COINTELPRO The Secret FBI Program The FBI is a government agency supposedly intended to protect American civilians from the worst criminals imaginable, from domestic terrorists to serial killers. But who do you run to when the FBI wants you dead? It may seem like the high-concept premise of the latest Jason Bourne movie, but this was actually the terrifying reality faced by a number of political leaders and public figures as a result of COINTELPRO – The FBI’s clandestine series of projects intended to bring American activism to its knees. But what was COINTELPRO, really? When did it happen? Who were its targets? And what terrifying, illegal methods were employed under its purview? There’s only one way to find out, but be warned, by the time this video is over, the FBI won’t seem like the brave crime-stoppers the movies often paint them as.
COINTELPRO The Secret FBI Program
Under COINTELPRO – which stands for Counter-Intelligence Program – they were responsible for everything from psychological warfare to cold-blooded murder, all committed against mostly non-violent individuals whose greatest crime was questioning the system. Just how far the system will go to silence these questions will alarm and terrify you, and at the heart of it all was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who opened a nightmarish Pandora’s box of government overreach and illegal domestic espionage.The year is 1956, and the Red Scare is in full swing. You don’t need to be an expert in American political history to know that mid-1950s America was terrified of Communism. The threat of the bomb loomed large over the American psyche, and Soviet spies and sleeper agents seemed to lurk in every shadow. Russia and the West were fighting a culture war – and the US was scared it was losing. When someone is afraid, and backed into a corner, there’s almost nothing they won’t do to protect themselves – whether the initial fear is justified or not. The US needed bold strategies to fight the perceived Communist threat growing within their own borders, and J. Edgar Hoover was on the case.He gave his underlings a sweeping directive to, “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” any political groups deemed too subversive for the FBI’s liking. Hoover had the tacit permission of President Eisenhower and, soon after, President Kennedy. And Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy personally signed off on a number of covert projects under the COINTELPRO banner. Of course, while every sinister government project requires some enabling bureaucrats to sign all the permission slips, there always needs to be some trigger-men willing to get their hands dirty and get the dastardly job done. In this case,
we have William C. Sullivan, Director of the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Operations. Sullivan’s first target was the Communist Party of America, who – on name alone – were obviously no friends of the Cold War FBI. Some of the techniques used by the FBI to destroy the Communist Party from the inside included having agents send threatening anonymous phone calls, having the IRS constantly audit them, and sending in forged documents to sow dissent among the party’s ranks. You’ll come to notice that this is a running theme among the COINTELPRO projects: Using psychological warfare tactics to turn groups against each other, and alienate their members. To this end, literally nothing was off the table: FBI agents infiltrating meetings and posing as members to cause conflict, intelligence gathering for blackmail and extortion, and even spreading rumours to increase the tension.Though compared to just how horrific and violent their methods would later become, some blackmail and rumour-spreading is pretty quaint. While the Communist Party was a perfect training ground for refining their domestic espionage techniques, the activities that would make COINTELPRO infamous were perpetrated against civil rights groups, starting in the late fifties and continuing through the sixties. Doctor T.R.M Howard, a prominent Black surgeon, entrepreneur, and civil rights leader, was critical of the FBI’s inaction on a number of infamous hate crimes – including the murders of Emmett Till and George Washington Lee. This prompted Hoover to turn the dangerous attentions of Sullivan and his FBI cronies to Black civil rights groups – starting with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference – on the grounds that they were supposedly hotbeds of subversive Communist activity.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was just the tip of the iceberg, though. During their fifteen-year heyday, COINTELPRO would infiltrate and attack the Black Panther Party, Anti-Vietnam War organisers, feminist groups, environmentalist and animal rights groups, the Nation of Islam, the Young Lords Puerto Rico Independence Group, and the American Indian Movement. In their very minor defence, they did also take on the Ku Klux Klan, but when you need to compare yourself to the Klan to have the moral high ground, you’re not doing well. Perhaps their most infamous victims were two of the most well-known civil rights leaders in American history: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. It all gets a whole lot worse from here.In 1963, Dr. King gave his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech during the March on Washington. While generations of people across the world were touched and inspired by this incredible piece of history, the FBI were terrified. Dr. King was dreaming too big for their liking, and they wanted to put him in his place – that place being six feet below ground. Hoover ordered Sullivan to turn his attention to discrediting and destroying King, and the movement he’d come to represent. Sullivan subsequently released the horrifically racist statement, “In the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech. … We must mark him now if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.” The espionage began. King’s home and hotel rooms were bugged, and his phones were tapped.
The FBI was listening intently to his every word for blackmail material that they could use to silence King. You’re probably asking, “Silence him? As in, pressure him into discontinuing activism and renouncing his beliefs?” To which we’d answer, “No. They wanted Dr. King to kill himself.” In 1964, after years of collecting audio evidence of Dr. King’s marital affairs, King was sent a “suicide package” two days before he was supposed to collect his Nobel Peace Prize. The package included copies of the incriminating audio, as well as a truly horrifying letter. The letter, while anonymous, is believed by some to have been written by Sullivan himself. It’s a verbally-abusive screed that opens with, “KING, in view of your low grade, abnormal personal behavior I will not dignify your name with either a Mr. or a Reverend or a Dr. And, your last name calls to mind only the type of King such as King Henry the VIII and his countless acts of adultery and immoral conduct lower than that of a beast.” The letter almost reads like the cruellest internet comment you’ve ever seen, complete with a plethora of personal insults and spelling errors. And much like an internet troll with a serious mean streak, the letter ends by attempting to pressure Dr. King into committing suicide. It reads, “King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it has definite practical significant. You are done.
