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COINTELPRO, Private Intelligence & Democratic Freedoms

March 16, 2010

Excerpt from Our Enemies In Blue: Police and Power in America:


COINTELPRO was only one aspect of the relationship between local red quads and the federal government. Beginning in 1968, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration supplied grants to intelligence units for training and equipment. At about this same time, the Justice Department’s Interdivisional Information Unit (IDIU) provided the means for intelligence agencies at all levels, and from around the country, to share information. According the Church report, this established a system through which

The Attorney General received the benefits of information gathered by numerous agencies, without setting limits to intelligence reporting or providing clear policy guidance. Each component of the structure – FBI, Army, IDIU, local police, and many others – set its own generalized standards and priorities, resulting in excessive collection of information about law abiding citizens.

Nor was this the extent of federal involvement: Throughout the late 1960s New York City’s red squad gave daily briefings to Army intelligence. In Chicago, the U.S. Army Region I, 113th Military Intelligence Group not only trained and traded information with the local police, but participated in interrogations.

Never willing to be left out of the action, the CIA offered a six-week training course for local law enforcement personnel, teaching cops the basics of surreptitious entry, photographic surveillance, electronic eavesdropping, and the manufacture and use of explosives. Members of at least forty-four state, county, and municipal police departments received this training, and in return the locals helped the agency gather information, protect informants, and harass its critics.

Since the practices of local cops inevitably came to resemble those of the organizations that trained, funded, supplied, and directed them, it is worth considering the conduct of these federal agencies. The Church Committee summed it up:

Too many people have been spied upon by too many Government agencies and to [sic] much information has been collected. The Government has often undertaken the secret surveillance of citizens on the basis of their political beliefs, even when these beliefs posed no threat of violence or illegal acts on behalf of a hostile foreign power. The Government, operating primarily through secret informants, but also using other intrusive techniques such as wiretaps, microphone “bugs”, surreptitious mail opening, and break-ins, has swept in vast amounts of information about the personal lives, views, and associations of American citizens. Investigations of groups deemed potentially dangerous – and even of groups suspected of associating with potentially dangerous organizations – have continued for decades, despite the fact that those groups did not engage in unlawful activity. Groups and individuals have been harassed and disrupted because of their political views and their lifestyles. Investigations have been based upon vague standards whose breadth made excessive collection inevitable. Unsavory and vicious tactics have been employed – including anonymous attempts to break up marriages, disrupt meetings, ostracize persons from their professions, and provoke target groups into rivalries that might result in deaths. Intelligence agencies have served the political and personal objectives of presidents and other high officials. While the agencies often committed excesses in response to pressure from high officials in the Executive branch and Congress, they also occasionally initiated improper activities and then concealed them from officials whom they had a duty to inform.

With this in view, the political operations of here, and the abuses that accompanied them, cannot be dismissed as the excess of individual, over-zealous officers, or even as the dysfunctions of particular departments. Instead, they should be understood as systematic in nature, institutional in scope, affecting the entire country, and, despite their purported aims, undermining democracy. This is certainly true of the most fragrant abuses, but it may also be true of “legitimate” intelligence operations. However restrained, intelligence activities function to suppress dissent and undercut basic political liberties. Yale University Professor Thomas Emerson explains:

The very process of investigating political activities, involving the questioning of friends, neighbors, employers and other government agents, is intimidating. The compiling of dossiers, which may be the basis of internment in the event of emergency or of other reprisals, is threatening. The very existence of agents, informers, and possible agents provocateurs is chilling. Opportunities for partisan abuse of intelligence powers become available and tempting. Freedom of expression cannot exist under these conditions.

Secret police are always the enemies of democracy.

Looking At The Left

At every level of government, campaigns against dissent have tended to focus disproportionately on the activities of the left. In 1975 a former detective leaked to the press a list of organizations with files maintained by the Baltimore Police Department’s Inspectional Service Division. Three of the 125 groups listed were classified as right-wing. Other categories included “subversive, extremist, civil rights, left-wing, pacifist, miscellaneous, and civic.” The NAACP, the ACLU, the American Friends Service Committee, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference all had files, as did a tenants’ group and a tutoring program.”

A similar list was leaked to the Citizen’s Commission on Police Repression concerning LAPD surveillance activity during the year 1975. Of two hundred organizations listed, twenty could be considered violent. Twenty others were crossed off, suggesting that they had been removed from the surveillance roster; These were mostly conservative groups, beginning with the John Birch Society. Of the 160 remaining, the vast majority were liberal, leftist, or Third World solidarity groups.

A numbered grading system, from one to six, classified the degree of dangerousness attributed to each organization. For example, Women’s Strike for Peace and the World Peace Council were graded number one (“Communist of affiliated or sympathetic with the Communist Party”); the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Council of Churches were rated number two (“Public advocacy of social or political change through violence or law-violation”); in categories three and four (violence-prone groups), we find the Klan and others…; category five (“Participation in or advocacy of any activity intended to create disorder”) included the National Organization for Women and the United Farm Workers of America; category six was assigned to, among others, the Black Social Workers’ Union and the Pakistan-American Friendship League.

