COINTELPRO: The checkered history and recovery of the FBI

It’s not news that our Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) comes under attack over what some decry as overbearing behavior. It’s a tough job and often attacked by those who would least benefit from doing the job the agents signed up for.

A lot depends on who is in charge. This was particularly true in the 1960’s and 70’s when J. Edgar Hoover headed the agency. Back then, Hoover created a special program, Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) the federal surveillance program that targeted, among others, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., other civil rights leaders and outspoken opponents of the Vietnam War, or anyone with even the slightest questions how the government was running. The program was established in 1956 by Hoover, the first (and, until 1972, the only) director of the FBI.

Pretty much even college presidents were on the list with threats to personal attack if the school allowed “anti-Viet Nam War” speakers on campus. The agency was aggressively recruiting informants and even charged with finding as many as possible to infiltrate every corner of activity that could possibly threaten the country, according to Hoover.

San Francisco participation

The San Francisco Bay Area was the main center of informant activity as noted in Seth Rosenfeld’s article, “Richard Aoki, Man Who Armed Black Panthers, Was FBI Informant.”

Bay Area informants delivered 83 percent of domestic intelligence gathering for the Bureau.

Among others active in developing agents, San Francisco Agent in-charge, Charles Bates, was assigned to the Patty Hearst kidnapping case and sought to recruit informants to help him locate Hearst and her captors.

Sara Jane Moore and the FBI

Even potential assassin Sara Jane Moore became one of the informants, recruited by Bates who was desperately trying to find kidnapped Patty Hearst.

While the FBI was busy finding informants in 1972, Carl Stern, working for NBC News, was analyzing and reporting on the Senate Committee on the Judiciary.

From Taking Aim at the President: The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Shot at Gerald Ford:

“Stern, now a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, related in my interview with him that he first saw a document with the title “COINTELPRO” while he was waiting to make a photocopy in a Senate office.

“The line for the only copy machine in an office filled with cubicles and staffers was always long, and as he and a Senate staffer were waiting, the staff member showed Stern some of the files that had been seized from an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania.

“The one that caught my eye was a directive to the resident agent to write anonymous letters to a number of Philadelphia area colleges, urging school administrators to bar Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and similar antiwar and civil rights groups from campus,” said Stern. He went on, saying, ‘I wondered immediately by what authority were FBI agents authorized to write anonymous letters to school administrators urging action about anything.’”

Frank Church Hearings

It wasn’t until the Senate Hearings lead by Senator Frank Church, (D-ID) in 1975, that it revealed the extensive abuses of the FBI by COINTELPRO. The Church hearings are significant into how the FBI conducts itself today.
The final report included 96 recommendations, legislative and regulatory, designed “to place intelligence activities within the constitutional scheme for controlling government power.”

The committee stated that “there is no inherent constitutional authority for the President or any intelligence agency to violate the law,” and they recommended the oversight of intelligence activities was necessary. The Church Committee’s intense and thorough investigative work earned the respect of many members of the Senate and led to reform efforts throughout the intelligence community.

Ultimately Congress approved legislation to provide for greater checks and balances of the intelligence community. In 1976 the Senate approved Senate Resolution 400, that established the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The committee provides “vigilant legislative oversight over the intelligence activities of the United States to assure that such activities are in conformity with the Constitution and laws of the United States.”

In 1978 Congress approved and President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), requiring the executive branch to request warrants for wiretapping and surveillance purposes from a newly formed FISA Court.
Some agencies pursued internal reform, in part because the Church Committee’s inquiry revealed the extent to which agencies had encouraged, or permitted abuses, by individuals. One example includes new guidelines established by Attorney General Edward Levi. The executive branch issued Executive Order 12036 in 1978, which provided new guidelines related to intelligence activities (revoked in 1981).

What now? FBI under attack

Since the COINTELPRO and J. Edgar Hoover days, the FBI has been through several phases, ultimately cleaning house and restoring its reputation as a world-class agency focused on protecting, not attacking, the citizens of the United States.

Today it is fighting for its morale from the constant criticism by its boss, Pres. Trump.

The president has been attacking the integrity of the senior leaders of the Justice Department relentlessly. He is going after the attorney general that he appointed. He criticized the former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation whom he fired. He also attacked the acting FBI director who has served in the Bureau for decades.

Trump ignores the fact that the people doing the Russia investigation, including FBI Director Christopher Wray, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Comey, are all longtime Republicans.

These charges would be horribly disheartening said in public by any official. But they were amazingly worse coming from the chief executive. The thousands of Justice Department employees who work hard to ensure faithful execution of the law, as the Constitution requires don’t deserve such shabby treatment when they put their heart and soul into the job of protecting the citizens of this country.

FBI Agents Association president, Thomas O’Connor is standing by the agents and their dedication to the country. He made a public statement, saying “our agents are focused on the Constitution and protecting the public” and “their work should be recognized, not denigrated.”

The association represents 14,000 active and retired special agents.
He further wrote, “Attacks on our character and demeaning comments about the FBI will not deter agents from continuing to do what we have always done — dedicate our lives to protecting the American people,” O’Connor said in a statement. “The true story of the FBI cannot be reduced to partisan talking points.”

The FBI should be allowed to do the job they are charged with and not under attack from the person who is supposed to respect and support the agency.

2 Comments

  • Victor says:

    I had forgotten about COIntelpro. Of course those were far different times. As you point out, the agency has gone through reforms over the years and yes, should be respected as today’s FBI.

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