From “COINTELPRO: The Danger We Face”
Infiltration by Agents or Informers
are law enforcement officers disguised as activists. Informers are non-agents who provide information to a law enforcement or intelligence agency. They may be recruited from within a group or sent in by an agency, or they may be disaffected former members or supporters.
are agents or informers who work in a group or community under the direction of a law enforcement or intelligence agency. During the 60s the FBI had to rely on informers (who are less well- trained and harder to control) because it had very few Black, Hispanic, or female agents, and its strict dress and grooming code left white male agents unable to look like activists. As a modern equal opportunity employer, today’s FBI has fewer such limitations.
What They Do
Some informers and infiltrators quietly provide information while keeping a low profile and doing whatever is expected of group members. Others attempt to discredit a target and disrupt its work. They may spread false rumors and make unfounded accusations to provoke or exacerbate tensions and splits. They may urge divisive proposals, sabotage important activities and resources, or operate as “provocateurs” who lead zealous activists into unnecessary danger. In a demonstration or other confrontation with police, such an agent may break discipline and call for actions which would undermine unity and detract from tactical focus.
Infiltration As a Source of Distrust and Paranoia
While individual agents and informers aid the government in a variety of specific ways, the general use of infiltrators serves a very special and powerful strategic function. The fear that a group may be infiltrated often intimidates people from getting more involved. It can give rise to a paranoia which makes it difficult to build the mutual trust which political groups depend on. This use of infiltration, enhanced by covertly- initiated rumors that exaggerate the extent to which a particular movement or group has been penetrated, is recommended by the manuals used to teach counterinsurgency in the US and Western Europe.
Cover Manipulation to Make a Legitimate Activist Appear to Be an Agent
An actual agent will often point the finger at a genuine, non-collaborating and highly valued group member, claiming that he or she is the infiltrator. The same effect, known as a “snitch jacket”, has been achieved by planting forged documents which appear to be communications between an activist and the FBI, or by releasing for no other apparent reason one of a group of activists who were arrested together. Another method used under COINTELPRO was to arrange for some activists, arrested under one pretext or another, to hear over the police radio a phony broadcast which appeared to set up a secret meeting between the police and someone from their group.
Guidelines for Coping with Infiltration
- Establish a process through which anyone who suspects an informer (or other form of covert intervention) can express his or her fears without scaring others. Experienced people assigned this responsibility can do a great deal to help a group maintain its morale and focus while, at the same time, centrally consolidating information and deciding how to use it. This plan works best when accompanied by group discussion of the danger of paranoia, so that everyone understands and follows the established procedure.
- To reduce vulnerability to paranoia and “snitch jackets”, and to minimize diversion from your main work, it generally is best if you do not attempt to expose a suspected agent or informer unless you are certain of their role (For instance, they surface to make an arrest, testify as a government witness or in some other way admit their identity). Under most circumstances, an attempted exposure will do more harm than the infiltrator’s continued presence. This is especially true if you can discreetly limit the suspect’s access to funds, financial records, mailing lists, discussions of possible law violations, meetings that plan criminal defense strategy, and similar opportunities.
- Deal openly and directly with the form and content of what anyone says and does, whether the person is a suspected agent, has emotional problems, or is simply a sincere, but naive or confused person new to the work.
- Once an agent or informer has been definitely identified, alert other groups and communities by means of photographs, a description of their methods of operation, etc. In the 60s, some agents managed even after their exposure in one community to move on and repeat their performance in a number of others.
- Be careful to avoid pushing a new or hesitant member to take risks beyond what that person is ready to handle, particularly in situations which could result in arrest and prosecution. People in this position have proved vulnerable to recruitment as informers.
Other Forms of Deception
Bogus leaflets, pamphlets, etc.: COINTELPRO documents show that the FBI routinely put out phony leaflets, posters, pamphlets, etc. to discredit its targets. In one instance, agents revised a children’s coloring book which the Black Panther Party had rejected as anti-white and gratuitously violent, and then distributed a cruder version to backers of the Party’s program of free breakfasts for children, telling them the book was being used in the program.
