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How We Found Out About COINTELPRO

Martin Oppenheimer is professor emeritus of sociology at Rutgers University, and has written extensively about the civil rights movement.
Betty Medsger, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 544 pages, $29.95, hardcover.

Activists in the anti-war, civil rights, and New Left movements in the 1950s and ‘60s were sure they and their organizations were being spied on by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Many of the members or sympathizers of Old Left organizations listed on the Attorney General’s list of “subversive organizations” (which existed from 1947 until its abolition in 1974) knew from personal experience (having been fired from jobs, ostracized by neighbors, and barred from other jobs) that they were under surveillance. But there was little hard proof of a wider strategy to destroy deliberately entire organizations by the use of completely illegal methods. That was soon to change.

By 1970 it had become clear that the U.S. war in Southeast Asia “was escalating in new and terrible ways,” as Betty Medsger reminds us. Cambodia was invaded on April 30, 1970. Peace activists were frustrated, to say the least, that even massive demonstrations had been unable to slow down—much less stop—the war. Many now began to consider more desperate measures. On August 24, the Army Math Research Center at the University of Wisconsin was bombed. One person was killed. William Davidon, a physics professor at Haverford College, a Quaker institution, became aware of widespread fears within various peace groups that the FBI was infiltrating. It was in this atmosphere that he decided “to answer this question—was the FBI suppressing dissent?”

In late 1970 he recruited seven other anti-war activists, mostly pacifists, into a secret Citizens Committee to Investigate the FBI. On March 8, 1971, the night of the Mohammed-Ali–Joe Frazier heavyweight match, they broke into the unprotected offices of the FBI in Media, Pennsylvania and made off with all the files, on the assumption that they would find evidence of the FBI’s systematic spying on Americans. They had no idea that what they had in their hands would soon expose much more.

In the weeks following the burglary, the raiders would discover, in Medsger’s words, “that there were two FBIs—the public, and the secret,” and that the latter “used deceptions, disinformation, and violence as tools to harass, damage, andsilence people whose political opinions the director [Hoover] opposed.” The FBI, it became clear to the burglars, had been and was engaged in “blackmail, burglary. Agents and informers were ordered to spy onthe private lives, including sexual activities, of the nation’s highest officials.” Hundreds of thousands of Americans were targeted—or enlisted as informers—even members of various Ku Klux Klan groups. The FBI’s files included massive amounts of data, much of it supplied by untrained informers. There was an agreement with 16,700 American Legion Posts, utilizing 100,880 members, to spy on their own communities.

The burglars analyzed the files, copied them, and sent packets to a number of news outlets, both anti-war and establishment. Medsger, then working for the Washington Post, was one of the first to set eyes on the evidence. Two memos in the stolen files were headed “COINTELPRO” and “SI.” The burglars had no idea what these meant. Five years of lawsuits, dogged reportage, and Congressional hearings would reveal their meanings. COINTELPRO (Counter-Intelligence Program), which has been amply described in more than a dozen books by now, had as one of its objectives “the neutralization of black extremist groups, the prevention of violence by these groups and the prevention of coalition of black extremist organizations.” Neutralization meant, according to an FBI memo, efforts to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit” groups such as the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, even the Nation of Islam. For years, Hoover had targeted the NAACP and the ACLU, going so far as to use informers inside their offices. The FBI monitored and maintained files on “members of unions, pacifist groups, anarchists, racial justice groups, and Bureau critics (who) were regarded by Hoover as subversives.” Tactics included persuading local police to arrest leaders “on every possible charge.”

In 1964, after the murders of three civil rights volunteers at the beginning of “Freedom Summer,” the voter registration campaign in Mississippi, President Johnson and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered Hoover to add “white hate groups,” mainly Southern Klan groups, to the lists of organizations subject to COINTERLPRO action.

The Program, or actually programs, began formally in 1956, although Hoover’s spying had been going on in secret for years. There were twelve programs under COINTELPRO covering different sets of organizations, including the Puerto Rican Independence Movement, the New Left, the American Indian Movement, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and almost needless to say, the Communist Party, which had been an FBI target for decades. The FBI infiltrated Liberation News Service (LNS), a New Left version of the Associated Press, using disinformation to make LNS seem an FBI front, and set up a phony newspaper to hire young radicals in order to spy on them. Following a lawsuit by the SWP, it was revealed that an organization with 2,500 members had been infiltrated by 1,600 informers—thus actually strengthening the group for a time, one could reasonably suppose. At one point, according to David Cunningham’s 2004 book There’s Something Happening Here: The New Left, The Klan, and FBI Counterintelligence, about 6 percent of Klan members were informers, including some of the top leaders. (Hoover also instituted a program called “Sex Deviate” from about 1950 to 1975, the full extent of which is only now becoming known.)

