The FBI has committed various crimes through their COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program). They have deployed various tactics in order to disrupt and destroy various radical programs and organizations. These tactics have ranged from spreading of false rumors all the way down to political assassinations. The use of these tactics has shown that the FBI is ready to step above the law to reach their goals. Despite their name, which implies that it is a bureau for investigations, the FBI has actively involved itself outside the domains of investigation to actively sabotage their targets as if it were some kind of terrorist group ready to explode with violence. In other words, use of any means necessary was allowed to its agents by the bureau and such tactics were even encouraged.
Nothing can be scarier than the government itself ignoring its own rules in order to achieve a specific goal. This is what happened with COINTELPRO. To determine what causes this kind of behavior out of the state is important. So this paper will try to determine the motives behind COINTELPRO.
Focus of paper:
What were the motives behind FBI s COINTELPRO and why did such extreme measures have to be taken by the FBI?
There is not a simple and clear cut answer as to what the motives behind COINTELPRO were. On an abstract scale, there is the general motive of the conservative elite who simply wanted to keep the good things they had no matter what the cost may be for others, and then there is a specific motive caused by racism in the FBI itself who were employing no more than 8 black employees out of 4,000 total during the late 60 s (those eight were typists). But in examining the possible motives for the COINTELPRO program we can see that they can be classified into three major categories: personal, political, and economic. Use of various examples from the activities of COINTELPRO with the Black Panther Party and the Native American Movement will enlighten these points further. I will focus more on the big picture behind COINTELPRO s operations since there is plenty of material out there on the specifics on how the COINTELPRO operated.
I. Political motives
Proof for political motives on the FBI s part is clearly displayed and summarized in the following document sent by J. Edgar Hoover himself to define the goals of COINTELPRO:
BLACK NATIONALIST - HATE GROUPS
RACIAL INTELLIGENCE 3/4/68
For maximum effectiveness of the Counterintelligence Program, and
to prevent wasted effort, long-range goals are being set.
1. Prevent the COALITION of militant black nationalist groups. In unity there is strength; a truism that is no less valid for all its triteness. An effective coalition of black nationalist groups might be the first step toward a real "Mau Mau" [Black revolutionary army] in America, the beginning of a true black revolution.
2. Prevent the RISE OF A "MESSIAH" who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement. Malcolm X might have been such a "messiah;" he is the martyr of the movement today. Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael and Elijah Muhammed all aspire to this position. Elijah Muhammed is less of a threat because of his age. King could be a very real contender for this position should he abandon his supposed "obedience" to "white, liberal doctrines" (nonviolence) and embrace black nationalism. Carmichael has the necessary charisma to be a real
threat in this way.
3. Prevent VIOLENCE on the part of black nationalist groups. This is of primary importance, and is, of course, a goal of our investigative activity; it should also be a goal of the Counterintelligence Program to pinpoint potential troublemakers and neutralize them before they exercise their potential for violence.
4. Prevent militant black nationalist groups and leaders from gaining RESPECTABILITY, by discrediting them to three separate segments of the community. The goal of discrediting black nationalists must be handled tactically in three ways. You must discredit those groups and individuals to, first, the responsible Negro community. Second, they must be discredited to the white community, both the responsible community and to "liberals" who have vestiges of sympathy for militant black nationalist [sic] simply because they are Negroes. Third, these groups must be discredited in the eyes of Negro radicals, the followers of the movement. This last area requires entirely different tactics from the first two. Publicity about violent tendencies and radical statements merely enhances black nationalists to the last group; it adds "respectability" in a different way.
5. A final goal should be to prevent the long-range GROWTH of militant black organizations, especially among youth. Specific tactics to prevent these groups from converting young people must be developed. [...]
Primary targets of the Counterintelligence Program, Black Nationalist-Hate Groups, should be the most violent and radical groups and their leaders. We should emphasize those leaders and organizations that are nationwide in scope and are most capable of disrupting this country. These targets, members, and followers of the:
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)
Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM)
NATION OF ISLAM (NOI) [emphasis added]
Offices handling these cases and those of Stokely Carmichael of SNCC, H. Rap Brown of SNCC, Martin Luther King of SCLC, Maxwell Stanford of RAM, and Elijah Muhammed of NOI, should be alert for counterintelligence suggestions. [...]