False media stories: The FBI’s documents expose collusion by reporters and news media that knowingly published false and distorted material prepared by Bureau agents. One such story had Jean Seberg, a noticeably pregnant white film star active in anti-racist causes, carrying the child of a prominent Black leader. Seberg’s white husband, the actual father, has sued the FBI as responsible for her resulting stillbirth, breakdown, and suicide.
Forged correspondence: Former employees have confirmed that the FBI and CIA have the capacity to produce “state of the art” forgery. The US Senate’s investigation of COINTELPRO uncovered a series of letters forged in the name of an intermediary between the Black Panther Party’s national office and Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, in exile in Algeria. The letters proved instrumental in inflaming intra-party rivalries that erupted into the bitter public split that shattered the Party in the winter of 1971.
Anonymous letters and telephone calls: During the 60s, activists received a steady flow of anonymous letters and phone calls which turn out to have been from government agents. Some threatened violence. Others promoted racial divisions and fears. Still others charged various leaders with collaboration, corruption, sexual affairs with other activists’ mates, etc. As in the Seberg incident, inter-racial sex was a persistent theme. The husband of one white woman involved in a bi-racial civil rights group received the following anonymous letter authored by the FBI: “Look, man, I guess your old lady doesn’t get enough at home or she wouldn’t be shu jiving with our Black Men in ACTION, you dig? Like all she wants to integrate is the bedroom and us Black Sisters ain’t gonna take no second best from our men. So lay it on her man — or get her the hell off [NAME].” –A Soul Sister
False rumors: Using infiltrators, journalists and other contacts, the Bureau circulated slanderous, disruptive rumors through political movements and the communities in which they worked.
Other misinformation: A favorite FBI tactic uncovered by Senate investigators was to misinform people that a political meeting or event had been canceled. Another was to offer nonexistent housing at phony addresses, stranding out-of- town conference attendees who naturally blamed those who had organized the event. FBI agents also arranged to transport demonstrators in the name of a bogus bus company which pulled out at the last minute. Such “dirty tricks” interfered with political events and turned activists against each other.
Fronts for the FBI: COINTELPRO documents reveal that a number of 60s political groups and projects were actually set up and operated by the FBI. One, “Grupo pro-Uso Voto”, was used to disrupt the fragile unity developing in 1967 among groups seeking Puerto Rico’s independence from the US. The genuine proponents of independence had joined together to boycott a US-administered referendum on the island’s status. They argued that voting under conditions of colonial domination could serve only to legitimize US rule, and that no vote could be fair while the US controlled the island’s economy, media, schools, and police. The bogus group, pretending to support independence, broke ranks and urged independistas to take advantage of the opportunity to register their opinion at the polls. Since FBI front groups are basically a means for penetrating and disrupting political movements, it is best to deal with them on the basis of the Guidelines for Coping with Infiltration (below). Confront what a suspect group says and does, but avoid public accusations unless you have definite proof. If you do have such proof, share it with everyone affected.
Guidelines for Coping with Other Forms of Deception:
- Don’t add unnecessarily to the pool of information that government agents use to divide political groups and turn activists against each other. They thrive on gossip about personal tensions, rivalries and disagreements. The more these are aired in public, or via a telephone which can be tapped or mail which can be opened, the easier it is to exploit a group’s problems and subvert its work (Note that the CIA has the technology to read mail without opening it, and that the telephone network can now be programmed to record any conversation in which specific political terms are used).
- The best way to reduce tensions and hostilities, and the urge to gossip about them, is to make time for open, honest discussion and resolution of “personal” as well as “political” issues.
- Don’t accept everything you hear or read. Check with the supposed source of the information before you act on it. Personal communication among estranged activists, however difficult or painful, could have countered many FBI operations which proved effective in the 60s.
- When you hear a negative, confusing or potentially harmful rumor, don’t pass it on. Instead, discuss it with a trusted friend or with the people in your group who are responsible for dealing with covert intervention.
- Verify and double-check all arrangements for housing, transportation, meeting rooms, and so forth.
- When you discover bogus materials, false media stories, etc. publicly disavow them and expose the true sources, insofar as you can.
