Speech movement at UC Berkeley captured the imagination of students throughout the country and resulted in college demonstrations against ROTC, the CIA, and universities’ involvement with military and defense research;
- With the U.S. escalation of the war in Vietnam in 1965, SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) expanded,4 and by 1967 SDS had become a major force on the campuses along with other organizations like the Vietnam Day Committee at UC Berkeley. It was estimated that SDS had over 30,000 active members on 250 campuses;
- In April 1968, students at Columbia University occupied five campus buildings and went on strike in opposition to institutional racism, the university’s support for the U.S. war machine, and the university’s suspension and expulsion of student activists. Columbia was brought to a standstill. Cops were called in to smash the strike.
In May 9, 1968, a month after the Columbia student takeover, Hoover issued a memo to institute COINTELPRO in order to disrupt, attack, and destroy the New Left.5
His tactics included drafting leaflets smearing the left, fomenting conflicts between different groups, working with local police to bust activists for using pot, sending anonymous letters warning parents and school administrators of what their children and students were supposedly doing, warning police about antiwar coffee houses opening near military bases, and using disinformation and ridicule to counter the New Left’s publications and activities. All these secret COINTELPRO tactics were aimed at preventing the New Left from exercising their First Amendment rights, preventing efforts to speak, to teach, to write and publish, to meet, to protest, and to unite with the Black liberation struggle and other struggles for national liberation.6
By 1970, the FBI, in conjunction with U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark’s Interdivisional Information Unit, had issued more than 40,000 intelligence reports concerning “civil disorders and campus disturbances” involving over 10,000 students.7
The FBI, in conjunction with the Justice Department and the local police, busted political activists on assorted charges.
Frank Donner, an ACLU expert on political surveillance and counterintelligence, in 1971 pointed out that “The pot bust has become a punitive sanction against political dissent and the threat of prosecution (on drug charges) is a favorite method of ‘hooking’ student informers.”8 For instance, John Sinclair, head of the White Panther Party (an anti-racist and anti-capitalist group organizing among white youth), was arrested by two undercover pigs at a rock concert for smoking marijuana. He received a nine-and-a-half-year sentence! Also, it was well known within the movement that cops would plant marijuana in order to arrest political activists.
The FBI and local cops went after leaders of the movement by arresting them on bogus conspiracy charges where lengthy, expensive, and time-consuming trials were held. Two important conspiracy trials were the Chicago 8 and the Oakland 7 that were held in response to massive protests against the Vietnam War in those two cities.9 These trials set a new standard for how to deal with the government’s repression against the movement and its leaders, with the defendants and their attorneys taking a militant stand, going on the offensive against the government in the courtroom, and raising the antiwar movement to a new level.
Arrests for desecration of the flag were another way activists were targeted. The ACLU reported at least 100 flag cases by May 1971. “Police red squads working in collusion with FBI COINTELPRO operatives rousted demonstrators, who incorporated the flag into their apparel, altered it to include peace signs, or movement symbols, burned it, or displayed it upside down.”10 (Bob Avakian writes in his memoir that he served 30 days in jail on trumped-up charges of desecration of the flag at a Free Huey Newton demonstration at the Oakland, California, courthouse.11 )
Agents Provocateurs: The FBI sent infiltrators into organizations in order to foment acts of violence that would enable the authorities to attack those organizations. These infiltrators are known as “agents provocateurs.”
The “Camden 28” defendants were acquitted of all charges for breaking into the New Jersey Selective Service office in an attempt to destroy draft files after it was revealed that the prosecution’s star witness admitted the FBI instructed him to infiltrate the group, propose the action, and provide the burglary tools used to break in.14
Ward Churchill writes that one of the most well-known agents provocateurs was Thomas Tongyai, who was paid by the FBI and spent two years going to colleges in western New York state “urging students to kill police, make bombs and blow up buildings.”15
Alfred Burnett, an FBI-paid infiltrator, “lured Larry Eugene Ward into planting a bomb at a Seattle real estate office on the morning of May 15, 1970, by paying Ward $75, providing him with the bomb, and giving him transportation to the bombing scene. Ward, a 22-year-old veteran who had been twice wounded and decorated three times for service in Vietnam, was shot and killed by waiting Seattle police as he allegedly fled after the bombing attempt, although he was unarmed, on foot, and boxed in by police cars.”16
Attacking Support for the Black Panther Party: The FBI was very concerned about coalitions forming between SDS and the Black Panther Party, which they felt would “pose a formidable threat,” and they were out to stop it using COINTELPRO tactics, including by sending phony letters aimed at stirring animosity between the two organizations.