J. Edgar Hoover
[SOURCE: Brian Glick, The War At Home: Covert Action Against U.S. Activists And What We Can Do About It
Boston: South End Press, 1989
This document is crucial in that it specifically defines Hoover s goals as to what the COINTELPRO should do. It seems on the surface that he is trying to fight some violent crime ring by entitling his document Black Nationalist Hate Groups, Racial Intelligence . It almost sounds like it s about a group such as the KKK. But you can clearly see that this is not the case. You can see that the motives here are purely political when you take a look at goal number one: An effective coalition of Black Nationalist groups might be the first step toward a real [Black revolutionary army] in America, the beginning of a true black revolution. Hoover distinctly uses the word revolution acknowledging that what they are going against is not just some racial hate group, it is a revolution that they have to stop in order to remain in power.
There is also a very important evidence of political motive in this document. Notice that in goal number five Hoover talks not only about stopping the movement from gaining respect from the black community and black radicals, but also about they must be discredited to the white community, both the responsible community and to liberals Hoover acknowledges that the Black nationalist movement is agreeable even to the respectable white community. Meaning he does not think that they are just a bunch of renegades gone mad, he accepts that the movement could have public backing. As soon as he tries to stop what people might consider an alternative to current choices you are censoring based on political beliefs which is in violation of the first amendment. Just as the motive behind COINTELPRO in the 40 s against the Communist Party of the USA, Hoover and whoever was behind him (if there was anyone) had strong political motives for launching the project.
II. Economic motives
Behind every COINTELPRO against a 60 s movement is the broad notion that change, as described by various movements, will bring harm to the economic system already set in place. Empowering the poor is not something that the FBI wants to see done because it would mean a gradual decline in the labor pool. This brings harm to capitalistic economics since capitalism is dependent on the fact that people can make money by buying things cheaper then when they sell. Labor is at the end of the chain though and if the labor pool decreases, then demand for labor goes up and the difference between actual amount of labor that laborers produce and what laborers are paid decreases, bringing harm to the economic system.
But there were more specific short-term economic issues in some COINTELPRO programs. This short-term economic motive can be seen through AIM (The American Indian Movement) in their struggle in Pine Ridge and Wounded Knee. AIM, in reference to a treaty signed by the US government in 1868 called the Ft. Laramie Treaty claimed the land theirs by law. Once this didn t work, AIM moved into the area refusing to leave. But the FBI could not let AIM get their wish. This Ft. Laramie treaty land was an economic gold mine. Among many mines that existed in that area since 1870 s, one alone had extracted over $14 billion in ore by 1970. By the mid 1960 s this area had become the nation s wheat-growing bread-basket . And in addition, 150 million acres of the land was supporting a thriving cattle industry. The government was on the corporation and business side. They weren t going to let AIM have the land back.
But more relevant to the federal government s interests were the discovery of uranium deposits in the area. Once uranium was found in the area studies were launched to determine the quality of the area. And tests came out to show that because of numerous potential pay zones and relatively shallow drilling depths, the Pine Ridge Reservation was an attractive prospecting area for uranium, oil, natural gas, and gravel. In addition to all this, they found what could be the nation s largest single coal deposit in the area as well. You have to remember that this happened during the energy crisis period of the 1970 s so the value of this area became ten-folds bigger then what it would have been. Conclusion was quickly drawn by the government that the area must become a national sacrifice region since once the uranium mining began, no human or vegetation would be able to grow there for a couple of thousand years.
There is evidence to indicate that the FBI knew from the beginning about the economic motive behind the COINTELPRO against AIM in 1974: memorandum was sent from Bureau headquarters to fifteen field offices that emphasized, in addition to the usual propaganda, that AIM would place increasing emphasis on resisting corporate rip-offs or Indian land and resources.
III. Personal motives
J. Edgar Hoover:
In recent years, a campaign of falsehood and vilification has been directed against the FBI by some ignorant and subversive elements. In the world-wide struggle of free peoples, the truth is still one of the most potent weapons. And the record of the FBI speaks for itself.
J. Edgar Hoover, Introduction to the FBI Story
J. Edgar Hoover was a man who was obsessed with one s image. He hunted down every soul who suggested that he was homosexual in order to keep his macho gangbuster image. FBI agents had to be young and his men had to follow strict dress codes at the FBI offices to keep an image of the FBI. As long as the public thought that the FBI was doing a great job everything else didn t matter. Also, keeping this image meant a lot of statistics on how well the FBI performed in front of the eye of the public. For this purpose Hoover invented the statistics of crime for the first time in the US history. He compiled these statistics to take to the Congress to get more annual funding and extend his power while he at the same time used the statistics in his public rhetoric to please the country and make it seem as if the FBI was doing a fine job. But under the nose of the public, the FBI was doing bogus jobs. The agents were tracking down stolen cars, often to find them abandoned in an alley. One car found was a part of the statistics, it didn't matter whether it was still intact or whether it had been stripped of its parts. Then why did Hoover consider it so important to go after the radicals with the COINTELPRO? He couldn t count it in his statistics because the operations were going to be covert wasn t it?
