FBI Domestic Intelligence Activities

COINTELPRO Revisited - Federal Bureau of Intimidation

                       Federal Bureau of Intimidation
                                Howard Zinn
       This HTML document is a production of Covert Action Quarterly.
   I thought it would be good to talk about the FBI because they talk
   about us. They don't like to be talked about. They don't even like the
   fact that you're listening to them being talked about. They are very
   sensitive people. If you look into the history of the FBI and Martin
   Luther King-which now has become notorious in that totally notorious
   history of the FBI- the FBI attempted to neutralize, perhaps kill him,
   perhaps get him to commit suicide, certainly to destroy him as a
   leader of black people in the United States. And 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.
   I was interested in this especially because I was reading the Church
   Committee report. In 1975, the Senate Select Committee investigated
   the CIA and the FBI and issued voluminous reports and pointed out at
   what point the FBI became interested in King. In 1961-62 after the
   Montgomery Bus Boycott, after the sit-ins, after the Freedom Rides of
   '61, there was an outbreak of mass demonstrations in a very little,
   very Southern, almost slave town of southern Georgia called Albany.
   There had been nothing like this in that town. A quiet, apparently
   passive town, everybody happy, of course. And then suddenly the black
   people rose up and a good part of the black population of Albany ended
   up in jail. There were not enough jails for all who demonstrated.
   A report was made for the Southern Regional Council of Atlanta on the
   events in Albany. The report, which was very critical of the FBI, came
   out in the New York Times. And King was asked what he thought of the
   role of the FBI. He said he agreed with the report that the FBI was
   not doing its job, that the FBI was racist, etcetera, etcetera.
   At that point, the FBI also inquired who the author of that report
   was, and asked that an investigation begin on the author. Since I had
   written it, I was interested in the FBI's interest in the author. In
   fact, I sent away for whatever information the FBI had on me, through
   the Freedom of Information Act. I became curious, I guess. I wanted to
   test myself because if I found that the FBI did not have any dossier
   on me, it would have been tremendously embarrassing and I wouldn't
   have been able to face my friends. But, fortunately, there were
   several hundred pages of absolutely inconsequential material. Very
   consequential for the FBI, I suppose, but inconsequential for any
   intelligent person.
   I'm talking about the FBI and U.S. democracy because here we have this
   peculiar situation that we live in a democratic country-everybody
   knows that, everybody says it, it's repeated, it's dinned into our
   ears a thousand times, you grow up, you pledge allegiance, you salute
   the flag, you hail democracy, you look at the totalitarian states, you
   read the history of tyrannies, and here is the beacon light of
   democracy. And, of course, there's some truth to that. There are
   things you can do in the United States that you can't do many other
   places without being put in jail.
   But the United States is a very complex system. It's very hard to
   describe because, yes, there are elements of democracy; there are
   things that you're grateful for, that you're not in front of the death
   squads in El Salvador. On the other hand, it's not quite a democracy.
   And one of the things that makes it not quite a democracy is the
   existence of outfits like the FBI and the CIA. Democracy is based on
   openness, and the existence of a secret policy, secret lists of
   dissident citizens, violates the spirit of democracy. There are a lot
   of other things that make the U.S. less than a democracy. For
   instance, what happens in police stations, and in the encounters
   between police and citizens on the street. Or what happens in the
   military, which is a kind of fascist enclave inside this democracy. Or
   what happens in courtrooms which are supposedly little repositories of
   democracy, yet the courtroom is presided over by an emperor who
   decides everything that happens in a courtroom -what evidence is
   given, what evidence is withheld, what instructions are given to the
   jury, what sentences are ultimately meted out to the guilty and so on.
   So it's a peculiar kind of democracy. Yes, you vote. You have a
   choice. Clinton, Bush and Perot! It's fantastic. Time and Newsweek.