One letter the FBI sent to the BPP in Newark, New Jersey, was addressed “Dear Pussycats,” signed by SDS, and ridiculed BPP cadre: “I just read the 10/10/70 issue of your paper, particularly pages 3, 4 and 5 and was much impressed with the people’s Army. A woman, a boy and an old man.’ Man, you sure are tough. You’re a Joke man. You’re some vanguard of the oppressed black.”
Jean Seberg: COINTELPRO tactics were used to attack and prevent influential people from openly and financially supporting the Black Panther Party. Actress Jean Seberg was one.
An FBI memo approving the targeting of Seberg stated: “Jean Seberg has been a financial supporter of the BPP and should be neutralized. Her current pregnancy by (redacted name) while still married affords an opportunity for such effort.” Based on an FBI note to gossip columnists, Joyce Haber wrote about this in the Los Angeles Times. She did not name Seberg but the damage had been done. Haber’s article caused Seberg to miscarry and ultimately commit suicide.17
Bob Avakian: In his memoir, From Ike to Mao and Beyond, Bob Avakian (BA), Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, talks about how he was a target for surveillance. At a demonstration, he was approached by the head of the Berkeley police “red squad” and told that he and the Revolutionary Union (the RU, which BA played a central role in founding) were under surveillance. He wrote about being in Chicago for the New Politics Convention, and going back to his car and finding a guy who was “obviously from the Chicago red squad or the FBI” in a car behind his car “writing things down.” A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) discovery revealed that the House of Representatives did a “whole report and investigation on the RU.” Another FOIA inquiry also showed that BA was under surveillance in Maywood, a suburb of Chicago, and that the FBI had made a diagram of the inside of his house, “indicating through which windows someone could see different things going on inside the house.” This was a similar type of diagram to that used by the FBI and the Chicago cops that enabled them to assassinate Fred Hampton, leader of the Chicago Black Panther Party.18, 19
J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI: Hoover was a staunch anti-communist who had instituted COINTELPRO.
The FBI: William C. Sullivan, the assistant FBI director, took the student occupation of Columbia University “very seriously.” For the FBI, the New Left became “fair game.”20
The U.S. Government: The U.S. government initiated a number of conspiracy trials against the New Left. Among them, Lyndon Johnson’s administration charged renowned pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock and Yale University chaplain the Reverend William Sloane Coffin with conspiring to advise people to evade the military draft. Richard Nixon’s administration prosecuted prominent antiwar leaders—like the Chicago 8 and the Seattle Liberation Front (the Seattle 7, 1970) with conspiracy to incite a riot. Whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg was charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 for theft and conspiracy after he released the top secret Pentagon Papers in 1971 exposing U.S. lies and deception in the Vietnam War. The Gainesville 8 leaders of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) were charged with conspiracy to disrupt the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida.
COINTELPRO was a secretive, covert operation that no one outside the FBI was to know about. Therefore, no public rationale for it was required.
However, Hoover, so concerned that the student movement was sweeping the campuses, wrote a public letter in September 1970 to college students attempting to persuade them not to join the mass protests rocking the campuses and the country.
Hoover applauded the students for being the “best educated, most sophisticated, most poised generation in our history,” and upheld their desire to make America “a better country,” and their right to want change. “There’s nothing wrong with student dissent or student demands for changes in society or the display of student unhappiness over aspects of our national policy,” he wrote. But he warned them against violence, lawlessness and those who have “lost faith in America,” claiming they just wanted chaos, “violence and destruction,” and had “no rational, intelligent plan of the future.” Then he offered the students FBI tips for avoiding being lured into “extremist” activities (with the implication students should snitch on activists).21
Bob Avakian: "Free Yourself from the GTF!"
Bob Avakian: "Free Yourself from the GTF!"
