FBI Covert Operations
Despite the public image of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as the nation's premier law enforcement agency, it has always functioned primarily as America's political police. This role includes not only the collection of intelligence on the activities of political dissidents and groups, but often times counterintelligence operations to thwart those activities.
Although the FBI's covert operations have been active throughout its history, the formal COunter INTELligence PROgram, or COINTELPRO, of the second half of the 20th century was centrally directed and targeted a range of political dissidents and organizations. The stated goals of COINTELPRO were to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" those persons or organizations that the FBI decided were "enemies of the State."
At its most extreme dimension, political dissidents have been eliminated outright or sent to prison for the rest of their lives. Many more, however, were "neutralized" by intimidation, harassment, discrediting, and a whole assortment of authoritarian and illegal tactics.
Neutralization, as explained on record by the FBI, didn’t necessarily pertain to the apprehension of parties in the commission of a crime, the preparation of evidence against them, and securing of a judicial conviction. Rather, the FBI simply made activists incapable of engaging in political activity by whatever means.
For those not assessed as being in themselves a security risk but engaged in what the Bureau viewed to be politically objectionable activity, those techniques consisted of disseminating derogatory information to the target's family, friends and associates, or visiting and questioning them. False information was planted in the press. The targets' efforts to speak in public were frustrated, and employers were contacted to try to get them fired. Anonymous letters accusing targets of infidelity were sent by the FBI to their spouses. Other letters contained death threats. These strategies are well-documented, for example, in the case of Martin Luther King, Jr. Records also show that activists in the 1960s were repeatedly arrested "on any excuse" until "they could no longer make bail."
In addition, the FBI made use of informants, often quite violent and emotionally disturbed individuals, to present false testimony to the courts and frame COINTELPRO targets for crimes the FBI knew they did not commit. In some cases the charges were quite serious, including murder.
Another option was "snitch jacketing" where the FBI made the target look like a police informant or an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency. This served the dual purposes of isolating and alienating important leaders, as well as increasing the general level of fear and factionalism in the group.
Many counterintelligence techniques involved the use of paid informants. Informants became "agent provocateurs" by raising controversial issues at meetings to take advantage of ideological divisions; promoting enmity with other groups; or inciting the group to violent acts, even to the point of providing them with weapons. Over the years, FBI provocateurs repeatedly urged and initiated violent acts, including forceful disruptions of meetings and demonstrations, attacks on police, bombings, etc.
The FBI conducted more than 2,000 COINTELPRO operations before the programs were officially discontinued in April of 1971, after public exposure, in order to "afford additional security to [its] sensitive techniques and operations." While the programs themselves were discontinued, the FBI's objectionable practices were not. The FBI's intent was/is to continue such practices as deemed necessary and often completely at its own whim. That intent was clearly stated by the FBI. It's a matter of public record.
The full story of COINTELPRO may never be told. The Bureau's files were never seized by Congress or the courts or sent to the National Archives. Some were destroyed. In addition, many counterintelligence operations were never committed to writing as such, or involved open investigations making ex-operatives legally prohibited from talking about them. Most operations remained secret until long after the damage had been done.
American Indian Movement
The FBI used all of the above COINTELPRO tactics against AIM, including the wholesale jailing of the Movement's leadership. Virtually every known AIM leader in the United States was incarcerated in either state or federal prisons since (or even before) the organization's formal emergence in 1968, some repeatedly. Organization members often languished in jail for months as the cumulative bail required to free them outstripped resource capabilities of AIM and supporting groups.
There is little doubt, given what is known today about the FBI's activities vis-a-vis AIM, that all of the COINTELPRO tactics discussed here were used against AIM members, including the wholesale jailing of the Movement's leadership. Virtually every known American Indian Movement leader in the United States was incarcerated in either state or federal prisons since (or even before) the organization's formal emergence in 1968. Some AIM members were jailed repeatedly. Organization members often languished in jail for months as the cumulative bail required to free them outstripped resource capabilities of AIM and supporting groups.
Congress had intended to investigate AIM as another dissident group targeted by the Bureau. Witnesses had been investigated by congressional staff and called to provide testimony. However, one day after the 26 June 1975 firefight at Oglala, the Church Committee cancelled the hearings. Consequently, the full extent of the FBI's war against AIM has been obscured and perhaps intentionally so.
*Text on COINTELPRO is excerpted from "COINTELPRO: The Untold Story," a compilation by Paul Wolf presented to U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001 by the members of the Congressional Black Caucus.