Harassment, Intimidation and Violence:
Pressure through employers, landlords, etc.
COINTELPRO documents reveal frequent overt contacts and covert manipulation (false rumors, anonymous letters and telephone calls) to generate pressure on activists from their parents, landlords, employers, college administrators, church superiors, welfare agencies, credit bureaus, licensing authorities, and the like. Agents’ reports indicate that such intervention denied 60s activists any number of foundation grants and public speaking engagements. It also cost underground newspapers most of their advertising revenues, when major record companies were persuaded to take their business elsewhere. It may underlie recent steps by insurance companies to cancel policies held by churches giving sanctuary to refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala.
Former operatives have confessed to thousands of “black bag jobs” in which FBI agents broke into movement offices to steal, copy, or destroy valuable papers, wreck equipment, or plant drugs.
FBI infiltrators have admitted countless other acts of vandalism, including the fire which destroyed the Watts Writers Workshop’s multimillion-dollar ghetto cultural center in 1973. Late 60s FBI and police raids laid waste to movement offices across the country, destroying precious printing presses, typewriters, layout equipment, research files, financial records, and mailing lists.
Other direct interference
To further disrupt opposition movements, frighten activists, and get people upset with each other, the FBI tampered with organizational mail, so it came late or not at all. It also resorted to bomb threats and similar “dirty tricks”.
The FBI and police blatantly watch activists’ homes, follow their cars, tap phones, open mail and attend political events. The object is not to collect information (which is done surreptitiously), but to harass and intimidate.
Agents have extracted damaging information from activists who don’t known they have a legal right to refuse to talk, or who think they can outsmart the FBI. COINTELPRO directives recommend attempts at interviews throughout political movements to “enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles” and “get the point that there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”
Unlike the FBI, the Grand Jury has legal power to make you answer its questions. Those who refuse, and are required to accept immunity from use of their testimony against them, can be jailed for contempt of court (Such “use immunity” enables prosecutors to get around the constitutional protection against self- incrimination). The FBI and US Department of Justice have manipulated this process to turn the grand jury into an instrument of political repression. Frustrated by jurors’ consistent refusal to convict activists of overtly political crimes, they convened over 100 grand juries between 1970 and 1973 and subpoenaed more than 1,000 activists from the Black, Puerto Rican, student, women’s and anti-war movements. Supposed pursuit of fugitives and “terrorists” was the usual pretext. Many targets were so terrified that they dropped out of political activity. Others were jailed without any criminal charge or trial, in what amounts to a US version of the political internment procedures employed in South Africa and Northern Ireland.
False arrest and prosecution
COINTELPRO directives cite the Philadelphia FBI’s success in having local militants “arrested on every possible charge until they could no longer make bail” and “spent most of the summer in jail.” Though the bulk of the activists arrested in this manner were eventually released, some were convicted on serious charges on the basis of perjured testimony by FBI agents, or by coworkers who the Bureau had threatened or bribed. The object was not only to remove experienced organizers from their communities and to divert scarce resources into legal defense, but even more to discredit entire movements by portraying their leaders as vicious criminals. Two victims of such frame-ups, Native American activist Leonard Peltier and 1960s Black Panther official Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt, have finally gained court hearings on new trial motions. Others currently struggling to re-open COINTELPRO convictions include Richard Marshall of the American Indian Movement and jailed black Panthers Herman Bell, Anthony Bottom, Albert Washington (the “NY3”), and Richard “Dhoruba” Moore.
One COINTELPRO communiqué urged that “The Negro youths and moderates must be made to understand that if they succumb to revolutionary teaching, they will be dead revolutionaries.” Others reported use of threats (anonymous and overt) to terrorize activists, driving some to abandon promising projects and others to leave the country. During raids on movement offices, the FBI and police routinely roughed up activists and threatened further violence. In August, 1970, they forced the entire staff of the Black Panther office in Philadelphia to march through the streets naked.