   CBS and NBC. It's called a pluralist society. But in so many of the
   little places of everyday life in which life is lived out, somehow
   democracy doesn't exist. And one of the creeping hands of
   totalitarianism running through the democracy is the Federal Bureau of
   I think it was seeing the film Mississippi Burning that led me to want
   to talk about the FBI. I had sort of reached a point where I said,
   "Who wants to hear anymore about the FBI?" But then I saw Mississippi
   Burning. It relates a very, very important incident in the history of
   the civil rights movement in the U.S. In the summer of 1964, these
   three young men in the movement, two white, one black, had traveled to
   investigate the burning of a church in a place called Philadelphia,
   Mississippi-city of brotherly love. They were arrested, held in jail,
   released in the night, followed by cars, stalked, taken off and beaten
   very, very badly with chains and clubs and shot to death-
   executed-June 21, 1964. The bodies were found in August. It's a great
   theme for an important film. Mississippi Burning, I suppose, does
   something useful in capturing the terror of Mississippi, the violence,
   the ugliness.
   But after it does that, it does something which I think is very
   harmful: In the apprehension of the murderers, it portrays two FBI
   operatives and a whole flotilla-if FBI men float-of FBI people as the
   heroes of this episode. Anybody who knows anything about the history
   of the civil rights movement, or certainly people who were in the
   movement at that time in the South, would have to be horrified by that
   portrayal. I was just one of many people who was involved in the
   movement. I was teaching in Atlanta, Georgia, in a black college for
   about seven years from 1956 to 1963, and I became involved in the
   movement, in Albany, Georgia, and Selma, Alabama, and Hattiesburg,
   Mississippi, and Greenwood and Greenville and Jackson, Mississippi in
   the summer of '64. I was involved with SNCC, the Student Nonviolent
   Coordinating Committee. Anybody who was involved in the Southern
   movement at that time knew with absolute certainty: The FBI could not
   be counted on and it was not the friend of the civil rights movement.
   The FBI stood by with their suits and ties-I'm sorry I'm dressed this
   way today, but I was just trying to throw them off the track-and took
   notes while people were being beaten in front of them. This happened
   again, and again, and again. The Justice Department, to which the FBI
   is presumably accountable, was called again and again, in times of
   stress by people of the civil rights movement saying, hey, somebody's
   in danger here. Somebody's about to be beaten, somebody's about to be
   arrested, somebody's about to be killed. We need help from the federal
   government. We do have a Constitution, don't we? We do have rights. We
   do have the constitutional right to just live, or to walk, or to
   speak, or to pray, or to demonstrate. We have a Bill of Rights. It's
   America. It's a democracy. You're the Justice Department, your job is
   to enforce the Constitution of the United States. That's what you took
   an oath to do, so where are you? The Justice Department wasn't
   responding. They wouldn't return phone calls, they wouldn't show up,
   or when they did show up, they did nothing.
   The civil rights movement was very, very clear about the role of the
   FBI. And it wasn't just the FBI; it goes back to the Justice
   Department; back to Washington; back to politics; back to Kennedy
   appointing racist judges in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia to do
   favors for his Southern Democratic political cronies, only becoming
   concerned about black people when things appeared on television that
   embarrassed the administration and the nation before the world.
   Only then did things happen. Oh, we'll send troops to Little Rock,
   we'll send troops to Oxford, Mississippi, and so on. Do something big
   and dramatic and so on. But in all the days and all the hours in
   between, before and after, if there's no international attention,
   forget it. Leave these black folk at the mercy of the law enforcement
   officers down there. Just as after the Civil War, blacks were left at
   the mercy of Southern power and Southern plantation owners by Northern
   politicians who made their deal with the white South in 1877.
   If you want to read the hour-by-hour description of this, you could
   read a wonderful book by Mary King, Freedom Song. She was a SNCC
   staff person in the Atlanta office whose job was to get on the phone
   and call the newspapers, the government, the Justice Department and
   say: Hey, three young men have not come back from Philadelphia,
   Mississippi. She called and called and called and it took several days
   before she got a response. Deaf ears. They were dead. Probably none of
   those calls would have saved them.
   It was too late, but there was something that could have saved them.
   And it's something I haven't seen reported in the press. If there had
   been federal agents accompanying the three on their trip, if there had
   been federal agents in the police station in Philadelphia,
   Mississippi, that might not have happened. If there had been somebody
   determined to enforce law, enforce constitutional rights, to protect
   the rights of people who were just going around, driving, talking,
   working, then those three murders might have been averted.