There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.” While, for legal reasons, they stop just short of straight-up saying “Kill yourself or we’ll humiliate you”, the implications are crystal clear. When King didn’t give in and take his own life, Cartha DeLoach, the FBI Associate Director at the time, began leaking the incriminating evidence to every news outlet imaginable. They were ruthless in their willingness to destroy reputations and lives to achieve their goals, but things were going to get a whole lot worse.While they were trying to manipulate Dr. King into taking his own life, the FBI were stoking the fires of tension among the Nation of Islam and the Organisation of Afro-American Unity, both known for their association with civil rights leader El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X. Through COINTELPRO, the FBI widened the rift between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammed, leader of the Nation of Islam. After a sustained harassment campaign involving infiltration, rumour-mongering, and the artificial elevation of conflict, the disagreements between X and Muhammed turned deadly, and Malcolm X was assassinated by some Nation of Islam gunmen. While the FBI denied “direct” involvement in the assassination, there’s extremely credible evidence that their involvement in exacerbating the conflict lead to the murder. As the 1960s drew on, The FBI intensified its COINTELPRO operations against prominent civil rights groups, Dr. King and his associates in particular. This project was known as COINTELPRO – BLACK HATE. According to a 1968 FBI memo, they feared that Martin Luther King Jr. was becoming a kind of “Messiah”-figure, and would unite the various disparate civil rights group into a force that could truly be reckoned with. If Dr. King ever decided to reject nonviolence and lead an armed revolt, they would be in serious trouble. King was public enemy number one, but prominent members of groups like The Black Panthers weren’t far behind. All of them had to go. The FBI colluded with numerous police departments in cities with considerable Black Panther presences, including San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Chicago. They would coordinate raids into the homes of Black Panther members without warrants, during which many of said members were shot dead by police. One particularly infamous example is the assassination of Chicago Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton. On December 4th, 1969, Hampton was drugged and incapacitated by deep-cover FBI infiltrator William O’Neal. A Chicago PD tactical unit then entered his home at the FBI’s behest and murdered Hampton in his bed in cold-blood.No crime was too cruel and no tactic was too underhanded for COINTELPRO.
With the help of the colluding police departments, the FBI was able to launch brutal harassment campaigns against figures in the world of leftist politics and civil rights. Specific individuals like Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt, a Black Panther Party leader, were accused of crimes they didn’t commit and arrested on false pretences. Evidence was falsified, witnesses were intimidated, and legality was twisted to serve whatever purpose the FBI wanted it to. Pratt spent 27 years in jail for a fallacious murder charge, just because he was a member of the Panthers. Members of the KKK like Gary Thomas Rowe were kept on the FBI payroll as informants, while still committing atrocities like the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing. And this wasn’t an isolated incident. Under COINTELPRO, it was clear that the FBI preferred hard-line white supremacist groups to Black liberation movements. They funded and supported former members of 1960s far-right group “The Minutemen” in their goal to create the Secret Army Organization – essentially a militant terrorist cell that fought against civil rights groups with tactics of intimidation and outright violence. Hundreds if not thousands of potential enemies of the FBI were spied on with everything from wiretaps to direct stalking techniques. They even teamed up with the CIA in 1967 as part of their own domestic spying project, “Operation CHAOS.
The COINTELPRO reign of terror would consume the whole decade – a decade mostly known for flower power, free love, and imported British rock. The whole program was so sprawling that even figures like James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway, and Muhammed Ali were on their list of enemies. Incidentally, Muhammed Ali ended up being a major force in the end of the COINTELPRO operations, as his 1971 fight with Joe Frazier acted as a form of cover while activist group Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into an FBI field office in Pennsylvania. The group stole critical files on the COINTELPRO operations and blew the lid on the whole sordid affair, leading to considerable scandal and shame for the FBI in the public eye.Within a year, J. Edgar Hoover had announced that centralised COINTELPRO operations were officially over. And while the FBI has hardly been squeaky clean since, the dissolution of the centralised COINTELPRO operations was an undeniable win for anyone who likes the idea of living in a truly free country. Of course, only a fraction of the files were stolen, and many of the files subsequently released by the FBI have been heavily altered and redacted. The fact is, we will never know the full extent of the FBI’s sinister activities between 1956 and 1971.But what we do know is that the FBI activities under the COINTELPRO umbrella were some of the most terrifying and illegal in American history.
Groups who were simply exercising their quintessentially-American First Amendment rights were attacked, defamed, arrested, and dissolved. And the people who formed these groups were at best threatened and manipulated, and at worst murdered and pressured towards suicide. We wish we could give you a more comforting ending, but instead, we’ll leave you with two questions: What are the chances that COINTELPRO was an isolated incident? And what else have the FBI done that we don’t even know about?Check out “FBI’s Most Violent Most Wanted Of All Time” and “FBI Vs CIA – How Do They Compare?” for more fascinating FBI facts.