Instigation of violence
The FBI’s infiltrators and anonymous notes and phone calls incited violent rivals to attack Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and other targets. Bureau records also reveal maneuvers to get the Mafia to move against such activists as black comedian Dick Gregory. Anarchism in Action — Page 171 A COINTELPRO memo reported that “shootings, beatings and a high degree of unrest continue to prevail in the ghetto area of southeast San Diego… it is felt that a substantial amount of the unrest is directly attributable to this program.”
Covert aid to right-wing vigilantes
In the guise of a COINTELPRO against “white hate groups,” the FBI subsidized, armed, directed and protected the Ku Klux Klan and other right-wing groups, including a “Secret Army Organization” of California ex-Minutemen who beat up Chicano activists, tore apart the offices of the San Diego Street Journal and the Movement for a Democratic Military, and tried to kill a prominent anti-war organizer. Puerto Rican activists suffered similar terrorist assaults from anti-Castro Cuban groups organized and funded by the CIA. Defectors from a band of Chicago-based vigilantes known as the “Legion of Justice” disclosed that the funds and arms they used to destroy bookstores, film studios, and other centers of opposition had secretly been supplied by members of the Army’s 113th Military Intelligence Group.
The FBI and police were implicated directly in murders of Black and Native American leaders. In Chicago, police assassinated Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, using a floor plan supplied by an FBI informer who apparently also had drugged Hampton’s food to make him unconscious during the raid. FBI records show that this accomplice received a substantial bonus for his services. Despite an elaborate cover-up, a blue-ribbon commission and a US Court of Appeals found the deaths to be the result not of a shootout, as claimed by police, but of a carefully orchestrated, Vietnam-style “search and destroy mission.”
Guidelines for Coping with Harassment, Intimidation, Violence
- Establish security procedures appropriate to your group’s level of activity and discuss them thoroughly with everyone involved. Control access to keys, files, letterhead, funds, financial records, mailing lists, etc. Keep duplicates of valuable documents. Safeguard address books, and do not carry them when arrest is likely.
- Careful records of break-ins, thefts, bomb threats, raids, arrests, strange phone noises (not always taps or bugs), harassment, etc. will help you to discern patterns and to prepare reports and testimony.
- Don’t talk to the FBI. Don’t let them in without a warrant. Tell others that they came. Have a lawyer demand an explanation and instruct them to leave you alone.
- If an activist does talk, or makes some other honest error, explain the harm that could result. But do not attempt to ostracize a sincere person who slips up. Isolation only weakens a person’s ability to resist. It can drive someone out of the movement and even into the arms of the police.
- If the FBI starts to harass people in your area, alert everyone to refuse to cooperate. Set up community meetings with speakers who have resisted similar harassment elsewhere. Get literature, films, etc. Consider “Wanted” posters with photos of the agents, or guerrilla theater which follows them through the city streets.
- Make a major issue of crude harassment, such as tampering with your mail. Contact your congressperson. Call the media. Demonstrate at your local FBI office. Turn the attack into an opportunity for explaining how covert intervention threatens fundamental human rights.
- Many people find it easier to tell an FBI agent to contact their lawyer than to refuse to talk. Once a lawyer is involved, the Bureau generally pulls back, since it has lost its power to intimidate. If possible, make arrangements with a local lawyer and let everyone know that agents who visit them can be referred to that lawyer. If your group engages in civil disobedience or finds itself under intense police pressure, start a bail fund, train some members to deal with the legal system, and develop and ongoing relationship with a sympathetic local lawyer.
- Community education is important, along with legal, financial, child care, and other support for those who protect a movement by refusing to divulge information about it. If a respected activist is subpoenaed for obviously political reasons, consider trying to arrange for sanctuary in a local church or synagogue.
- While the FBI and police are entirely capable of fabricating criminal charges, any law violations make it easier for them to set you up. The point is not to get so uptight and paranoid that you can’t function, but to make a realistic assessment based on your visibility and other pertinent circumstances.
- Upon hearing of Fred Hampton’s murder, the Black Panthers in Los Angeles fortified their offices and organized a communications network to alert the community and news media in the event of a raid. When the police did attempt an armed assault four days later, the Panthers were able to hold off the attack until a large community and media presence enabled them to leave the office without casualties. Similar preparation can help other groups that have reason to expect right-wing or police assaults.
