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Breaking the Silence

What's Behind the Wave of Police, Security, and
Vigilante Killings of Black People?

Surveillance Abuse is Nothing New

Surveillance and other forms of secret intelligence gathering and covert action have a long and colorful history. While popular culture celebrates the adventures of James Bond and the clever technical skill portrayed in "Mission Impossible," civil libertarians worry about privacy rights and the boundaries between legitimate law enforcement techniques and government abuse of power.

Law enforcement use of covert surveillance and informers was pioneered in sixteenth century Europe. Critics of surveillance abuse and police excesses emerged alongside the themes of the Enlightenment, with its concern for individual liberties. By the time of the Civil War in the United States, most large cities had uniformed police and detectives who relied on information obtained covertly, sometimes through informers in the criminal subculture. In the U.S., sophisticated undercover techniques were often pioneered by private industrial security firms such as the Pinkerton or Burns agencies. For many years the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover used undercover surveillance to gather political intelligence on dissident groups, but discouraged agents from using similar techniques against common crime, including vice and narcotics. This changed in the early 1970s:

===…with the death of FBI director Hoover, undercover work changed significantly, expanding in scale and appearing in new forms. Covert tactics were adopted by new users and directed at new targets and new offenses. Applying ingenuity previously found only in fiction, law enforcement agents penetrated criminal and sometimes non-criminal milieus to an extraordinary degree. Even organized crime, long thought to be immune, was infiltrated. (Fijnaut and Marx, 1995:12).

Between 1973 and 1983, undercover FBI investigations rose from roughly thirty to almost 4 hundred per year where it stayed for a decade. Well-publicized "sting" operations became a regular feature on television news. Agents moved from buying contraband to selling contraband, a subtle distinction that nonetheless shifted the transaction toward entrapment. Public figures were not only investigated when evidence of corruption was alleged, but put in artificial situations where they were encouraged by agents and informers to take bribes or use drugs while being videotaped. The emphasis shifted from investigating individual criminal acts to putting individuals from targeted groups under surveillance and waiting for them to engage in criminal behavior (or encouraging them to do so)


Even before a country emerged on the continent, settlers were vigilant against subversion by witches in colonial Salem. After the Revolution, in a relatively young country dedicated to preserving liberty against all forms of despotism, the fear of internal subversion became a recurring theme. In 1798, before the ink on the Constitution had time to fade, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. Thereafter, countersubversive movements periodically flourished to confront Freemasons, Papists, anarchists, Bolsheviks, immigrants, and communists, among others suspected of disloyalty.

Even before the FBI was established  the Justice Department relied on private groups to help smash dissent and ferret out alleged subversion. Frank Donner, in tracing the roots of this network, noted that during World War One, "private intelligence forces emerged to combat radicalism, labor unionism, and opposition to the war.” Donner (1981: 414). From its beginning, the FBI formed a loose and often back-door network with state and municipal intelligence units sometimes called “Red Squads.” In addition, information collected by covert surveillance was passed among corporate security specialists and private right-wing groups.

According to Donner, the early public/private countersubversion movement took on a metaphysical and crusading nature that invoked both nativism and biblical apocalyptic themes to fight the godless "Red Menace":

===The root anti-subversive impulse was fed by the Menace. Its power strengthened with the passage of time, by the late twenties its influence had become more pervasive and folkish. Bolshevism came to be identified over wide areas of the country by God-fearing Americans as the Antichrist come to do eschatological battle with the children of light. A slightly secularized version, widely-shared in rural and small-town America, postulated a doomsday conflict between decent upright folk and radicalism—alien, satanic, immorality incarnate." Donner (1981: 47–48).

Donner argued the culture of countersubversion became an institutional fixture in the United States, and was “marked by a distinct pathology: conspiracy theory, moralism, nativism, and suppressiveness.” Donner (1981: 10). He claimed that the unstated yet actual primary goal of surveillance and political intelligence gathering by government law enforcement agencies and their private allies is not amassing evidence of illegal activity for criminal prosecutions, but punishing critics of the status quo or the state in order to undermine dissident movements for social change.

A major tool used to justify surveillance abuse is propaganda designed to create fear of a menace by an alien outsider. As Donner noted: “In a period of social and economic change during which traditional institutions are under the greatest strain, the need for the myth is especially strong as a means of transferring blame, an outlet for the despair [people] face when normal channels of protest and change are closed.” Donner (1981: 11).


