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Between 1956 and 1971, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) conducted a campaign of domestic counterintelligence. The agency's Domestic Intelligence Division did more than simply spy on U.S. citizens and their organizations; its ultimate goal was to disrupt, discredit, and destroy certain political groups. The division's operations were formally known within the bureau as COINTELPRO (the Counterintelligence Program). The brainchild of former FBI director j. edgar hoover, the first COINTELPRO campaign targeted the U.S. Communist party in the mid-1950s. More organizations came under attack in the 1960s. FBI agents worked to subvert Civil Rights groups, radical organizations, and white supremacists. COINTELPRO existed primarily because of Director Hoover's extreme politics and ended only when he feared its exposure by his critics. A public uproar followed revelations in the news media in the early 1970s, and congressional hearings criticized COINTELPRO campaigns in 1976.
In 1956 Hoover interpreted a recent federal law—the Communist Control Act of 1954 (50 U.S.C.A. § 841)—as providing the general authority for a covert campaign against the U.S. Communist party. Officially, the law stripped the party of "the rights, privileges, and immunities attendant upon legal bodies created under the jurisdiction of the laws of the United States." Hoover saw the party as a peril to national security and ordered a large-scale effort to infiltrate and destabilize it.
Employing classic Espionage techniques, FBI agents joined the party and recruited informants. They spread dissension at party meetings by raising embarrassing questions about the recent Soviet invasion of Hungary, for instance, or about Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who had been a hero to U.S. Communists. Agents also engaged in whispering campaigns identifying party members to employers and neighbors. The FBI intensified its harassment by enlisting the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to conduct selective tax audits of party members. And it spread rumors within the party itself—employing a practice known as snitch jacketing—that painted loyal members as FBI informants. In all, the government executed 1,388 separate documented efforts, and they worked: whereas party membership was an estimated twenty-two thousand in the early 1950s, it fell to some three thousand by the end of 1957.
After his initial success, Hoover did not rest. From the late 1950s through the end of the 1960s, he unleashed his agents against a wide range of political groups. Some were civil rights organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Others were radical, such as the Black Panther Party, the American Indian Movement, and the Socialist Workers party. Yet another target was the nation's oldest white hate group, the Ku Klux Klan, although Hoover was less enthusiastic about pursuing it and did so chiefly because of political pressure resulting from the Klan's highly publicized murders of civil rights workers. In internal FBI memorandums, Hoover's motive for these operations is given as the need to stamp out Communism and subversion, but the historical record reveals a muddier picture. What turned Hoover's attention to the NAACP, for example, was the organization's criticism of FBI hiring practices for excluding minorities.
In their scope and tactics, these FBI operations occasionally went much further than the original anti-Communist COINTELPRO effort. They involved at least twenty documented burglaries of the offices of the SCLC, an organization headed by martin luther king jr. Hoover detested King, whom he called "one of the most reprehensible … individuals on the American scene today," and urged his agents to use "imaginative and aggressive tactics" against King and the SCLC. To this end, agents bugged King's hotel rooms; tape-recorded his infidelities; and mailed a recording, along with a note urging King to commit suicide, to the civil rights leader's wife. The COINTELPRO operation against the radical Black Panther party, which Hoover considered a black nationalist hate group, tried to pit the party's leaders against each other while also fomenting violence between the Panthers and an urban gang. In at least one instance, FBI activities did lead to violence. In 1969, an FBI informant's tip culminated in a police raid that killed Illinois Panther chairman Fred Hampton and others; more than a decade later, the federal government agreed to pay restitution to the victims' survivors, and a federal judge sanctioned the bureau for covering up the facts in the case.
Political changes in the early 1970s weakened Hoover's position. Critics in the media and Congress began to question Hoover's methods, and the newly created Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C.A. § 552, promised to pierce the veil of secrecy that had always protected him. In 1971, a break-in at an FBI field office in Pennsylvania yielded secret documents that were ultimately published. Fearing greater exposure of FBI counterintelligence programs, Hoover formally canceled them on April 28, 1971. Some small-scale operations continued, but the days when agents had carte blanche to carry out the director's will were over.
Hoover died May 2, 1972, at the age of seventy-seven. His death was followed by the realization of his greatest fear. In 1973 and 1974, NBC reporter Carl Stern gained access to COINTELPRO documents through an FOIA claim. More revelations followed, producing a public outcry and leading to an internal investigation by Attorney General William B. Saxbe. The U.S. Congress was next: in 1975 and 1976, hearings of the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence further probed COINTELPRO. Even as Hoover's legacy was laid bare, supporters tried to keep the cover on: House lawmakers kept their committee's report secret. The Senate did not; its report, released on April 28, 1976, denounced a "pattern of reckless disregard of activities that threatened our constitutional system."
Along with revealing other instances of FBI illegalities under Hoover, the investigation of his activities set in motion a process of reform. Congress ultimately limited the term of the director of the FBI to ten years, to be served at the pleasure of the president, a safeguard designed to ensure that no single individual could again run the bureau indefinitely and without check. Details about COINTELPRO continue to be made public through government documents.
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