Many argue over the existence of a “deep state” composed of appointed and career federal employees who violate their oaths of office and skirt the law in order to achieve certain outcomes. No matter what they are called, there are public servants who operate in an unethical or even illegal manner they believe is serving the greater good.
The discovery of misbehavior by federal officials and law enforcement in the Russia collusion hoax is unsettling to many and difficult to believe by others. But it shouldn’t be. The U.S. has long had a history of federal bureaucrats taking matters into their own hands.
Consider the case of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s COINTELPRO, a program that began in 1956 as a formal effort by the FBI to disrupt domestic organizations the bureau saw as a threat to national security. The name COINTELPRO was an acronym for “counterintelligence program.” But the FBI went far beyond merely collecting intelligence on individuals and organizations it claimed posed a threat. It also conducted covert actions that were clearly unlawful and unconstitutional.
The FBI ended the formal COINTELPRO program in 1971, when internal documents detailing the program’s activities were about to be made public. The general public learned of COINTELPRO in 1976 when the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities released its report. The committee, chaired by Democrat Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, was often referred to as the Church Committee.
The Church Committee was formed to investigate abuses by the nation’s intelligence agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, and National Security Agency, as well as by the Internal Revenue Service. Many targets of abuse were thousands of Americans not guilty or even suspected of any crimes. One result of the Church Committee and its companion Pike Committee in the House of Representatives was the formation of House and Senate intelligence committees responsible for oversight of the nation’s spy agencies.
The covert nature of COINTELPRO and other intelligence and law enforcement abuses meant a “victim may never suspect that his misfortunes are the intended result of activities undertaken by his government, and accordingly may have no opportunity to challenge the actions taken against him,” concluded the Church Committee.
Under COINTELPRO, the FBI targeted five categories of people and organizations. The FBI referred to these as the Communist Party USA, Socialist Workers Party, White Hate Group, Black Nationalist Hate Group, and the New Left.
The Communist Party USA and the Socialist Workers Party were established organizations with formal membership that were often easy to identify. The Ku Klux Klan and similar organizations such as the American Nazi Party and the National States’ Rights Party were slotted into the White Hate Group.
Individuals or organizations placed in the Black Nationalist Hate Group didn’t even have to espouse black nationalism. The supervisor in charge of the Black Nationalist Hate Group effort told Congress individuals or organizations were placed there because they were “primarily black.”
The category called the New Left was vaguely defined. In his deposition for Congress, the FBI supervisor of the New Left targeting effort said the defining criterion was “more or less an attitude.” He further said the New Left was a “loosely-bound, free-wheeling, college-oriented movement.”
There were three goals of COINTELPRO activities. The first was to protect national security. This is where the classic counterintelligence model came into play. The FBI was monitoring the activities of the Communist Party USA to determine if it was acting in cooperation with Soviet intelligence in order to spread propaganda in the United States.
A second goal was to prevent violence. Rather than focusing on specific criminal acts, the FBI tried to limit membership in targeted groups. One FBI supervisor testified before Congress that the strategy was to deter membership to keep targeted groups as small as possible. But by attacking a group’s membership, freedom of assembly, and advocacy, the FBI was running afoul of the Constitution’s First Amendment protections.
This strategy was further complicated because the FBI admitted that some of the groups or individuals it targeted had not been involved in violence. A 1968 FBI memorandum noted that the peaceful Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., was targeted because he might “abandon his supposed ‘obedience’ to ‘white, liberal doctrines’ (nonviolence) and embrace black nationalism.”
The third goal of COINTELPRO was to maintain the existing social and political order. The FBI presumed to have a responsibility to combat anyone who operated outside of what the bureau thought was the proper social and political order. For example, the FBI targeted a pair of students who publicly defended the use of a four-letter expletive. According to an internal FBI memorandum, use of the expletive “shows obvious disregard for decency and established morality.”
Assistant to the FBI Director William Sullivan was in overall charge of COINTELPRO. In his 1975 testimony before Congress, he cautioned that the mission of COINTELPRO was “a rough, tough, dirty business and dangerous. It was dangerous at times. No holds were barred.”
He further testified that the FBI “did not differentiate” between Soviet agents and U.S. citizens. The FBI treated them the same. The FBI used numerous techniques honed during World War II in tracking wartime enemies in conducting its domestic surveillance and covert action missions. Some actions were intended to create disruption and havoc. These techniques included anonymously mailing magazine articles to targets to reinforce what the bureau thought was proper behavior. For example, a newspaper column that supported the U.S. military presence in Vietnam was sent to organizations advocating withdrawal. A more aggressive tactic was mailing a letter to the spouse of a target accusing the target of infidelity.
The FBI sometimes instigated violence among gangs. The bureau falsely identified targeted members in gangs or organizations as police informants. This could cause the expulsion of the target from the organization or could result in violence, even fatal violence, against the target by other members.
Another technique employed by the FBI was working with cooperating media to plant questions to be asked of targets during news interviews. Or the FBI would pressure an employer to fire a target from his job. It would also use the IRS to conduct audits on targets. Sullivan was right. COINTELPRO was “a rough, tough, dirty business.”
In an internal review of COINTELPRO, the FBI acknowledged that some of its actions might have violated civil-rights laws, as well as mail, wire-fraud, and extortion laws. Despite this, the FBI reached the conclusion that it was necessary for the bureau to commit criminal acts and violate constitutional protections afforded citizens because it was serving a greater good. The attitude among the bureau was that it was free to do whatever it wanted without regard to legal restrictions because, as one bureau witness testified before Congress, the FBI was hampered “because of something called the United States Constitution.”
When asked if there were concerns about law-breaking or violating constitutional rights during COINTELPRO operations, one FBI witness told Congress what was characterized as a “typical response” on this topic. He testified, “No, we never gave it a thought.”
There was also complacency about the questionable activities of COINTELPRO by higher-ups outside the FBI. Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who served under President Lyndon Johnson from 1967 to 1969, testified he was far too busy to know about the FBI’s activities. His predecessor, who served in the Johnson administration from 1965 to 1966, testified that regardless of what he thought, there was nothing he could have done to stop the FBI.
COINTELPRO was officially terminated in April 1971. But the Church Committee learned the FBI continued “COINTELPRO-type operations” after the formal program was shut down. The FBI merely continued similar operations as components of individual case operations. The only way for the Church Committee to determine the prevalence of COINTELPRO-like operations would have been to examine each of the FBI’s more than half-million case files. This appeared to be a nearly impossible task.
Mark Hyman is an Emmy award–winning investigative television journalist. This essay was adapted from his just-released book Washington Babylon: From George Washington to Donald Trump, Scandals that Rocked the Nation. Read previous excerpts published in The American Spectator.