Cointelpro 101: The Sabotage of Legitimate Dissent
By Andres Alegria, Prentis Hemphill, Anita Johnson and Claude Marks (2010)
Cointelpro is the name given to the illegal counterinsurgency program FBI director J Edgar Hoover launched in the fifties and sixties against the civil rights movement, the American Indian Movement, the Puerto Rican independence movement, the Chicano/Mexicano rights movement, unions and different social justice movements. Its various tactics included illegal surveillance, wiretaps and break-ins, extrajudicial assassinations and plots to frame activists for crimes they didn’t commit.
The program had to be kept secret because it was illegal. The American public only learned about Cointelpro after antiwar activists broke into a Philadelphia office the FBI shared with the Selective Service in 1971. Intending to destroy draft registration documents, they accidentally stumbled across Cointelpro-related letters and memos and leaked them to the press.
Hoover’s War Against Black Empowerment
Cointelpro’s most high profile target was the civil rights and black liberation movement. Hoover openly wrote of his goal of “liquidating” the entire Black Panther leadership. Some Black Panther leaders were killed in cold blood. Chicago leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were shot in their sleep in 1969. The same year the FBI assassinated two Los Angeles Black Panther leaders at UCLA and two San Diego leaders while they were selling newspapers.
When Vietnam veteran Geronimo Pratt assumed leadership of the LA branch, the police (in cooperation with the FBI) tried to kill him via the armed assault and bombing of the LA Black Panther office. When this failed, they framed him on a murder charge, despite FBI surveillance records that placed him in Oakland at the time of the murder. Pratt spent twenty-seven years in prison before these records surfaced and exonerated him.
The Church Committee, a senate committed convened in the mid-seventies, identified more than two hundred criminal FBI attacks against Black Panther leaders, including murder, driving people insane and framing them on phony charges. No FBI operatives were ever prosecuted for these crimes, and more than a dozen black liberation activists (including Mumia Abu Jamal and Mike, Debbie and Janet Africa) remain in prison on trumped up charges.
The Reign of Terror at Pine Ridge
Following the rise of the American Indian Movement (AIM) to demand enforcement of treaty rights, Hoover launched a reign of terror (1973-76) on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. During this period, death squads killed or disappeared scores of residents who dared to challenge the corrupt tribal leadership. When reservation elders sought the protection of the AIM leadership, one them, Leonard Peltier, was wrongfully convicted of the double murder of two FBI agents. As in Pratt’s case, the FBI deliberately concealed evidence exonerating him. After nearly forty years, he, too, remains in prison.
Cointelpro Never Ended
Contrary to government claims, Cointelpro didn’t end in 1971 when it was exposed. In 1983, documents came to light revealing that the FBI had illegally infiltrated, spied and disrupted the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. The latter, a group I belonged to between 1982 and 1985, was a grassroots organization that campaigned against Reagan’s military support of El Salvador’s right wing dictatorship.
This documentary finishes by pointing out that many previously illegal Cointelpro activities – warrantless surveillance and wiretapping, clandestine break-ins and pre-emptive arrest for dissident political views – are now perfectly legal under the Patriot Act.