It seems that the FBI is likely to be
rewarded for the missed warnings, fumbled
intelligence, and bureaucratic foul-ups that
preceded September 11. Attorney General John
Ashcroft has announced that the FBI is
changing its rules so that it can spy on domestic organizations, even where there is no evidence of specific criminal activity.
It is doubtful that the Administration
could get away with these changes if the real
functioning of the FBI as a political police force
were better known. The press has referred to the
agency's COINTELPRO (from
counterintelligence program) operation of the
1960s and 70s as though it were ancient history,
a minor aberration of the FBI's quirky and
fanatical director J. Edgar Hoover.
In fact COINTELPRO was a massive
operation to infiltrate, disrupt, harass, and
otherwise interfere with the lawful activities of
civil rights advocates, peace activists, religious organizations, and others. One of the FBI's most famous and hated targets was the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In a covert operation that now reads like a B-grade movie script, the FBI actually made a serious effort to blackmail Dr. King into committing suicide.
Less well known is that FBI operations
against law-abiding citizens did not end when
these abuses were exposed in the 1970s. We
know that they continued well into the 1980s,
when the Reagan and then Bush (the elder)
administrations faced mounting domestic
opposition to their wars in Central America.
Death squads in El Salvador were murdering
religious workers and clergy, the Guatemalan
military was carrying out what is now
acknowledged as genocide against its
indigenous population, and an army of terrorists
was trying to overthrow the government of
The US government was supporting and
sponsoring all of these crimes with billions of
dollars, and that did not sit well with many
Americans. I was one of them, and joined a
student group called the Latin American
Solidarity Committee at the University of
Michigan. Unbeknownst to us, the watchful
eyes of the FBI were closely monitoring our
So closely, in fact, that one of our
members wrote a history of the group's activities
with the help of documents obtained from the
FBI under the Freedom of Information Act. We
enjoyed seeing all of our names in print, and
pored over the documents with a mixture of awe
and laughter, amazed that the federal
government could have taken our little student
group so seriously as to keep track of everything
we did and who attended our meetings.
As it turned out, this was part of a
nationwide spying operation involving all 59
FBI field offices. The whole thing might be
secret to this day, if not for fact that one of the
Bureau's informants had a change of heart. He
had infiltrated a community of religious activists
in Texas, and later said that he had second
thoughts when his supervisor suggested that he
sleep with a nun in order to discredit them.
The Dallas Morning News broke the
story, and the FBI was forced to conduct an
internal investigation. FBI director William S.
Sessions (1987-93) told Congress that the
investigation had left "no stone unturned" and
that his G-men had stopped their "counter-
terrorism" -- yes, they actually called it that --
operations by June of 1985.
Sessions was lying: documents released
to our local group showed that their spying in
Ann Arbor continued well beyond that date. But
the press accepted that the FBI had changed its
ways, and today the whole story of their illicit
activities in the 1980s has disappeared into the
That is a shame, because there is no
evidence that the FBI ever reformed itself, and
now we have two new reasons to worry about it.
One is the blank check that Ashcroft has handed
to the FBI, which threatens our civil liberties.
The second is that after decades of crying
"wolf" to justify its functioning as an American
KGB, the FBI is now charged with protecting us
from real terrorist threats.
There has never been an accounting of
how much of the FBI's resources have been
devoted to policing the constitutionally
protected activities of our citizens. Congress
should demand this accounting as it examines
the massive intelligence failure that preceded
Historians like to say that we ignore the
past at our own peril; in the case of the FBI, it
may be literally true.
Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for
Economic and Policy Research, in Washington