As the McCarthy era tactics of overt political repression and public scrutiny of leftist dissidents collapsed, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in August 1956 initiated COINTELPRO, the acronym given the FBI's Counterintelligence Program.

COINTELPRO was designed to disrupt the Communist Party U.S.A. by "feeding and fostering from within" an internal faction fight in a way that would "bring the Communist Party (CP) and its leaders into disrepute before the American public and cause confusion and dissatisfaction among rank-and-file members of the CP." FBI document, cited in Churchill and Vander Wall (1990: 40).

The FBI program was later enlarged to include disruption of the Socialist Workers Party (1961), the Ku Klux Klan (1964), Black nationalist groups such as the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam (1967), and the entire New Left, including community and religious groups (1968). The COINTELPRO operations violated every clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution by harassing religious groups, attacking progressive newspapers, preventing free speech, disrupting peaceable assemblies and interfering with citizens' rights to petition the government for redress of grievances.

Contrary evidence was no impediment. In 1969 the FBI special agent in San Francisco wrote Hoover that his investigation of the Black Panther Party revealed that in his city, the Black nationalists primarily were engaged in legal activities such as feeding breakfast to children. Hoover fired back a memo implying the career ambitions of the agent were directly related to his supplying evidence to support Hoover's view that the BPP was “a violence-prone organization seeking to overthrow the Government by revolutionary means.” (FBI documents reproduced in Churchill and Vander Wall (1990: 144–145). Hoover made his agenda clear in a later memo instructing agents that the “Purpose of counterintelligence action is to disrupt BPP and it is immaterial whether facts exist to substantiate the charge.” FBI document reproduced in Churchill and Vander Wall (1990: 150).

In 1969, the FBI informant in the Illinois Black Panther Party (BPP) was unsuccessful in encouraging BPP members to engage in illegal acts. The FBI tipped off local law enforcement that the Panthers were heavily armed. They even supplied "a detailed floorplan of Hampton's apartment...and denotation of exactly where the BPP leader might be expected to be sleeping..." Churchill and Vander Wall (1990: 139). The ensuing raid left Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark dead. The few guns found were later discovered to have been legally purchased. An FBI memo noting the deaths requested a bonus for the informant.

The most persistent theoretical underpinning of the FBI's COINTELPRO-era activity was the notion of the “naive front” controlled by communist infiltration, or COMINFIL in Bureau jargon. William W. Keller explains:

===…the theory behind Cominfil is that the Communist party members seek to infiltrate or join the ranks of legitimate organizations, rise to positions of leadership, establish effective control of the organization, and ultimately convert it into a vehicle for mass communist revolution."(Keller (1989: 157–158).

With the end of the Cold War, this paradigm shifted to blame terrorists or anarchists as the outside agitators fomenting discord. This view of social and political dissidents leads to the assumption that grievances need not be taken seriously by society, and that social change activists are on a slippery slope toward criminal activity. This viewpoint is then used to justify widespread surveillance by government agencies.

Reform and Reversal

The FBI's COINTELPRO operations were exposed in the early 1970s by activists and the media. Congressional hearings generated public pressure for safeguards against surveillance abuse. Under President Jimmy Carter, attorney general Edward Levi issued guidelines that limited the authority of the FBI to conduct unrestricted surveillance on groups solely engaged in activities protected by the First Amendment. When Ronald Reagan took office, however, his attorney general, William French Smith, issued guidelines that erased many of the protections that just had been erected.

Within months, the FBI was investigating a left-wing group organizing against US government policy in El Salvador. In September of 1981 the FBI launched a probe to determine if the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) should be forced to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Among the documents used by the FBI to justify this CISPES probe, according to Congressional testimony by FBI official Oliver “Buck” Revell, was a 1981 article by John Rees, a private intelligence operative who supplied information to right-wing groups and government agencies. This FBI investigation was terminated without indictments in December of 1981.

A second FBI investigation of CISPES began in March of 1983. It was premised on an unsubstantiated allegation that CISPES was a cover for “terrorist” activity. To justify this view, the FBI relied not only on reports from its informant, but also in part on conspiracist analyses contained in reports from several right-wing groups, including the Young Americas Foundation. This FBI “counter-terrorism” investigation was terminated without indictments in 1985.