   In fact, 12 days before the three disappeared, there was a gathering
   in Washington, D.C., on June 9, 1964. A busload of black
   Mississippians came all the way up-it was a long bus ride to
   Washington-to the National Theater.
   There was a jury of fairly well known Americans- college presidents,
   writers, other people-assembled to hear the testimony. The black
   people's testimony before the press and an audience was recorded and
   transcribed. They testified that what was going to happen in
   Mississippi that summer with all these volunteers coming down was
   very, very dangerous. They testified about their experiences, about
   their history of being beaten, about the bodies of black people found
   floating in the rivers of Mississippi and they said, people are going
   to get killed; we need the protection of the federal government.
   Also appearing at this hearing were specialists in constitutional law
   who made the proper legal points that the federal government had
   absolute power to protect people going down into Mississippi. Section
   333, Title 10 of the U.S. Code (some numbers burn themselves into you
   because you have to use them again and again) gives the federal
   government the power to do anything to enforce constitutional rights
   when local authorities either refused or failed to protect those
   So they take all this testimony at the National Theater and put it
   into a transcript and deliver it to Attorney General Robert Kennedy,
   hand deliver it to the White House, and ask the federal government to
   send marshals down to Mississippi. Not an army, a few hundred
   marshals, that's all. Plainclothes people for protection. This is
   1964; by now you've sent 40,000 soldiers to Vietnam, so you can send
   200 plainclothes people to Mississippi. No response from the Attorney
   General, none from the President. Twelve days later those three men
   Well, why didn't they put that in the film? Why didn't anybody say
   anything about that? So the FBI are the heroes of this film.
   Well, that's only part, as you know, of the history of the FBI. Going
   back, the FBI was formed first as the Bureau of Investigation under
   Theodore Roosevelt-don't worry, I'm not going to take you year by year
   through this history. It's a very depressing history.
   But, it just interested me. In 1908, under Theodore Roosevelt, his
   Attorney General, a man named Bonaparte, a grand nephew of
   Napoleon-set up the Bureau of Investigation which later became the
   FBI. One of its first acts was to enforce a new federal law- the Mann
   Act. This law made it illegal to transport women across state lines
   for immoral purposes. Yes, one of their first acts was to prosecute
   the black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, because he was living
   with a white woman and they actually crossed a state line. One of the
   first heroic acts of the FBI. They go way back. Racism goes way back
   in the FBI and comes way forward, comes right up to now. By the way-in
   the film they show a black FBI man. But there was no black person in
   the FBI in 1964. A chauffeur, maybe. A maid, maybe. No black FBI
   agents in 1964. But there was this black FBI agent in the film.
   Yes, the racism comes right up to yesterday when a black FBI man-in
   Detroit, I think-is harassed by his fellow white FBI agents who do all
   sorts of funny things to him to make life miserable for him. You
   think, where is the solidarity among FBI people? FBI people, black and
   white together, we shall overcome. Well, apparently the FBI doesn't
   believe in that.
   There's too much to say about the FBI and racism. It's not just J.
   Edgar Hoover. Everybody says, oh, J. Edgar Hoover, he really hated
   black people. He hated the civil rights movement, but it's not just
   him, of course. It's too easy to pin all this on J. Edgar Hoover, to
   pin it just on the FBI as if they're wild cards. The president says, oh
   sorry, we didn't know what they were doing. Well, it's just like
   Oliver North. A wild card North was doing these crazy things and his
   defense was absolutely right: I did it for them. He did. He did it for
   them and now they have turned on him. He doesn't have to worry,
   they'll take good care of him. They take care of their own.
   When people in the CIA and FBI commit crimes, how do they get handled?
   They don't. They're forgotten about. Do you know how many crimes have
   been committed by the FBI and the CIA? How many black bag jobs?
   Breaking and entering? Try breaking and entering. Really. Try breaking
   and entering in the daytime, or nighttime, and see what happens to
   you. Different punishments depending on what hour of the day. The FBI
   broke and entered again and again and again and again, hundreds and
   hundreds of times.