THE REAL MOTIVE
In a meeting between President Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover on April 28, 1965, James Kirkpatrick Davis, who has extensive ties with the FBI, writes:
Johnson expressed extraordinary anxiety over the New Left movement and what it was doing to the country. He told Hoover that, according to intelligence reports reaching him, the North Vietnamese and Red Chinese felt that intensified antiwar agitation in the United States would eventually create a traumatic domestic crisis leading to a complete breakdown in law and order. Thus...U.S. troops would have to be withdrawn from Vietnam in order to restore domestic tranquility. Quite simply, the president felt that the New Left movement was giving encouragement to the enemies of the United States.22
The purpose of COINTELPRO was written in a memo from J. Edgar Hoover to the FBI on how it was to be used against the New Left:
Our nation is undergoing an era of disruption and violence caused to a large extent by various individuals generally connected with the New Left. Some of these activists urge revolution in America and call for the defeat of the United States in Vietnam. They continually and falsely allege police brutality and do not hesitate to utilize unlawful acts to further their so-called causes. The New Left has on many occasions viciously and scurrilously attacked the Director and the Bureau in an attempt to hamper our investigation of it and to drive us off the college campuses. With this in mind, it is our recommendation that a new Counterintelligence Program be designed to neutralize the New Left and Key Activists. The Key Activists are those individuals who are the moving forces behind the New Left and on whom we have intensified our investigations.
The purpose of this program is to expose, disrupt and otherwise neutralize the activities of this group and persons connected with it.23
Churchill, Ward, and Vander Wall, Jim, The COINTELPRO Papers, South End Press, 1990.
Cunningham, David, There’s Something Happening Here: The New Left, The Klan, and FBI Counterintelligence, University of California Press, 2004.
Friedman, John S., ed., The Secret Histories: An Anthology, Picador, 2005.
Jeffreys-Jones, Rhodri, We Know All About You: The Story of Surveillance in Britain and America, Oxford University Press, 2017.
“COINTELPRO, FBI Counterintelligence, Covert Operations, Black Bag Jobs, Church Committee,” The Freedom Archives
“CONINTELPRO: The Untold American Story,” Paul Wolf, Civil Liberties Defense Center
“Counterintelligence: A Documentary Look at America’s Secret Police,” Vol. 1, by the National Lawyers Guild, 1980
“Important Lessons on Political Piggery: How FBI COINTELPRO Targeted Radical Groups,” Revolution, August 20, 2014
1. This secret program was only discovered in the early 1970s after some activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and released the documents they had obtained. On the night of March 8, 1971, when the nation was paying attention to the first heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, eight antiwar protesters burglarized an FBI office in Media, just outside Philadelphia, taking thousands of documents. The stolen material included the secret case histories of thousands of Americans. Much of it was malicious gossip about things like “sexual deviance and race-mixing,” two of J. Edgar Hoover’s favorite subjects. Betty Medsger of the Washington Post received some of the files, and she was the first to break the story. She noticed a routing slip with the word “COINTELPRO” on it, but did not know what it meant. NBC reporter Carl Stern sought to find out what this word meant, and he obtained more documents under the Freedom of Information Act that revealed the full scope of COINTELPRO. [back]
2. The “New Left” was a broad, diverse political and cultural movement that arose during the 1960s, mainly among young people and students in the U.S. and Europe. It was sparked by and centered around support for the Black civil rights and liberation struggles, opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam, and later the women’s and gay liberation struggles. It was called the “New Left” because in many ways it developed separately from or in opposition to the “old left” from the 1930s and 1940s in particular, linked to the revisionist Communist Party, USA. [back]
3. The most notable of those who were murdered by the local cops in conjunction with the FBI were:
• The shooting of student demonstrators at Kent State University in Ohio on May 4, 1970, when national guardsmen opened fire on a crowd protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, killing four—Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder—and wounding nine (several of the dead and wounded were bystanders rather than demonstrators).
• James Rector, who was shot and killed during the Berkeley People’s Park protests in May 1969, while he was on a rooftop near the park. (Also see Bob Avakian’s memoir, From Ike to Mao and Beyond, 199-201, for more on the People’s Park struggle.)
• Samuel Hammond, Delano Middleton, and Henry Smith were killed and 28 others wounded when South Carolina state troopers fired without warning on a peaceful demonstration in February 1968 at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg.
• Willie Ernest Grimes was shot and killed by police during demonstrations at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University on May 21, 1969.
• Phillip Gibbs and James Earl Green were killed and 12 were wounded when Mississippi highway patrolmen fired into a dormitory at Jackson State University, May 15, 1970.
