Friday, January 31, 2014

144.3 - The discovery of COINTELPRO: March 8, 1971

The discovery of COINTELPRO: March 8, 1971

Talking about Pete Seeger and activism and commitment kind of lead me into something else I wanted to talk about.

The fact is, government spying on us is nothing new and neither is active attempts by that government to disrupt or better yet undermine opposition.

During The Dreaded '60s, there was a lot of talk in the movement about government agent provocateurs and a sometimes irritating number of half-serious remarks about paranoia - which became even more irritating when they became more than half-serious. The boldest course, pursued by many, even most, was simply to assume you were being watched and just do whatever it was you were going to do anyway. At one point in the 1970s it was estimated that the FBI had files on about 7 million activists and the joke became how disappointed you would be if you found out that you were not among them.

The FBI field office in Media, PA in 1971
Anyway, the point here is that on March 8, 1971, a group of anti-war activists calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into the FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania and made off with hundreds of pages of secret counterintelligence files, which they released to the media.

The documents proved the existence of exactly the sort of program that activists had suspected. It was called COINTELPRO - for Counter-Intelligence Program - and was devoted to destroying a range of peace, civil rights, New Left, student, and black power groups that the FBI's deranged director, J. Edgar Hoover, believed were out to destroy America!

Under the plan, the FBI spied, infiltrated, and wiretapped. It planted rumors, intimidated activists with repeated rounds of questioning intended to, quoting Hoover's memo, "enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles" mad make them thing "there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox." It used agents provocateurs to spark internal dissension or provoke groups into actions that would discredit them. It sent out anonymous letters, including one notorious one that tried to blackmail Martin Luther King, Jr. into committing suicide.

Hoover was enraged by the revelations and sent out 200 FBI agents to track down the people involved. They failed. The case was never solved and the FBI finally gave up, closing the case two days after the statute of limitations had expired.

Now, nearly 43 years later, five of the group have come forward and a book on the event, called The Burglary, has come out this month. I haven't read it yet, but I fully intend to do so. Let it be a reminder that while the scope of the spying today is orders of magnitude beyond that of - or even possible in - the 1950s and '60s, the viciousness of that era has yet to be repeated. But as long as the capability is there, the threat remains. And because of that orders-of-magnitude difference in scope, what could be unleashed at any time now would likewise be far worse than that which we survived - and struck back against - then.

I have two final notes about this. One is that both the Washington Post and NBC try, at least implicitly, to take credit as being the first to publish stories about what the papers liberated from the FBI revealed. In fact, the first was probably a little pacifist magazine called "WIN," which was published in cooperation with the War Resisters League.

The other note is a personal one: One of the first articles I read about the people coming forward said that the break-in was "the brainchild of William Davidon, a physics professor as Haverford College near Philadelphia...."

Wait. Stop. William Davidon? Bill Davidon?

I knew him. I worked with him on antiwar stuff. I worked with his wife, Ann Morrisset Davidon, on the National Committee of the War Resisters League. He never mentioned his role. Not once. A good part of the reason the folks were never caught was that they agreed in advance that after quickly preparing the papers for release they would never again meet as a group (they never did) and that they would never speak of their role (they didn't).

So it turns out that I knew the guy who was the brains behind the operation that proved massive spying by the FBI on peaceful dissent. Cool. And I never knew it.


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