A simple answer to the questions posed is that Hoover was a racist man. He didn t consider much of blacks and he didn t want things to change in favor of the blacks because that would mean that the white America would be changing its image. For example, when Ebony magazine published an article named White Lily FBI about Hoover s hiring practices which discriminated heavily against blacks, Hoover didn t think about changing his hiring policy instead all he could think about was how this was bad publicity for him and his bureau. So what Hoover decided to do instead in order to keep his bureau the way he liked it (white) and still have a good public relationship was to deceive the public. He invited the editor of Ebony to the bureau to show him how much the article had been incorrect. In order to do this, Hoover had his 8 black employees move from floor to floor ahead of the Ebony editor so that I would seem as if there were black employees on every floor of the FBI building. The editor bought it and wrote a retraction. Another example of Hoover s racist practices can be shown through his treatment of Sam Noisette, his office boy. Whenever Hoover got really angry, Hoover took out his frustration on Sam by sending him to work downstairs in the basement storage room and even forcing him to changing out of his office suit into a little gray coat.
Martin Luther King is another good example of Hoover abusing FBI s powers with personal reasons. Martin Luther King was basing his power in the middle class black community and was trying to push legitimate reforms through legal means. You would think that Martin Luther King would have been secretly supported by the bureau (in a sense the way the various foundations did). But this was not the case.
Martin Luther King had been badly harassed by the FBI. The FBI had tried to get discrediting information from him through constant surveillance and even tried to make him commit suicide by various means of sabotage. There is even a theory now that the FBI had assassinated King. But it is very interesting to note the history of King with the bureau. Martin Luther King had been monitored occasionally by the FBI ever since 1957 on the grounds that Hoover believed that he had connections with few individuals that he thought were Communists. The first time that King really got on the bad list at FBI was when he criticized the FBI. As Howard Zinn puts it in his article Federal Bureau of Intimidation : if you follow the progression of that treatment of King, it starts, not even with the Montgomery Bus Boycott; it starts when King begins to criticize the FBI. You see, then suddenly Hoover's ears, all four of them, perk up. And he says, okay, we have to start working on King. Mr. Zinn is talking about when King first criticized the FBI at 1962 when asked about a reaction to an article that criticized the bureau that Mr. Zinn wrote himself. A similar story is told by Sullivan where he talks about a meeting between Hoover and King:
The meeting went smoothly, but nothing was really accomplished. The next day, we overheard King describe the meeting to one of his friends on the telephone. The old man speaks too much, he said. When [Hoover] found out what King had said about him, King was lost.
We were on him night and day (Sullivan 140)
Sullivan goes on to specifically point out the motives of Hoover being so interested in King s destruction:
1. Hoover was opposed to change, to the civil rights movement, and to blacks
2. Hoover really believed that King was a Communist, or at least very pro-Communist, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
3. Hoover resented King s criticism of the FBI.
4. Hoover was jealous of King s national prominence and the international awards that were offered to him. (Sullivan 138)
If these reasons are Hoover s true motives behind COINTELPRO s involvement with King then it is pretty much all out of personal motives.
It is important to note here that although Hoover was chosen as a subject of analysis, this kind of mindset that Hoover had is not solely unique to him. There were many racist people at the time and there are still many now. It just happens that Hoover had the power to do something about it at that time.
Knowing the cause of a phenomenon allows one to prevent that phenomenon from happening repeatedly. This is why we study history the way we do: by not just memorizing the facts but also by analyzing the causes. Through the analysis of the motives behind FBI s COINTELPRO I hope that it has become clear that the motives discussed so far are still present in our society. There are racist people in power in our government who want to stay there as well as strong political antagonism amongst the population on sensitive issues such as abortion and affirmative action. Since our society is based on capitalism there are also many people with a lot of capital who are out to gather even more anyway they can. Ultimately these are the reasons why something like COINTELPRO has occurred and it is also why it is very likely to happen again if not already happening right now.
Brian Glick, The War At Home: Covert Action Against U.S. Activists And What We Can Do About It
Boston: South End Press, 1989
Churchill, Ward. Agents of repression : the FBI's secret wars against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement
Boston, MA : South End Press, 1988.
Sullivan, William C.. The Bureau : my thirty years in Hoover's FBI
1st ed. New York : Norton, 1979.
Turner, William W., Hoover's FBI: the men and the myth,
Los Angeles, Sherbourne Press, 1970
Zinn, Howard, Federal Bureau of Intimidation
Covert Action Quarterly, No. 47 (Winter 1993-94)