Hoover had files on “an endless roll call of the best novelists, nonfiction writers, poets, essayists and playwrights, including Nobel laureates,” apparently because he fundamentally distrusted intellectuals. But the FBI’s priority by the 1960s seemed to be massive spying on black Americans, especially black student groups, usually with the full cooperation of campus security personnel. Medsger says that “The overall impression in directives written by Hoover, other headquarters officials, and local FBI officials was that the FBI thought of black Americans as falling into two categories—black people who should be spied onand black people who should spy on other black people for the FBI.” It was required that agents recruit paid informers in black “ghettos.”

The mysterious “SI” stood for Security Index. SI in 1971 was a secret listing of more than 26,000 people who were to be arrested and imprisoned without any form of hearing in the event of a national emergency (including this writer, whose SI number was 492-609C). Hoover had begun a similar list under another name as early as 1924. In 1950 a Congress hysterical about the “Communist threat” passed the Internal Security Act (the McCarran Act) which called for the registration of Communist organizations and their members, and also allowed the arrest and indefinite detention of persons engaged in Communist activity during a national emergency. Hoover then, again secretly, expanded its coverage to activists in many other organizations. The McCarran act was revoked in 1971, but Hoover continued the SI under another label. Several years after Hoover’s death it was officially abolished.

Hoover did not know exactly what was in the burgled files, and quite understandably was horrified that COINTELPRO and SI would be revealed. “MEDBURG” (short for Media Burglars) became his priority. He transferred some 200 agents to Philadelphia to work on the case. He sent Mark Felt, later the Deep Throat informer in the Watergate case, to Media to find out how the burglary had happened. For nearly ten years FBI agents or informers had photographed thousands of people at peace demonstrations, and now they went through the pictures and interviewed hundreds, concentrating for a time on the West Philadelphia neighborhood of Powelton Village, which was known to be a hotbed of anti-war and other dissident activity. All to no avail.

But suddenly the burglars, or so Hoover thought, were within his grasp. On June 25, 1971, one Robert Hardy appeared at the FBI office in Camden, New Jersey and told agents of a plan by several of his friends to raid the draft board in that city, remove the files, and destroy them. Hardy was one of the gang, but changed his mind. He was immediately hired as an informer and told to return to the gang and report on their plans, which he did. On August 22, the FBI was waiting when the group struck, and twenty-eight were arrested. The trial began on February 5, 1973. Hoover died in May 1972, but his ghost must have suffered a shock as Hardy changed his mind again and became a witness for the defense. He told the truth, namely that the FBI had used him as a provocateur, and that the burglary could not have taken place without him and the burglary tools that the FBI had supplied. The defense relied on this, but also put the war “on trial.” One defense witness in particular, a conscientious objector whose brother had been killed in Vietnam, clearly moved the jury. The “Camden 28” were acquitted. Two of them had actually been Media burglars, and another two were in attendance throughout the trial. The FBI had no idea. (The case inspired Anthony Giacchino’s 2006 award-winning documentary film, The Camden 28.)

By the time of the Media burglary, quite a number of draft boards had been invaded. Medsger recalls that nine pacifists, led by two Catholic priests, raided the Catonsville, Maryland draft board in May 1968 and openly burned the files. The “Catonsville Nine” were quickly arrested. Soon the strategy changed: the idea was “to slow down the operation of the draft system” by stealing the records but not getting caught. The records were sometimes sent to their “owners” with information on how to become a conscientious objector. According to Medsger, upwards of 500 activists burglarized “dozens of draft boards and removed thousands ofrecords.” This strategy was the model for the Media burglary.

As the FBI’s Media files continued to be released in batches following the burglary, the information began to have an impact. On June 13, 1971, the first installation of the Pentagon Papers was published by the New York Times, adding a new exposé of illegal governmental actions. Seymour Hersh of the Times revealed, on December 22, 1974, that the CIA, in violation of its charter that forbade domestic intelligence, had files on thousands of U.S. anti-war activists. CIA Director Richard Helms lied when he denied it, but when Congress investigated a year later it turned out that the CIA had data on more than 300,000 people and a thousand organizations, with thousands on watch lists to have their mail opened (including this writer, whose mail was opened in 1962).

