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"THE LESSON: History Repeats Itself"
by Paul Wolf, COINTELPRO

8:00 a.m. January 15, 2001 PDT

Is John Ashcroft ushering in a new era of political abuse of our intelligence and law enforcement agencies?



SO BEGINS a 110-page review entitled, "The Growth of Domestic Intelligence, 1936-1976", part of the Senate Select Committee's 5000-page report to study intelligence activities, more commonly known as the Church Committee Report. The Senate investigation, conducted in 1975 and 1976, was in response to a series of revelations of abuses, including the Watergate break-in, the leaking of the "Pentagon Papers," a highly secret history of American involvement in Vietnam, and revelations about COINTELPRO, the acronym used for domestic FBI "counterintelligence" programs.

The origins of COINTELPRO were rooted in the Bureau's investigations of hostile foreign intelligence activities in the United States. Counterintelligence, of course, goes beyond investigation; it refers to actions taken to neutralize hostile agents.

"Counterintelligence" was a misnomer for the FBI programs, since the targets were American political dissidents, not enemy spies. In the atmosphere of the Cold War, the American Communist Party was viewed as a real threat to national security. Over the years, this paranoia was extended to civil rights, anti-war, and many other groups. As John Edgar Hoover, longtime Director of the FBI, put it:
The forces which are most anxious to weaken our internal security are not always easy to identify. Communists have been trained in deceit and secretly work toward the day when they hope to replace our American way of life with a Communist dictatorship. They utilize cleverly camouflaged movements, such as peace groups and civil rights groups to achieve their sinister purposes. While they as individuals are difficult to identify, the Communist party line is clear. Its first concern is the advancement of Soviet Russia and the godless Communist cause. It is important to learn to know the enemies of the American way of life.
Although today this may sound ridiculous, the results were deadly serious for the thousands of people who became COINTELPRO targets. Besides the destruction of most of the target groups, scores of "subversives" lost their lives as a result of FBI counterintelligence operations.

The programs were not targeted at any specific criminal acts of which the Bureau had knowledge; rather, they were meant to work indirectly, by neutralizing potentially violent citizens and preventing them from associating with potentially violent groups.

Sometimes the FBI undertook such investigations on its own; other times, the Bureau was used by the President to attack his political enemies. This cooperative relationship between the Bureau and the Presidency apparently began with FDR and was used extensively in the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Executive orders authorized investigations of such things as "subversion", "potential crimes," and matters "not within the specific provisions of prevailing statutes." The idea was to prevent violence by pinpointing "potential troublemakers" and "neutralizing" them before they could "exercise their potential for violence."

The attempt to "predict violence" was not a successful undertaking. Between 1960 and 1974, the FBI conducted over 500,000 separate investigations of "subversive" persons and groups, predicated on the possibility that they might overthrow the government. Yet not a single individual or group was prosecuted under the laws which prohibit planning or advocating action to overthrow the government, which were the main alleged statutory basis for the FBI investigations. Many people were imprisoned on unrelated or spurious charges, however, in order to "neutralize" them.

Although the Church Committee's investigation was far from comprehensive, and did not describe the Puerto Rican independentista COINTELPRO, or the actions then underway against the American Indian Movement (both resulting in fatalities), it was still the most detailed and hard-hitting investigation of intelligence community in American history.

Occasionally you'll find references to these reports, such as one in a recent New York Times article. However, very few people have actually read them. Parts of the Church Committee reports are now available on the internet for the first time at www.cointel.org.

Although the project is still in production, I began with some of the most important material: the findings and recommendations of the Final Report, entitled Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans. Although they are quite lengthy, the Church Committee reports are very well written and a breath of fresh air in the current security vs. civil liberties debate. I found the sections on covert action to be the most interesting, and recommend reading: COINTELPRO: The FBI's Covert Action Programs Against American Citizens

Is John Ashcroft ushering in a new era of political abuse of our intelligence and law enforcement agencies? It sure looks that way. In my last email I included an article by John Dean, comparing Bush's order preventing the release of Presidential records to the kinds of things he saw in the Nixon administration. If that doesn't scare you, I'm not sure what will. According to the New York Times, "career officials" at the FBI and DOJ are opposed to the secret proposals that the Attorney General is now considering. Normally the FBI lobbies to increase its surveillance and enforcement powers.

We expect that Senator Patrick Leahy will ask Mr. Ashcroft some tough questions about bypassing normal checks and balances that have been such a vital part of our government's functioning. It appears Mr. Ashcroft believes he has a mandate from the public to crack down on an unseen internal enemy, as hard as he can. Could this be true? From the emails I've been getting, it appears there is very significant non-partisan opposition to what he's doing.

<<
Article copyright © Paul Wolf; all rights reserved
For additional information, visit Paul's website at www.cointel.org
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| u s e n e tg r o u p s |

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| w e b s i t e s |

American Civil Liberties Union

Office of the Attorney General, John Ashcroft (US DoJ)

US Immigration & Naturalization Service (USINS INS)

Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review

FedLaw: Civil Liberties, Civil Rights, Equal Opportunity & Discrimination (US Gen'l Services Admin)

The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (US DoJ)

Terrorism Law & Policy (University of Pittsburgh School of Law)

A Look at Civil Liberties (CNN)

War Is Hell (On Your Civil Liberties) (Time.com)

Bush Team Seeks Broader Surveillance Powers (Washington Post)

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