The idea that a tyrannical government is secretly
plotting against US citizens is a popular and longstanding belief among much
of the American far right. The scenario has many variations, but the basics
are that politicians, threatened by a potentially rebellious populace, are watching
and listening in on them, working to undermine them and readying for the day
they will wrench
away their freedoms.
But this scenario isn’t merely a paranoid fantasy dreamed up in the deepest
corners of the alt-right – it’s relatively recent history. Instead of gun-toting
“sovereign citizens” and Confederate-flag-waving patriot groups serving as the
targets, however, the US government largely targeted segments of the Left for
widespread surveillance, disruption, “neutralization,” and eventually destruction.
This was the COINTELPRO program, whose first operations were launched by the
FBI sixty years ago this month.
COINTELPRO, short for “Counter
Intelligence Program,” was the name given to a series of programs initiated
by the Bureau between 1956 and 1971 aimed at undermining and eradicating groups,
movements, and individuals – almost all of which were part of the Left – it
viewed as threats to national security and social order.
By the time the FBI formally shut down the program, it had successfully torn
apart many of these left-wing groups and movements. In the process, the Bureau
destroyed the reputations, and in some cases lives, of many.
The history of COINTELPRO shows how far a nominally democratic government can
go to shut down leftist movements they view as threatening – and what kind of
pushback we might expect in response to a movement upsurge in the twenty-first
Origins in Hysteria
COINTELPRO had its origins in the anticommunist fervor of the mid-twentieth
century. When COINTELPRO began in 1956, anticommunist hysteria was at its height.
The FBI, like many government agencies, began seeing the hand of the Soviet
Union in every protest movement, every act of resistance.
This sense of embattlement only increased as the years went on. In the 1960s
and 1970s, opposition
to the Vietnam War, segregation, and other injustices lit a fire under a
number of diverse protest movements which began to challenge what many ordinary
Americans – and their government – viewed as the basic precepts of their way
The FBI quickly came to view the citizens who joined those movements as enemies
to be covertly fought and eliminated.
As the Church
Committee, a congressional committee set up in 1975 to analyze the excesses
of US law enforcement and intelligence agencies over the preceding decades,
put it, what followed was “a secret war against those citizens it considers
threats to the established order.”
Although the FBI was run by the infamously paranoid J.