COINTELPRO in the ’80s: The “New” FBI

The following is excerpted from an article by Ross Gelbspan, a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter for the Boston Globe. It was published in the Winter ’89 issue of Covert Action Information Bulletin.

“Between 1981 and 1988, the FBI – in particular the bureau’s global counter-terrorism unit and its foreign intelligence division:

“Mounted a massive political spying campaign, involving 52 of the FBI’s 59 field offices, to infiltrate and watch members of the committee in solidarity with the people of el salvador, as well as 138 other labor, educational, religious and political groups, who had mobilized against US policies in central america. (1)

“Interviewed and, according to numerous subjects, intimidated more than 100 US citizens who traveled to nicaragua and ordered documents and private papers seized from scores of citizens re-entering the US after visiting central america.

“Compiled a “terrorist album” whos hundreds of entries included US senators, congressmen, diplomats and clergy.

“Enlisted the aid of a range of private, rightwing extremist groups, including the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s organization; a private, intelligence-gathering network of US based rightwing salvadorans; John Rees, a rightwing journalist who has provided information to the bureau which he received from his own netowrk of police and police informants; and a group of rightwing ideologues, including J. Michael Waller and Michael Boos, whose spying operations have been sponsored by a number of rightwing patrons and, in some cases, financed by the US government. (2)

“Collaborated in the surveillance, imprisonment and possible deaths of salvadoran refugees who have been deported back to el salvador where they were met by salvadoran authorities who had been alerted to their arrival by the fbi.

“Ignored more than 85 reported break-ins and thefts of files at the offices and homes of central american activists around the country.  While the fbi maintains it did not commit the break-ins, many vicitms suspect the bureau has received data gathered by burglars. In addition, the fbi has declined to investigate the break-ins, contending that since it has no evidence of government involvement, it has no jurisdiction to investigate.

“As a result of the fbi’s operations, tens of thousands of names have been added to the bureau’s terrorism files- names of people whose only offense has been to write a letter in support of the nuclear freeze movement (which the fbi obtained by virtue of a mail intercept on the post office box of freeze organizers) or to attend a meeting of cispes or other groups (where the fbi recorded and traced license plates and other information in order to identify activists) (3)

“The FBI’s five year, nationwide investigation did not result in the arrest of a single activist for criminal or terrorist activities.

“Even before he took office, president-elect reagan signalled a major change in foreign policy goals. Human rights was out and counter terrorism was in. That was the message to the nations’s law enforcement and intelligence communities. It was also the message that Ret. Maj.  Gen. John Singlaub and Daniel O. Graham, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, brought to Central America in 1980. After meeting with Singlaub and Graham the leaders of Guatemalas’ fanatic rightwing were delighted because they were given the distinct impression that “Mr. reagan recognized that a good deal of dirty work has to be done.” (4)

“While the administration trumpeted its anti-terrorism policies to justify its alliance with repressive central american governments, it buried under the deepest kind of cover its campaign against hundreds of thousands of law abiding dissenters inside the US.

“According to a 1980 Heritage Foundation report [a policy white paper presented to president-elect reagan] compiled by an anonymous group within the intelligence community, “extremist political groups should be kept under surveillance, at first by reading and fileing publicly available information … the more serious surveillance can be carried out by the use of such intelligence techniques as wiretapping, mail intercepts, informants and, at least occasionally, surreptitious entries.” (5)

“The report noted that terrorist groups may be difficult to detect, since “clergymen, students, businessmen, entertainers, labor officials, journalists and government workers may engage in subversive activities without being fully aware of the extent, purpose or control of their activities.” (5)

“Lamenting the weakening of law enforcement capabilities in the wake of the revelations by the church and pike committees in the 1970’s [these congressional investigations dealt with past abuses of the fbi and cia during the vietnam era], the report recommended “contracting with one or several of the many private groups that have specialized in providing and disseminating relevant information with legal complications.”  [meaning illegally obtained information] (5) ……

These days the FBI needn’t go to such trouble to be accomplices to mass murder, repression and the  wholesale export of american jobs to such sweat shop democracies.  The NSA makes it all very easy.

See “War at Home” in the reference section.

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