- Make sure your group designates and prepares other members to step in if leaders are jailed or otherwise incapacitated. The more each participant is able to think for herself or himself and take responsibility, the better will be the group’s capacity to cope with crises.
Organizing Public Opposition to Covert Intervention
A Broad-Based Strategy
No one existing political organization or movement is strong enough, by itself, to mobilize the public pressure required to significantly limit the ability of the FBI, CIA and police to subvert our work. Some activists oppose covert intervention because it violates fundamental constitutional rights. Others stress how it weakens and interferes with the work of a particular group or movement. Still others see covert action as part of a political and economic system which is fundamentally flawed. Our only hope is to bring these diverse forces together in a single, powerful alliance. Such a broad coalition cannot hold together unless it operates with clearly-defined principles. The coalition as a whole will have to oppose covert intervention on certain basic grounds — such as the threat to democracy, civil liberties and social justice, leaving its members free to put forward other objections and analyses in their own names. Participants will need to refrain from insisting that only their views are “politically correct” and that everyone else has “sold out.” Above all, we will have to resist the government’s maneuvers to divide us by moving against certain groups, while subtly suggesting that it will go easy on the others, if only they dissociate themselves from those under attack. This strategy is evident in the recent Executive Order and Guidelines, which single out for infiltration and disruption people who support liberation movements and governments that defy US hegemony or who entertain the view that it may be at times necessary to break the law in order to effectuate social change.
For maximum impact, local and national coalitions will need a multifaceted approach which effectively combines a diversity of tactics, including:
- Investigative research to stay on top of, and document, just what the FBI, CIA, and police are up to.
- Public education through forums, rallies, radio and TV, literature, film, high school and college curricula, wall posters, guerrilla theater, and whatever else proves interesting and effective.
- Legislative lobbying against administration proposals to strengthen cover work, cut back public access to information, punish government “whistle-blowers”, etc. Coalitions in some cities and states have won legislative restrictions on surveillance and covert action. The value of such victories will depend on our ability to mobilize continuing, vigilant public pressure for effective enforcement.
- Support for the victims of covert intervention can reduce somewhat the harm done by the FBI, CIA, and police. Organizing on behalf of grand jury resisters, political prisoners, and defendants in political trials offers a natural forum for public education about domestic covert action.
- Lawsuits may win financial compensation for some of the people harmed by covert intervention. Covert action suits, which seek a court order (injunction) limiting surveillance and covert action in a particular city or judicial district, have proved a valuable source of information and publicity. They are enormously expensive, however, in terms of time and energy as well as money. Out-of-court settlements in some of these cases have given rise to bitter disputes which split coalitions apart, and any agreement is subject to reinterpretation or modification by increasingly conservative, administration-oriented federal judges. The US Court of Appeals in Chicago has ruled that the consent decree against the FBI there affects only operations based “solely on the political views of a group or an individual,” for which the Bureau can conjure no pretext of a “genuine concern for law enforcement.”
- Direct action, in the form of citizens’ arrests, mock trials, picketlines, and civil disobedience, has recently greeted CIA recruiters on a number of college campuses. Although the main focus has been on the Agency’s international crimes, its domestic activities has also received attention. Similar actions might be organized to protest recruitment by the FBI and police, in conjunction with teach-ins and other education about domestic covert action. Demonstrations against Reagan’s attempts to bolster covert intervention, or against particular FBI, CIA or police operations, could also raise public consciousness and focus activists’ outrage.
Previous attempts to mobilize public opposition, especially on a local level, indicate that a broad coalition, employing a multifaceted approach, may be able to impose some limits on the government’s ability to discredit and disrupt our work. It is clear, however, that we currently lack the power to eliminate such intervention. While fighting hard to end domestic covert action, we need also to study the forms it takes and prepare ourselves to cope with it as effectively as we can. Above all, it is essential that we resist the temptation to so preoccupy ourselves with repression that we neglect our main work. Our ability to resist the government’s attacks depends ultimately on the strength of our movements.
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