(All of the above are chronicled in the book, The COINTELPRO Papers, by Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, pp. 220-221.) [back]
4. In his memoir, on pp. 193-198, Bob Avakian discusses his encounters with SDS where it first was formed as an organization to make the U.S. “live up to proclaimed principles of democracy” in 1960, but then became more “radicalized with some various revolutionary currents” in the late 1960s. [back]
5. The next day Hoover outlined the tactics:
1. Prepare leaflets “designed to counteract the impression that SDS and other groups speaks for the majority of students” and put “obnoxious photos” of student leaders on the leaflets.
2. Take advantage of “personal conflicts or animosities existing between New Left leaders.”
3. Give the “impressions that certain New Left leaders are informants for the Bureau or other law enforcement agencies.”
4. Use articles to show the “depravity of New Left leaders and members,” e.g. use of drugs and free sex, and send these articles to parents, wealthy donors, and university officials.
5. Alert the local authorities about who in the New Left is using marijuana in order to have them arrested on drug charges.
6. Send anonymous letters to a New Left member’s parents, parents’ neighbors, and parents’ employers describing the activities of the New Left member.
7. Send anonymous letters to university officials, legislators, and Boards of Regents, describing the activities of faculty members and graduate assistants in the New Left movement.
8. Use cooperative press to describe the activities of the students as constituting “a minority of the students and do not represent the conviction of the majority.”
9. Exploit any hostilities between the key organizations—SDS, Socialist Workers Party (SWP), Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), and Progressive Labor Party (PLP).
10. Alert the press and the local police forces regarding any New Left coffee houses that are opened near military bases in order to influence any members of the armed forces.
11. Use cartoons, photographs, and anonymous letters that will have the effect of ridiculing the New Left. Ridicule is one of the most potent weapons we can use against it.
12. Use “opportunities to confuse and disrupt New Left activities by disinformation. For example, when events are planned, notification that the event has been cancelled or postponed could be sent to various individuals.”
Churchill and Vander Wall, pp. 183-184. [back]
6. Friedman, John S., ed., The Secret Histories: An Anthology, Picador, 2005, pp. 239-246. [back]
7. Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 183. [back]
8. Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 191. [back]
9. The Chicago 8 was an assortment of antiwar leaders who participated in the massive week-long demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago that culminated with thousands being attacked by the Chicago cops, the National Guard, and other federal cops. In his book, There’s Something Happening Here, David Cunningham writes, “By the week’s end over 1,000 demonstrators had been injured (including many in the media), 668 arrested, and Dean Johnson, a Sioux teenager, shot and killed.... One official account of the week, the ‘Walker Report’ described [the cops’] actions as a ‘spontaneous police riot’” The Chicago 8 were charged under the 1968 Anti-Riot Act “for conspiring to cross state lines with intent to incite a riot.” Six of the defendants were well-known movement leaders: pacifist David Dellinger, Black Panther Party Chairman Bobby Seale, SDS leaders Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, and “Yippie” leaders Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. The other two defendants were little-known SDS members John Froines and Lee Weiner. Seale’s case was severed from the other seven and he was gagged and bound during his trial when he demanded that his First Amendment rights be upheld. He was sentenced to four years in prison for contempt of court, but the ruling was later overturned. The trial of the remaining seven lasted for months. They were found innocent of conspiracy charges but were found guilty on other charges. Federal Judge Julius Hoffman also brought 175 contempt charges against them, including their attorneys, William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass. The defendants received a sentence of five years in prison and $5,000 fines, plus added jail time for the contempt charges. The convictions on the substantive charges and contempt charges were appealed and later overturned.