Yet even after Hoover’s departure, the monitoring of anti-war and black activists continued until 1975, when the FBI, under new leadership, began to close COINTELPRO cases and at least in theory shift its priorities back to organized crime and governmental corruption. That January the U.S. Senate established a “Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities,” known as the Church Committee, after its chairman, Senator Frank Church. The Committee held hearings that shed considerable light on the illegal operations of the FBI. The Church Committee’s findings and its recommendations to reform the FBI were attacked from within the FBI by Hoover’s old guard, and outside by conservatives. They returned to the attack after 9/11, on the ground that the Church Committee had disarmed U.S. intelligence—even though it was the FBI’s bungling that contributed to the disaster.

One payoff from the Church Committee was the creation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, even though it turned out to be less than advertised. It has not rolled back government surveillance. Only the strengthening of the Freedom of Information Act after 1974 had a serious impact: as people perused their files, the FBI’s illegal activities bubbled to the surface, whereas under Hoover the FBI had simply refused requests.

Although Congressional hearings made it somewhat more difficult for the FBI to hide questionable behavior, by 1980 “the reform pendulum was reversing.” As far as President Reagan was concerned, Medsger states, “intelligence reform was over.” In 1981 the FBI began to investigate a series of individuals and organizations that opposed Reagan’s foreign policy, in particular the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). “The ghost of Hoover seemed to be in charge,” Medsger relates, as the FBI recruited informers, staged break-ins at churches, homes, and offices, and monitored “hundreds of peace demonstrations.” After 9/11, and the passage of the PATRIOT Act, the restraints on the FBI were “loosened” even further, and the FBI’s mission formally shifted to domestic intelligence. It now had access to the National Security Agency’s data retrievals, and it proceeded to investigate organizations simply because they opposed the war. Among the FBI’s targets were the Catholic Worker and the American Friends Service Committee. Despite the FBI’s claims that MEDBURG led to “a significant reevaluation ofdomestic security policy,” what, besides adding some window-dressing, had really changed?

“MEDBURG” was officially closed on March 11, 1976, when the statute of limitations ran out. Betty Medsger eventually located seven of the eight burglars. All agreed to tell their story; five, including ringleader William Davidon, agreed to be publicly identified. Medsger also was able, via the Freedom of Information Act, to access the 33,698-page official record of the FBI’s MEDBURG investigation.

In her later chapters she delves into the lives of several of the burglars: their political development and motivations, and then their post-“Medburg” lives. It is interesting to know, for example, that two of the burglars were veterans of Freedom Summer. This is fascinating stuff for social psychologists who study the motivations of participants in social movements, but after the gripping hour-by-hour tale of the burglary and the FBI’s frustrating chase, not to mention the drama of the Camden 28, this material may be anti-climactic for some readers. (Much of it is included in a documentary, 1971, produced by Johanna Hamilton and released in 2014.)

Davidon did not rest on his laurels after the burglary. In March 1972 he and two companions broke into a railway car parked in a field in York County, Pennsylvania. It contained bombs headed for Vietnam. They proceeded to make them inoperable. Then, in April, he and forty-four others paddled canoes into Sandy Hook Bay in New Jersey to “blockade” a Navy munitions ship. Several of the demonstrators were arrested. And in the following month Davidon and others sabotaged three Air Force transport planes at the Willow Grove, Pennsylvania Naval Air Station by cutting hose lines and cables. In both the railway car and airplane incidents, anonymous statements outlining the reasons for the actions were sent to the press. Davidon died in 2013. He, too, had been on Hoover’s Security Index.

Medsger ends her book by asking the obvious question: How was it possible for Hoover to “pervert the basic principles of democracywith such egregious secret policies and actions for nearly a half century without constraints?” The answer, she says, is that over these years officials refused to ask questions. But why did they not challenge the FBI until the Church Committee? Here she falters, although the answers are surely not difficult to find. We know of course that Hoover used his files as blackmail. And many government figures clearly thought that his means, no matter how illegal, were justifiable in the struggle against “Communism.” However, if we consider how the FBI’s “war on subversives” actually functioned to undermine and in some cases effectively destroy movements for social change, we can only conclude that Hoover, regardless of his own motivations, was doing the social control work of the established order.

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