   There were hundreds of FBI men involved in these breaks. Two men were
   actually prosecuted. This happens every once in a while. When huge
   public attention finally gets focused, they pick out two from the pack
   and prosecute them and they find them guilty and they sentence them.
   To what? To nothing. Fine, $5,000 for one person. That's FBI petty
   cash. $3,500 for the other. And then they say that justice has been
   done and the system works.
   Remember when Richard Helms of the CIA was found guilty of perjury in
   1976? Hiss went to jail for four years for perjury, Helms didn't go to
   jail for two hours. And Helms's perjury, if you examine it, was far,
   far more serious than Alger Hiss's, if Hiss was indeed guilty. But if
   you're CIA, if you're FBI, you get off.
   But North is right; he did it for them. He did what they expected him,
   wanted him, to do. They use this phrase, plausible denial, a very neat
   device. You have to be able to do things that the President wants you
   to do but that he can deny he wanted you to do, or deny he ordered you
   to do if push comes to shove.
   It's not just the FBI. It's the government. It's part of the system,
   not just a few people here and there. The FBI has names of millions of
   people. The FBI has a security index of tens of thousands of people-
   they won't tell us the exact numbers. Security index. That's people
   who in the event of national emergency will be picked up without trial
   and held. Just like that. The FBI's been preparing for a long time,
   waiting for an emergency.You get horrified at South Africa, or Israel,
   or Haiti where they detain people without trial, just pick them up and
   hold them incommunicado. You never hear from them, don't know where
   they are. The FBI's been preparing to do this for a long time. Just
   waiting for an emergency. These are all countries in emergency; South
   Africa's in an emergency, Chile was in an emergency, all emergencies.
   James Madison made the point way back. One of the founding fathers.
   They were not dumb. They may have been rich and white and reactionary
   and slave holders but they weren't dumb. Madison said the best way to
   infringe on liberty is to create an external menace.
   What can a citizen do in a situation like this? Well, one thing is
   simply to expose the FBI. They hate to be exposed, they're a secret
   outfit. Everything they do is secret. Their threat rests on secrecy.
   Don't know where they are. Not everybody in a trench coat is an FBI
   agent. We don't know where they are, who they are, or what they're
   doing. Are they tapping? Right. And what are you going to do about it?
   The one thing you shouldn't think will do anything is to pass a law
   against the FBI. There are always people who come up with that. That's
   the biggest laugh in the world. These are people who pay absolutely no
   attention to the law, again and again. They've violated the law
   thousands of times. Pass another law; that's funny.
   No, the only thing you can do with the FBI is expose them to public
   understanding-education, ridicule. They deserve it. They have
   "garbologists" ransacking garbage pails. A lot of interesting stuff in
   garbage pails. They have to be exposed, brought down from that
   hallowed point where they once were. And, by the way, they have been
   brought down. That's one of the comforting things about what has
   happened in the United States in the last 30 years. The FBI at one
   point was absolutely untouchable. Everybody had great respect for the
   FBI. In 1965 when they took a poll of Americans; do you have a strong
   admiration for the FBI? Eight-five percent of people said, "Yes." When
   they asked again in '75, 35 percent said, "Yes." That's a big
   comedown. That's education -education by events, education by
   exposure. They know they've come down in the public mind and so now
   they're trying to look kinder and gentler. But they're not likely to
   merge with the American Civil Liberties Union. They're more likely,
   whatever their soothing words, to keep doing what they're in the habit
   of doing, assaulting the rights of citizens.
   The most important thing you can do is simply to continue exposing
   them. Because why does the FBI do all this? To scare the hell out of
   people. Were they doing this because of a Soviet invasion threat or
   because they thought the Socialist Workers Party was about to take
   over the country? Are they going after whoever their current target is
   because the country is in imminent danger, internal or external? No.
   They are doing it because they don't like these organizations. They
   don't like the civil rights organizations, they don't like the women's
   organizations, they don't like the anti-war organizations, they don't
   like the Central American organizations. They don't like social
   movements. They work for the establishment and the corporations and
   the politicos to keep things as they are. And they want to frighten
   and chill the people who are trying to change things. So the best
   defense against them and resistance against them is simply to keep on
   fighting back, to keep on exposing them. That's all I have to say.
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