Police in Portland, Oregon, likewise maintained secret files on elected officials, people attending political lectures, soup kitchens, a free dental clinic, day care centers, food co-ops, a bicycle repair collective, and other community groups. A report on rape crisis centers reads: “We can expect that these safe houses and this hotline communication network will probably be used for movement of wanted fugitives in the case of future terrorist acts…” The file “South Africa–Anti” contained the birth dates, phone numbers, class schedules, and grades of six school students who wrote letters against apartheid. The “IRA” file listed the names of hundreds of people who signed a petition against the mistreatment of political prisoners. The “Cults” file included the 1983 annual report on the First Unitarian Church. The file labeled “Terrorism, Misc.–Oregon” featured information on Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Portland State University Hispanic Student Union, and Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon.

Police suspicion of reformers and radicals was not simply a reflection of the level of activity on the left, nor was the left more prone to violence that the right. Instead, this pattern indicates a deeply ingrained ideological bias on the part of police, especially intelligence sections. This bias has consistently found two complementary expressions; hostility to the left, and alliance with the right. For this reason, red squad files have commonly been shred with right-wing groups. The Los Angeles police traded files with the Western Goals Foundation, and organization started by John Birch Society leader and former Congressman Larry McDonald, and Research West, a private organization funded by FBI agents. Similar arrangements existed throughout the 1960s in the most large American cities, including New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Birmingham.

At times there relationships went further, police made use of right-wing paramilitary and vigilante groups to carry out campaigns of violence or dirty tricks. The Legion of Justice, for example, conducted a series of burglaries, beatings, and arson attacks on behalf of the Chicago red squad. Less spectacular but nearly as disturbing, in 1980 New Hampshire State Police worked with a private pro-nuclear group headed by Lyndon LaRouche in order to infiltrate the anti-nuclear Clamshell Alliance. Corporate America also got in on the act. A 1974 lawsuit, Benkert v. Michigan, revealed that the Detroit Intelligence Unit had been sharing files with the Chrysler Corporation, in some cases recommending Chrysler fire employees with radical political views. Chryslser, for its part, provided the police with information on its workers and helped place informants among militants on the job.

The Left as a whole has certainly received more than its fair share of unwanted police attention, but the police give particular scrutiny to those who criticize them. In March 1978, the Coalition Against Police Abuse (CAPA) received a partial list of LAPD officers. CAPA’s secretary, Georgia Odom, appeared on the list. CAPA and the Citizen’s Commission on Police Repression quietly circulated the list, and two more infiltrators were discovered.

In Philadelphia, the police undertook a prolonged struggle against a community paper called the Free Press after it ran a series of articles detailing police abuse. Reporters were harassed, searched, arrested, beaten, slandered in the police-friendly corporate media. Their apartments and cars were burglarized. Their employers and schools were pressured to fire them and withdraw scholarships. The Free Press only survived by seek and receiving federal court protection.

Obviously the police have an institutional interest in defending themselves against criticism. But, it is worth noting the extent to which they treat dissent of any sort, absolutely any pressure toward social change, with animosity. This hostility to dissent should be understood not simply in terms of individual conservatism, but as an institutional feature of the entire criminal justice system – and perhaps even of the state as a whole. Alan Wolfe explains:

It is not so much that the state acts mechanistically, always moving to support one group and repress the other, as it is that regularized bias exists in the operation of the democratic state that tends to support the interest of the powerful against those who challenge them….

Despite some variations, when the state acts in a liberal democratic society such as that of the United States, it acts in a biased fashion….It is partial to the dominant interests, hostile to those whose power is minimal. By nearly all of its actions, it reproduces a society in which some have power at the expense of others, and it moves to support the “others” only when their protests are so strong that the “some” stand to lose all the have gained.

It follows that repression will similarly not be a neutral phenomenon but will have a class bias. We can predict, with good accuracy, that when the state intervenes to repress an organization or an ideology, it will be a dissenting group, representing relatively powerless people, that will be repressed and the interests upheld will be those of the powerful.

Two natural outgrowths of this bias are the criminalization of ideologies (rather than behavior), and the judgment of guilt based on association. These, in turn, are each bound up with police efforts to prevent unrest, rather than simply responding to it. For example, Detective Sergeant John Ungvary, the head of the Cleveland red squad, told a Senate Committee, “[I]f we had a law whereby we can charge all of them [Black Nationalists] as participants or conspirators…it would be far better than waiting for an overt act.” As the police attempt to prevent unrest, assumptions about dissenting organizations’ aims come to stand in for evidence of any individual guilt. This attitude, and the activity it inspires, creates a chilling effect that harms not only those groups actually under attack, but any group that fears similar treatment.

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