The Future of Surveillance Abuse

Surveillance abuse, political repression against dissidents, and cutting corners in the arrest and prosecution of suspected criminals is a recurring political problem that appears under both Republican and Democratic administrations. For instance, the “Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996,” passed by the Congress and signed by President Clinton, a Democrat, on April 24, 1996, was decried by critics as the worst setback for civil liberties in many years (CNSS website). Using the word "terrorism" to gain public support in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing by neo-Nazi Timothy McVeigh, this legislation eroded a number of rights for immigrants, the undocumented, activists involved in supporting foreign political causes, and convicted criminals facing the death penalty.

The government response to an increase in left-wing political activism that emerged with the new millennium in 2000 was to engage in broad surveillance and heavy-handed crowd control tactics at demonstrations in Seattle, WA, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, PA. Civil liberties groups responded by writing critical reports, defending those arrested, and filing civil lawsuits for violations of constitutional rights. One such critic, Abby Scher, wrote that "the US government has intensified its crackdown on political dissidents opposing corporate globalization....Civil liberties lawyers say the level of repression—in the form of unwarranted searches and surveillance, unprovoked shootings and beatings, and pre-emptive mass arrests criminalizing peaceful demonstrators—violates protesters' rights of free-speech and association." Scher (2001: 23).

And this was prior to the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, following which there was a rollback of civil liberties that eradicated most of the reforms initiated during the Carter Administration. With new technologies available the ability of the government to probe our private activities on many levels was greatly enhanced. These issues are ongoing today.

There will always be a tension in the balance between serving the needs of legitimate law enforcement and protecting the constitutional rights of dissidents and criminals. It is a debate that will never end—and should never end. This is one of the prices to be paid for living in a country that aspires to fulfill the ideals of liberty and democracy.

--Chip Berlet

Adapted from: “Surveillance Abuse.” Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment. David Levinson, ed., (Berkshire Reference Works). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2002.

Further Reading

Berlet, Chip and Matthew N. Lyons. (1998) “One Key to Litigating Against Government Prosecution of Dissidents: Understanding the Underlying Assumptions.” Police Misconduct and Civil Rights Law Report, 5, 13 (January-February) and 5, 14 (March-April).  Retrievable online at: http://www.publiceye.org/liberty/RepressionTOC.htm.

Center for National Security Studies. (1996) “Terrorism Law Is Major Setback for Civil Liberties.” Washington, DC.  Retrieved from http://www.cdt.org/policy/terrorism/cnss_habeas.html.

Churchill, Ward and Jim Vander Wall. (1988) Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. Boston: South End Press.

———. (1989) COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI's Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States. Boston: South End Press.

Cunningham, David. (Forthcoming). "State vs. Social Movement: The FBI's COINTELPRO Against the New Left" In States, Parties, and Social Movements, edited by Jack Goldstone. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Davis, James Kirkpatrick. (1997) Assault on the Left: The FBI and the Sixties Antiwar Movement. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Dempsey, James X. and David Cole. (1999) Terrorism & the Constitution: Sacrificing Civil Liberties in the Name of National Security. Los Angeles: First Amendment Foundation.

Donner, Frank J. (1980) The Age of Surveillance: The Aims and Methods of America’s Political Intelligence System. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

———. (1990) Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fijnaut, Cyrille and Gary T. Marx. (1995) Under Cover: Police Surveillance in Comparative Perspective. The Hague: Kluwer Law International.

Gelbspan, Ross. (1991) Break-Ins, Death Threats and the FBI: The Covert War Against the Central America Movement. Boston: South End Press.

Goldstein, Robert J. (1978) Political Repression in Modern America, 1870 to Present, 2d ed. Rochester VT: Schenkman Books, Inc.

Keller, William W. (1989) The Liberals and J. Edgar Hoover. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Marx, Gary T. (1988) Under Cover: Police Surveillance in America. Berkeley: Twentieth Century Fund/University of California Press.

O'Reilly, Kenneth. (1988) “Racial Matters:” The FBI's Secret File on Black America, 1960-1972. New York: Free Press.

Scher, Abby. (2001) "The Crackdown on Dissent." The Nation, Jan. 19, 2001: 23–26.

Staples, William G. (2000) Everyday Surveillance: Vigilance and Visibility in Postmodern Life. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.




These resources compiled at the request of the Spirit House Project for a
National Teach-In, Worship Service, and Candlelight Vigil
held On April 22, 2014, in Washington, DC
(a copy of the event poster is here)

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