The Oakland 7 were seven San Francisco Bay Area political leaders who were arrested and tried on conspiracy charges for a week-long demonstration, the October 1967 Stop the Draft Week, to shut down the Oakland Induction Center (where draftees were inducted into the military for the Vietnam War). Bob Avakian writes in his memoir about the significance of Stop the Draft Week that even though this militant action did not actually shut down the center, “this actually became a much bigger thing, and it had a very powerful impact in terms of rallying opposition to the Vietnam War and raising the opposition to a more serious level.” (See From Ike to Mao and Beyond: My Journey from Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist, A Memoir by Bob Avakian, Insight Press, 2005, pp. 159-161.) The government, stung by the protest, struck back against some of the leadership of Stop the Draft Week. The trial lasted 11 weeks and all seven were found not guilty. [back]
10. Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 191. [back]
11. From Ike to Mao and Beyond: My Journey from Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist, A Memoir by Bob Avakian, Insight Press, 2005. (Note: The Supreme Court later ruled that burning the flag was constitutionally protected free speech in the 1989 Texas v. Johnson case. Revolutionary Communist Party supporter Joey Johnson had been arrested and convicted for burning the flag at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas.) [back]
12. In an FBI memo dated September 9, 1968, a COINTELPRO action was taken to disrupt Liberation News Service in New England by sending an anonymous letter signed by “a former staffer” trying to foment a split between the Massachusetts LNS office and the New York office, claiming that one of the founders of LNS was “suffering from megalomania.” Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 194. [back]
13. An FBI memo, dated September 19, 1968, states: “[W]e have previously prepared a pamphlet which casts SDS in a derogatory light. The pamphlet depicts certain Princeton SDS leaders as apes. Newark has suggested that of the 150 pamphlets supplied 120 of these be sent to an outspoken conservative (a member of the John Birch Society) who would be expected to distribute them at a Conservative Club meeting at Princeton University.... It is felt that a greater distribution should be made of the pamphlet so that a broader cross section of the student body at Princeton will receive it.” Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 200. [back]
14. Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 223. [back]
15. Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 222. [back]
16. Churchill and Vander Wall, p. 223. [back]
17. Churchill and Vander Wall, pp. 216-219. [back]
19. A table of “Additional Groups Targeted by COINTELPRO-New Left” lists the Revolutionary Union (RU) as one of the 200 or so New Left groups that the FBI put under surveillance. (Something Is Happening Here, by David Cunningham, pp. 279-284.) [back]
20. Spying on America: The FBI’s Domestic Counterintelligence Program, by James Kirkpatrick Davis, Praeger Publishers, 1992, p. 130. [back]
21. “An Open Letter to College Students,” from John Edgar Hoover, Director Federal Bureau of Investigation, United States Department of Justice, September 21, 1970. The letter stated:
As a 1970 college student, you belong to the best educated, most sophisticated, most poised generation in our history.
The vast majority of you, I am convinced, sincerely love America and want to make it a better country. You do have ideas of your own and that’s good.
You see things wrong in our society which we adults perhaps have minimized or overlooked. You are outspoken and frank and hate hypocrisy. That is good too.
There’s nothing wrong with student dissent or student demands for changes in society or the display of student unhappiness over aspects of our national policy. Student opinion is a legitimate aspect of public opinion in our society.
But there is real ground for concern about the extremism which led to violence, lawlessness, and disrespect for the rights of others on many college campuses during the past year.
The extremists are a small minority of students and faculty members who have lost faith in America. They ridicule the flag, poke fun at American institutions, seek to destroy our society. They are not interested in genuine reform. They take advantage of the tensions, strife, and often legitimate frustrations of students to promote campus chaos. They have no rational, intelligent plan of the future either for the university or the Nation.
The extremists are of wide variety: adherents of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) including the Weatherman; members of the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), the Trotskyist youth group; the Communist Party’s Young Workers Liberation League (YWLL). Or they may be associated with the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (SMC), a Trotskyist dominated antiwar group.
Many are not associated with any national group. The key point is not so much the identification of extremists but learning to recognize and understand the mentality of extremism which believes in violence and destruction.
Based on our experience in the FBI, here are some of the ways in which extremists will try to lure you into their activities:
1. They’ll encourage you to lose respect for your parents and the older generation....
2. They'll try to convert you to the idea that your college is ‘‘irrelevant’’ and a “tool of the Establishment....
3. They’ll ask you to abandon your basic common sense....
4. They’ll try to envelop you in a mood of negativism, pessimism, and alienation toward yourself, your school, your Nation....
5. They’ll encourage you to disrespect the law and hate the law enforcement officer....
6. They’ll tell you that any action is honorable and right if it’s “sincere” or “idealistic” in motivation....
7. They’ll ask you to believe that you, as a student and citizen, are powerless by democratic means to effect change in our society.... They’ll encourage you to hurl bricks and stones instead of logical argument at those who disagree with your views. [back]
22. Davis, p. 132. [back]
23. Churchill and Vander Wall, pp. 183-184. [back]